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Workers Vanguard No. 880

10 November 2006

Debate at Harlem PDC Rally

For a Class-Struggle Fight to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!

As part of the urgent effort to revitalize mass protest on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, more than 250 people turned out for an October 28 rally at Harlem’s Salem United Methodist Church called by the Partisan Defense Committee and the New York Labor Black League for Social Defense. Framed up on false charges of killing a Philadelphia policeman on 9 December 1981, Mumia is on death row for having been a leader of the Black Panther Party, a MOVE supporter and an eloquent and effective opponent of racist oppression.

Recognizing that Mumia’s case is now at a critical juncture, the PDC and Labor Black Leagues organized the Harlem rally and others in Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland in October under the slogans: “Free Mumia now! Mumia is an innocent man! Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life is in danger—Mobilize now! Abolish the racist death penalty!” The rallies brought together speakers and organizations across a spectrum of political beliefs raising their own views on which way forward in the fight to free Mumia. That crucial debate was the defining feature of the Harlem rally.

The PDC’s August 25 rally call (printed in WV No. 876, 15 September) laid out our perspective to “win activists to the understanding that Mumia’s defense must be based on a class-struggle perspective—organizing independently of the racist capitalist state that has framed him up.” The call stated:

“Worldwide protests, crucially involving trade unions, won a stay of execution for Mumia in August 1995. Millions rallied to Mumia’s cause out of revulsion with the injustices inherent in capitalism—poverty, racial and ethnic bias and war.... But they were demobilized by a host of reformist and liberal organizations that appeal to bourgeois forces who see in Mumia’s case an isolated ‘miscarriage of justice’ that could be rectified with a ‘new trial.’ This meant rejecting the very reasons Mumia’s case won such broad international support.

“That worldwide movement must be revived and infused with a new strength and militancy built on the understanding that there is no justice in the capitalist courts.”

Harlem Rally: United Struggle for Mumia

The Harlem rally drew a wide range of activists, including members of the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and Black Panther Party veterans, as well as students from an array of NYC-area campuses. It pointed toward the kind of united-front action that is necessary to mobilize broad social forces, particularly the trade unions. The watchword must be unity in action with full freedom of criticism for participating organizations.

The PDC’s Erica Williamson, who chaired the event, opened her remarks by condemning the killing of four protesters in Oaxaca the night before and calling for “international solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Mexico who are being victimized by vicious government repression” (see article, page 1).

Williamson addressed the urgency of the fight for Mumia’s freedom, stating, “If Mumia is to be freed, it will take the mobilization of the masses, centrally labor, to champion his cause in outrage and on the basis that this was a case of a political frame-up through and through.” Williamson placed Mumia’s case in the context of the “increased bipartisan attacks on civil liberties and the frame-up conviction and sentencing of leftist lawyer Lynne Stewart to 28 months and her co-defendants Mohamed Yousry to 20 months and Ahmed Abdel Sattar to an outrageous 24 years,” as well as the attacks by the Bush administration on defendants’ habeas corpus right to challenge evidence. She stressed that “while all legal proceedings and legal remedies should be pursued on Mumia’s behalf, we cannot have any illusions or reliance in the capitalist courts.” Williamson continued:

“There is no need for a trial to prove that Mumia is innocent—the facts speak for themselves. The evidence of Mumia’s innocence is overwhelming. The PDC has fought to get this evidence out, well before the conclusive piece of evidence that helps tie it all together—the confession of Arnold Beverly—was exposed. Mumia has been in prison or on death row for nearly 25 years. He doesn’t need another ‘day in court.’ He needs his freedom.”

Powerfully supporting this appeal, just days before the rally, a full-page statement calling to free Mumia and signed by more than 200 black and labor activists and prominent individuals around the world appeared in the major Harlem-based black newspaper the Amsterdam News (26 October). The statement (printed in this issue with an updated list of signatures on page 8) specifically points to the confession of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, shot the policeman; it is titled: “We Demand the Immediate Freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an Innocent Man.”

The rally heard taped greetings from Mumia and a recording of a moving speech by his sister Lydia Barashango at the Oakland rally. A statement was read out from New York’s 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union declaring: “We support the demand to free Mumia Now!” Besides speakers from the PDC and LBL, the audience was addressed by Jose A. Arroyo, vice chair of Section 115 of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, Lynne Stewart and Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Arroyo described the rally as being “united with one common cause, and that is we are in the class struggle” and referred to the TWU strike last December. An immigrant from Mexico, Arroyo described his horror at watching the news of the May 1985 firebombing of MOVE, saying that he “saw how the government was burning an entire block of people, with children inside!” The audience was read a statement from Leonard Riley Jr. of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422: “Coming from South Carolina and coming out of the ‘Charleston Five’ experience, I know first hand the full potential and extent to which the government will go to act against those that openly challenge their policies…. It was only through national and International solidarity of the labor movement that the Charleston 5 were eventually freed.” Riley’s statement concluded: “We Can and We must use the collective forces of the Labor Movement to free this innocent man. Free Mumia Now!”

Addressing the rally less than two weeks after her sentencing, Lynne Stewart expressed her determination to challenge her frame-up conviction and sentencing for the “crime” of being a zealous advocate on behalf of her client, the Islamic fundamentalist cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. She received a standing ovation. Later in the program, Monique Code read a statement from Mumia’s son Jamal Hart, who was framed up and sentenced in 1998 to 15 and a half years on bogus firearms possession charges for speaking out in his father’s defense.

Free Mumia: Which Way Forward?

The core debate at the rally tackled the question of why support for Mumia was demobilized over the years, which must be understood in order to build the kind of militant mass protest movement that can win his freedom. As Williamson said in her opening remarks, “The fact that people are not mobilizing and filling the streets now like they once did for Mumia does not go unnoticed by the courts.” She continued:

“Many so-called socialist organizations such as Workers World Party, Socialist Action, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the International Socialist Organization have at one point or another taken up Mumia’s case. But it is a question on what basis they take it up. It boils down to a difference between reforming the capitalist state and organizing working people independent of it and to fight it. Many of these leftist groups were fighting on the basis of winning the courts over to Mumia’s side and tying the masses to have faith in the courts, instead of fighting on the basis of winning the masses to the fight for the freedom of an innocent man. And now that Mumia stands on his last legal legs in court, with small exceptions you hardly hear a peep from most of these groups.”

In fact, the organizations mentioned by Williamson were notable for their absence from this rally.

Speaking for the New York Labor Black League, which was initiated by and is fraternally allied with the Spartacist League, TWU Local 100 member Tom Cowperthwaite declared, “Black liberation cannot succeed apart from united class struggle against the capitalists; working-class emancipation cannot succeed without an implacable fight against anti-black racism. Taking up the fight for Mumia’s freedom is part of the fight against racial oppression and working-class exploitation.”

Cowperthwaite was loudly applauded when he championed the TWU’s strike action, saying, “I’m proud that we showed our union power for three days last December. We paralyzed the racist, union-busting MTA and the city itself. That’s the same power we need to free Mumia and all class-war prisoners.” He continued, “In every workplace, the words ‘Strike!’ and ‘Free Mumia!’ should ring out in the same breath.”

Cowperthwaite illustrated the capitalist state as a machine of class repression by pointing to its role in the transit strike: “The government and courts only intervene into the unions to hogtie and destroy them as fighting organizations. Just look at the recent court injunctions, fines and prison time imposed on TWU Local 100…. The LBL says: ‘For complete and unconditional independence from the capitalist state! Cops and security guards out of the unions! No to union-suing! Labor must clean its own house!’” He said:

“A host of phony socialist groups, liberals and black nationalists derailed the struggle for Mumia in the late ’90s by pushing the demand for a ‘new trial’ and sowing illusions in the same government that framed him up. During every political show trial in this country’s history—Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Rosenbergs—the liberals and reformists have sown false hopes in the supposedly evenhanded scales of justice.”

In her remarks, Pam Africa gave credit to the PDC for its many years of work on behalf of Mumia. She has often cited the legal efforts of PDC attorneys on behalf of Mumia, including bringing out the Beverly evidence, which is but one part, although a crucial part, of the massive evidence of Mumia’s innocence. As Erica Williamson noted in her address, the PDC first learned of Mumia’s case from MOVE member Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the government’s firebombing of the MOVE commune on 13 May 1985, in which eleven men, women and children were burned to death. The PDC defended MOVE and for 20 years has included MOVE members in its program of monthly financial stipends to class-war prisoners.

Directly responding to Williamson’s and Cowperthwaite’s criticism of the role played by the liberal-reformist left in demobilizing support for Mumia, Pam Africa stated: “I want to dispel the myth that people who call for a trial for Mumia is the cause of the movement being splintered.” Speaking of those who might support the death penalty and don’t know whether Mumia is innocent but see that he “didn’t have a fair trial,” she said that “you don’t run these people off.” Her comments were applauded by many, underlining the range of political views of those in attendance.

Pam Africa defended the Workers World Party (WWP) and Jeff Mackler of Socialist Action (SA), saying “they do work” on behalf of Mumia. She continued by saying that “a lot of people aren’t here tonight because we do not understand how we offend each other and you cannot pull people in offending them.” She pointed to the 24 April 1999 “Millions for Mumia” protests, which the WWP and SA heavily built, as a high point in mobilizing for Mumia and mentioned as well the ILWU stop-work action that shut down West Coast ports that day. She went on, “You know what broke this movement up? It’s fear. It’s racism. It’s classism. And the terrorism that was in the hearts of this government, when they looked out there on April the 24th, 1999, when they saw the people united, moving up against them.... They had to stop that.”

She also took issue with the PDC and LBL speakers’ assertion of the strategic importance of mobilizing the labor movement in this struggle, asking about the poor and the unemployed: “They stood beside the workers. I’m saying we must give credit to all those people who worked to free Mumia.” She spoke of Italian Americans, Mexican Americans and black nationalists who came out for Mumia at that time. She also pointed to “black policemen” who were “there for Mumia.”

The PDC’s Rachel Wolkenstein, who was on Mumia’s legal team from 1995 to 1999 and led the investigation that turned up evidence of Mumia’s innocence, including the Beverly confession, responded from the platform: “I want to begin by really genuinely thanking Pam for raising her criticisms here at this meeting…. I’m not offended by that. And neither should anyone who we criticize be offended. It’s a question of how best to fight forward for Mumia’s freedom as part of the broader struggle for the liberation of us all.” “What the capitalist class sees in Mumia,” Wolkenstein said, “is the spectre of black revolution. And because of that they will stop at nothing, nothing—lies, coercion, falsifying evidence, disappearing evidence of Mumia’s innocence, campaigns of all sorts to create dissension and all of that. I couldn’t agree more that our main enemy is the capitalist state. Now the question is, how do you fight it?”

For Class-Struggle Defense!

As Wolkenstein explained, the first step is understanding the nature of the capitalist state as “the instrument of repression for those rulers of this country, the capitalist class,” who “will stop at nothing against a possible unity of the working class, against the consciousness…that they must struggle for socialist revolution and not accept the parameters of capitalism.” Wolkenstein noted that it was very important that the 1199 union leadership came out in defense of Mumia and that they had signed the statement that appeared in the Amsterdam News. “But they would do better,” she said, “if they were here today as a first step fighting for Mumia.” She won applause for saying that they should have “been prepared to bring out their membership in defending the transit workers when they were out on strike” and “to commit themselves along with every other union here, that labor will stop in this city until Mumia is free.”

Wolkenstein continued, “That consciousness is the consciousness that we must win people to.” “Our numbers on a street in a demonstration show our desire to stand for something…. But that is not the same thing as being able to stop this system, shut it down! These are very different things. And that is why we talk about the power of the working class. It is not a dismissal of the good will, the heart, the needs and the oppression that otherwise exists in society. It is not a statement that those people who are unemployed are not part of the struggle. But that is the duty of the labor movement: to organize the unemployed, to fight for jobs for the unemployed, to unionize people across the board.”

Wolkenstein answered Pam Africa on the role of black cops, some of whom, like the Black Guardians, had been welcomed into Mumia protests in the past: “You know what I want those black cops to do? I want those black cops to tell me what they know about the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal, because there were tons of black cops involved in the frame-up.” Wolkenstein insisted that those cops, precisely “because they’re cops” who “defend the capitalist system, and are part of the gunning down of blacks and immigrants and poor and strikers, are just as much the enemy of all of us here as a white cop!”

The PDC’s polemics, Wolkenstein said, were directed not at individuals who came out for Mumia protests because of their particular liberal or religious beliefs, or even centrally at bourgeois organizations like Amnesty International, whose views are antithetical to the Marxist understanding of the state. “Who we are addressing our criticisms to,” she emphasized, “are those organizations that say they are socialist. That say they are for the workers. That say they’re for black revolution and for black freedom. It’s those organizations that play the game that has been played for decades and decades and decades, which is to say, to use the excuse: ‘People aren’t ready for this yet. They haven’t gotten there yet. We can’t go too far in advance of people yet. We must bide our time’.”

Wolkenstein continued, “I want to make a point that the more evidence that came out of the frame-up, from 1995 to 1999, the more those so-called left organizations decided to hold people back from their understanding of the nature of the courts. Because it was clear that there was a frame-up…. The more the evidence came out, the more those organizations said: ‘We are not going to argue for Free Mumia, that Mumia is innocent. We are not going to argue that people need to understand that this is a racist system, that we cannot have any illusions in the court and that we’ll need a mass mobilization on the streets, and that’s the only way we will get the courts to respond’.”

Pointing to a January 1999 “Emergency Leadership Summit Meeting” that included among its 70 participants representatives of the WWP, SA and Refuse & Resist, Wolkenstein stated, “I’ll give a criticism of the Partisan Defense Committee. We weren’t there at that meeting fighting for what we should have been fighting for.” She continued, “What did they decide to do at this leadership meeting? They decided they would consciously make the demand for ‘Millions for Mumia’ be ‘new trial for Mumia.’ Not ‘Free Mumia.’ And not anything that opposed the death penalty. And this was already after there was a worldwide campaign where millions and millions of people…had signed onto statements and demands and rallies and resolutions that said ‘End the racist death penalty. Free Mumia’.”

“There are going to be liberals who are going to organize on the basis that Mumia is a wonderful man,” Wolkenstein continued. “And he is. And he writes beautifully. And he does. And that the trial was unfair. Which it was. And they will mobilize on that basis. But that’s not enough. And you know what? That will not get Mumia free.” She emphasized, “There is no way, given the determination of this state to execute Mumia, that he could be freed short of a mobilization that recognizes the depth of the hatred the state has for him.”

Holding up the Amsterdam News ad, Wolkenstein said, “There are accusations being made that to raise the Beverly evidence, to raise the demand for Mumia’s immediate freedom, to raise the demand that he is an innocent man is divisive, that it’s sending decent people away. Well, there are plenty of decent people who do not have our politics who signed onto this statement. Because they can when it’s presented to them…. They were ready to do this years ago. Who didn’t allow them to do that is the so-called left that decided that the only way that you could build a mass movement was by taking people back, retarding their consciousness, stopping them from drawing the lessons of Mumia’s case.”

Wolkenstein also answered charges often raised by liberals that Mumia never told the courts that he was innocent. “Mumia said he was innocent the night he was shot…. He said he was innocent during his trial. He said he was innocent in his 2001 affidavit that accompanied the legal pleadings along with the Beverly evidence.” Mumia’s statement to the court that he was not guilty of the crime he was charged with “were the words that Sacco and Vanzetti used.” She continued, “Mumia knew why he was in court…. He was guilty of being a Black Panther Party member, a MOVE supporter, a black revolutionary. He was guilty of being a journalist who reported the truth. He was guilty of not doing the bidding of the police and the government.”

Mobilize Now!

The questions posed in the debate from the podium continued in the floor discussion. A supporter of the Free Mumia Coalition asked the audience to sign a petition to name a Harlem street in honor of Mumia. But as Williamson explained, the PDC regretfully was unable to sign the petition because it called for a “new and fair trial” and did not call for his freedom or say that he is innocent.

A supporter of the PDC described her work with another group supporting Mumia that was going to put out a fundraising letter. She said she asked them, “Why don’t we put in the letter that he’s innocent? Well, all hell broke out. ‘We can’t do that, we’ll alienate people. Some people think he’s guilty’.”

SL spokesman Don Alexander counterposed our revolutionary integrationist program for black liberation to the dead end of black nationalism. Referring to the overthrow of capitalist rule in Russia in 1917, he said, “One of the important components of that revolution was its internationalism. And it was the fight of the Russian Bolsheviks that actually won the early Communist movement to understand the need to fight against black oppression in the U.S. as central to the struggle for working-class revolution, not separate from it.” The Black Panthers “represented the best of a generation of black militants that wanted to make a social revolution. But their so-called program of revolutionary nationalism rejected mobilizing the multiracial working class as an ally of the struggle for black freedom. That made them easy pickings. It wasn’t just the FBI that smashed them, but it was the fact that they did not have a program that was capable of uprooting black oppression, which is rooted in the capitalist system.”

In a brief outburst in the midst of the discussion period, Pam Africa charged that there was “racism” in the room. This attempt to deflect the vigorous debate drew a sharp rebuke from Rachel Wolkenstein: “What we have here is a bunch of demagoguery because there’s differences, and we’re going to have differences. But I am not going to tolerate an attack on our organization as being racist because you have a disagreement.”

Another Spartacist speaker pointed out that the Harlem rally took place in the midst of one of the capitalists’ periodic “elephant-and-donkey show” electoral farces, which “serve to perpetuate the myth that this country is democratic or can be fair for working people and the oppressed.” She pointed to “the agents of the capitalist class in the labor movement” as well as leftists “who push the lie that this system can be reformed to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed. And I’ll give you a stellar example of that. Millions of people protested the racist imperialist war against Iraq…. And where did that go? That got channeled in this country into the dead end of ‘Anybody but Bush’.” She continued, “The best way that we arm people to fight racism, exploitation and war is by telling the truth about what this system is about and what program it’s going to take to fight to get rid of it and organize the working class.”

The debate at the rally was a welcome example of the kind of political struggle that must take place to drive the fight to free Mumia forward. As Erica Williamson stated in concluding her opening remarks: “Everyone here must take this case back to their unions, to their campuses, to their community groups.” The rally concluded with the chant: “Free Mumia Now!”


Workers Vanguard No. 880

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