Continuing the fight for Mumia Abu-Jamal

July 15, 2010

At the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva, Switzerland, members of U.S. anti-death penalty organizations walked out of a session because it was being addressed, via speakerphone, by Pennsylvania death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has unjustly spent more than a quarter century behind bars. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty issued this open letter to the abolitionist community in defense of Mumia.

THE CAMPAIGN to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) is appalled by the news that several individuals of leading anti-death penalty organizations have signed a confidential memorandum stating that the "involvement of Mumia Abu-Jamal endangers the U.S. coalition for abolition of the death penalty." The memo further argues that the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty should not highlight Mumia's case because doing so "unnecessarily attracts our strongest opponents and alienates coalition partners at a time when we need to build alliances, not foster hatred and enmity."

This memo was drafted on December 21, 2009, yet it only recently came to light following the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held on March 4 in Geneva, Switzerland. At this meeting, a telephone call came in from Mumia Abu-Jamal, and he addressed the audience. At this point, several members of U.S. abolitionist groups got up and walked out in protest.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty strongly condemns this action and completely disagrees with the approach to the anti-death penalty struggle that this memo puts forth.

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal

First of all, we unequivocally support and endorse Mumia Abu-Jamal in his struggle for justice. We believe in his innocence and see Mumia's case as fraught with many of the same injustices as other death penalty cases--racial bias, police misconduct and brutality, and prosecutorial and judicial prejudice.

Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on Pennsylvania's death row for the past 28 years and remains there because the courts, under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, have thwarted his efforts to win his freedom. From his prison cell, Mumia has galvanized an international movement of support towards his efforts to win justice. He has written numerous books and articles shedding light on our prison-industrial complex as well as other historical and current political issues. He is widely read, known and respected. His commentaries on prison radio are nothing short of brilliant. He has helped to educate millions of people about the true workings of the criminal justice system. But most importantly, he has been an inspiration to all those fighting to win abolition, lending his voice of hope, his encouragement and his unfaltering determination to our movement.

SO WHY would a delegation of U.S. abolitionists would get up and walk out of a meeting when Mumia addresses the audience? Shouldn't they have stood and applauded?

The explanation for this reprehensible action is explained in the secret memo, which basically puts forth the argument that to have anything to do with Mumia's case ruins the chances of winning abolition of the death penalty.

Why? Here is what the memo states, in part: "The support of law enforcement officials is essential to achieving abolition in the United States. It is essential to the national abolition strategy of U.S. abolition activists and attorneys that we cultivate the voices of police, prosecutors and law enforcement experts to support our call for an end to the death penalty."

This statement points to a very disturbing direction that we have observed in recent years among some organizations in the abolition movement--of compromising our message in order to win the support of conservatives. This has lead leading death penalty organizations to downplay the impact of race in the criminal justice system and to advocate reaching out to law enforcement as a means of winning abolition of the death penalty.

Those who espouse this strategy ignore or downplay the role that police play in railroading many poor people and African Americans onto death row. They ignore the role that police, prosecutors and judges play as guardians of an unjust legal system that disproportionately targets the poor and people of color. The outcome of this strategy has led to the marginalization of prisoners like Mumia, whose voices from behind prison walls are so important in this fight.

The individuals who drafted the memo go on to identify the voices that they seek to include: "The voices of the Innocent, the voices of Victims and the voices of Law Enforcement are the most persuasive factors in changing public opinion and the views of decision-makers (politicians) and opinion leaders (the media). Continuing to shine a spotlight on Abu-Jamal, who has had so much public exposure for so many years, threatens to alienate these three most important partnership groups."

We in the CEDP couldn't disagree more with this strategy. We believe the most "persuasive factor" in changing public opinion is to build a vocal, visible movement that forthrightly puts forward its demands-- instead of working to make our message palatable to the opposition.

Consider the analogies to past struggles. What if Martin Luther King compromised the goals of integration in order to reach out and try to win over segregationists? No, he reached out to organize and uplift progressive forces into fighting for change. That is the kind of strategy we need.

THE MEN and women on death row across the country--including the guilty--are not our enemy. The enemy is the system of punitive thought that portrays them as monsters so that the public can feel okay about killing them. It is part of the punitive philosophy upon which the legal system is based--the same system that breeds crime in the first place, that gives so little support to victims of abuse, that says it believes in rehabilitation but then won't fund it, that says it believes in education but then takes money away to build prisons instead.

We reject the logic of having the Fraternal Order of Police as a partner or ally. The FOP has organized against our efforts to win justice for Mumia, for Troy Davis, for the Burge Torture victims in Chicago and countless others.

Our approach is based on an anti-racist perspective. We know that the history of aggressive policing, sentencing and the death penalty has its roots in slavery--that the tough on crime rhetoric of lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key is racially coded language.

The Campaign stands completely and unequivocally with Mumia Abu-Jamal. We also stand by a different strategy to win abolition.

Instead of marginalizing voices like Mumia, we should be developing more innovative and creative ways to put them forward--and not just Mumia's, but others, including Troy Davis, Rodney Reed and Kevin Cooper, to name a few. We need to put the human face on this issue. We need to build a movement that challenges the racism and class bias nature of the death penalty--and to point out that these injustices exist in the broader criminal justice system as well.

In order to build a fight that can win real justice, we cannot marginalize "divisive" issues like racism. Instead, we have to take them on frontally. And instead of reaching out to the conservative elements in society, we should be reaching out to progressive elements and building bridges there. Let's not forget that the lowest level of support for the death penalty (42 percent) was in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement. Let's work to place the fight for abolition squarely in the progressive camp, where it most surely belongs.


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