Reports have leaked of a secret memo in which some US anti-death penalty activists showed reluctance to advocate on behalf of Pennsylvania’s death row journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal. The memo was entitled, “Involvement of Mumia Abu-Jamal Endangers the US Coalition for Abolition of the Death Penalty.” It reveals what has been called the “throw Mumia under the bus” tendency of the larger effort to abolish the death penalty. We have seen this before.
Every once in awhile someone on the allegedly liberal left tries to drive a wedge between abolitionists of the death penalty generally, and those struggling for Abu-Jamal. One of the more memorable instances was in 1998 when Marc Cooper, a Nation magazine writer, wrote in The New York Press about how the movement for Mumia Abu-Jamal is “a bane” on the more solid committed folk trying to end the US death penalty.
This year’s memo is a special affront, presuming that there is some virtue in abolitionist movements “cultivating” relations with the Fraternal Order of Police [FOP], which long has been a vigorous advocate for Mumia’s execution and which keeps a “list” of individuals and organizations that support Mumia’s struggle. EMAJ condemns any such planning between abolitionist movements and the FOP. For anti-death penalty movements to cultivate relations to a police union like the FOP, which is unabashedly lobbying for Mumia’s execution, is at best ineffective, at worst a collusion with the forces that keep state-sanctioned killing in place in this country. Moreover, it overlooks the long history of egregious violence and violation, which law enforcement in the U.S. has visited upon communities of color in the U.S.
To be sure, police, prosecutors and others of the criminal justice establishment have spoken out for Mumia and against the death penalty. Ronald Hampton’s advocacy for Mumia, as Executive Director of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), is a clear example. As an organization the NBPA protests the death penalty in all circumstances, even when a police officer has been murdered. These are the only kinds of voices from members of law enforcement that a truly anti-death penalty movement should welcome. State-sanctioned murder of anyone is an affront to an authentic abolitionist movement. Abolitionist movements must resist the temptations of big money and stand strong against the powerful pressures by which law enforcement officials today try to co-opt elements of the abolitionist movement, seeking to preserve the death penalty for its purposes.
Generally, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ) opposes any division that is created between the Mumia movement and the broader effort to abolish capital punishment. The struggle for Mumia is one with the struggle of the broader abolitionist movement. EMAJ published in 1998 an essay by Mark Taylor, one of the signers of this statement, under the title, “Mumia and the 3400: Why Stopping Mumia’s Execution Helps End all Executions in the US.” In this new 2010 statement, EMAJ vigorously reaffirms the unity of the movement for Mumia and of the broader abolitionist movement.
1. Every one of the some 3200 men and women presently on US death row, whatever we think of their guilt or innocence, or of the nature of their alleged crimes, warrants advocacy and our best efforts to prevent their execution. Even though various ones of us may need to concentrate our advocacy in ways that highlight different figures (say, Mumia, or Troy Davis, or Reggie Clemons, or any of the many others), this concentration of effort on one should not be seen as a disparagement of any other death row prisoner’s struggle for life and justice.
2. Mumia’s struggle and his writings (rarely about his own case and usually about broader political issues) have dramatically personalized the issue of the death penalty for especially youth in urban communities of color, but also in other regions of the U.S. and internationally. His story of resistance and political struggle has caught the imagination of many and so brought new voices into the struggle against the death penalty. This was dramatically evident in the April 2010 gathering at the EMAJ event at Barnard College (Columbia University), where a lecture hall was packed out with more than 500 people, mostly young people of all backgrounds, to hear not only a “phone-in” from Mumia, but also discussions by Cornel West, Vijay Prashad, and film-maker Jamal Joseph about the importance of Mumia’s case and struggle.
3. Mumia’s arrest, conviction, and continual denial of appeals crystallizes and distills – thus makes more readily apparent – the plagues at work in maintaining our broken death penalty system: racial bias in judges and juror selection, inadequate legal counsel, lack of funds for investigations for defendants, police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct. Thus, Mumia’s case can be seen as a kind of primer of how the death penalty fails to work justice, and on how the larger systems of U.S. mass incarceration, policing and prosecutorial procedures are broken, dysfunctional, and unjust.
4. Mumia’s struggle dramatically exhibits the agency of death row prisoners themselves in waging their struggle. Mumia’s death row cell in the prison system is an organizing site within the system. However necessary our efforts are from “the outside,” Mumia’s trenchant voice inside death row confirms that the abolitionist movement is not just a condescending or paternalistic act of concern of outsiders “for,” or “for the sake of,” those on death row. Recognizing Mumia is one way to recognize the agency of those in struggle on death row. His voice, as a voice within, is crucial to our abolitionist movement’s authenticity.
5. Mumia’s mode of struggle enables those in the abolitionist movement to keep the struggle against the US death penalty as part of a larger political struggle, in which other issues are always at play in our struggle to end capital punishment. We will not abolish the death penalty, and keep it abolished, if we cannot articulate the broader issues of power – class domination, environmental destruction, white racism, transnational globalization, torture at home and abroad, militarist imperialism, and neocolonialism – all being issues that Abu-Jamal has addressed in relation to capital punishment and mass incarceration.
6. Although there is a temptation in some quarters to make of Mumia an icon, just a “cool guy” mentioned in the Boondocks cartoon strip, Hip Hop magazines, rock concerts, and in films of different sorts – the lifting of Mumia’s struggle to the level of a media spectacle can be an advantage to the abolitionist movement. It enables us to engage the media, not only with Mumia’s struggle but also with broader efforts to end the death penalty, block police brutality, and expose the corruptions of racialized power at every level. One of the reasons political officials of the establishment are so keenly opposed to Mumia is precisely because he has this capacity to ignite media attention, nationally and internationally. We should welcome this and use it.
7. Finally, the Mumia movement positions resistance to the death penalty around the U.S. national shrine center in Philadelphia. This places debate about capital punishment (the state-sanctioned murder of citizens) in a city that is the very symbolic heart of Americans’ self-understanding of their nation and its history. The Mumia movement – those of us in it as well as Mumia’s recordings and writings – is not silent about the general problem of state-sanctioned killing as part of the very meaning of “America” and its history. The persistence of the death penalty is, at least in part, due to the nation’s dependence on policies of war and killing, policies that date from the devastation of Indian peoples and slave populations, to the colonization of, and war against, Asian, Arab, African and Latin American countries, up to the often deadly and disheartening discrimination meted out against immigrants from these lands in our midst today.
The focus of Mumia’s struggle in Philadelphia, then, dramatizes how central the commitment to state-sanctioned killing is to the forging and maintenance of this nation. It has always been appropriate, then, that the festivals of July 4th celebration in Philadelphia are routinely matched by a smaller and fledgling, but vigorous, counter-march for Mumia and as critique of every death-dealing policy of the U.S. – whether applied in the killing fields of indigenous peoples lands, in the desserts of Iraq, or the mountainous ravines of the Afghan/Pakistani border.
Let there be no more division between the advocates of a general abolition of the death penalty, and the advocates in the movement for Abu-Jamal. As Educators, in Pennsylvania, across the U.S. and the world, we reassert our firm opposition to the death penalty in the U.S., and thus especially to the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. [Signed: Coordinators of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal - Tameka Cage, Johanna Fernandez, Mark Lewis Taylor]