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Race to save ‘voice of the voiceless’

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Issue 1678

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Race to save ‘voice of the voiceless’

By Sam Ashman

THE US establishment hopes it will soon be able to silence one of its most consistent critics. Only urgent worldwide protests will be able to stop them. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on death row for 17 years. He was framed for the murder of a police officer. He is now 44 and has been awaiting his execution since he was 27 years old.

He was nearly executed in 1995 but the scale of opposition across the world succeeded in halting it. Now the system is racing once again towards putting Mumia to death. Mumia’s lawyers have put in a last ditch request for a retrial. They will get an answer at the end of February. If they are turned down a new execution date will be set two weeks later.

Mumia’s case shows the depth of racism in the US, and the lengths to which the system will go to terrorise those they label a threat. In 1968, at the age of 15, Mumia was a founding member of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. He has been on FBI files ever since. The Black Panthers fought back against racism and injustice. The full might of the police and the US state came down on them.

During the 1970s Mumia became a journalist for Philadelphia’s local radio station and was dubbed the “voice of the voiceless” because of the way he spoke about those marginalised and oppressed by US society. He interviewed prominent black figures like Malcolm X biographer Alex Haley and singer Bob Marley. He was made president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists in 1980. He exposed the state’s vicious campaign of harassment against the radical black organisation MOVE.

When he condemned a police assault on MOVE’s headquarters in 1978, an attack that left 18 people wounded, the radio station fired him. That is why Mumia was driving a taxi on the night of 9 December 1981. Mumia stopped his car when he saw police assaulting a black man, who turned out to be his own brother.

Eyewitnesses say one officer was shot by another unidentified man who then fled the scene. Before he died the police officer shot Mumia. Mumia was then beaten by other police officers and left bleeding for 45 minutes. This was not enough for the police. They set about framing Mumia for murder. Arresting officer Gary Wakshul claimed Mumia confessed to the killing. Yet Wakshul wrote in his report on the night of the shooting that “the negro male made no statements”.

The police’s chief witness was prostitute Cynthia White. She was the only witness who claimed to see Mumia with a gun in his hand. A friend of White’s later testified that they were both offered deals by the police in exchange for their story. Another witness, prostitute Veronica Jones, testified that the police threatened to take away her children unless she identified Mumia as the killer. The bullets that shot the police officer do not even match those of Mumia’s gun.

The judge who presided over the trial was Albert Sabo, a lifetime member of the Fraternal Order of Police. He is known as a racist hanging judge. Sabo has sentenced 32 people to death-twice as many as any other judge in the US. All bar two have been black. Sabo would not let Mumia appear in court during his own trial because he said his dreadlocks made the jurors “nervous”.

All but two members of the jury were white. The prosecutors ensured this by rejecting 11 black jurors. Mumia’s court appointed lawyer did not talk to a single witness before the trial. The Fraternal Order of Police has organised a hate campaign against Mumia and those who support him ever since he was convicted. It continues to clamour for his execution.

But this injustice has not beaten Mumia. His voice has continued to ring out from his cell. He has written three books and many articles describing the daily horrors that he and more than 3,000 others face on death row. He describes the “mind-numbing, soul-killing savage sameness that makes each day an echo of the day before, with neither thought nor hope of growth, the abode of the spirit death that it is for over a million men and women now held in US prisons.”

The US state killing machine is one of the most barbarous in the world. Some 68 were executed in the US in 1998. Shockingly the figure last year was even higher, nearly 100, the highest toll since 1951. Republican presidential hopeful George Bush junior has authorised 100 executions in the state of Texas since he became governor in 1995. And US president Bill Clinton passed the Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996, which greatly restricted the appeals process open to death row inmates.

Those awaiting the death penalty in the US are overwhelmingly black, poor and victims of the system Mumia is a voice for them. International solidarity can stop the US state from murdering Mumia. But we must act now. As Leonard Weinglass, Mumia’s lawyer, points out, this case will not be won in the courts- it will be won on the streets.

  • Rush protests demanding a retrial for Mumia to Judge William H Yohn Jr, c/o Leonard Weinglass, 6 West 20th Street, Suite 10A, New York 10011, US.

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