Mumia’s case in the age of Obama

April 13, 2010

NEW YORK--Hundreds of activists gathered at Columbia University April 3 for a day-long conference and evening plenary about the case of Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. The event was organized by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ), with the help of co-organizers LUCHA, a student activist group at Columbia University,

Called the "voice of the voiceless," Mumia is a former Black Panther and journalist who has been on death row for 28 years, wrongfully convicted for the killing of a police officer.

Sent to death row on the basis of police-coerced testimony and blatant racial bias, his trial and subsequent appeals have been a travesty of justice, denounced by human rights organizations and activists worldwide, from Amnesty International to the NAACP.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant Mumia's petition for an appeal on several grounds, including evidence of discrimination against Black jurors, considered one of Mumia's most promising avenues for a new trial. In the face of clear evidence that justice in the courts for Mumia is hard to come by, activists recently launched a campaign demanding a civil rights investigation.

Topics of the workshops at the conference, which more than 50 people attended, included "Mumia 101," in which EMAJ Coordinators Professor Mark L. Taylor and Professor Johanna Fernandez gave an informative layout of the initial facts of the case, and "Organizing on campuses," where Columbia students led a discussion on student movements and networking.

In another session, Suzanne Ross of the Free Mumia Coalition-NYC laid out the strategy to secure a civil rights investigation from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The campaign for a civil rights investigation is nearly a year old, launched on the heels of the legal setback in 2009, with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to grant Mumia's appeal. Over 20,000 signatures petitioning for a civil rights investigation were delivered to the Justice Department in December 2009. Supporters signing on to the call included Noam Chomsky, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond, trade unionists from Venezuela and Ecuador, and many more.

AN EVENING plenary at the conference was titled "Live From Death Row: Mumia at the Crossroads in the Age of Obama" and took up the slogan "We need his voice, we need his life."

Dr. Cornel West, Professor Vijay Prashad, Professor Jamal Joseph and Pam Africa of the MOVE organization spoke to roughly 400 people, filling the large hall to the brim.

Opening the evening's event, Pam Africa reminded us of mass movements past. Pam described Mumia as a "free man on death row." She called for mass action, leading the crowd in chants of "The people, united, will never be defeated."

Professor Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, gave a very powerful speech filled with humor and optimism, describing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. "We need movement...everyone here is a great weapon because everyone here has the power to organize," Joseph concluded.

Professor Vijay Prashad spoke of people becoming more and more "disposable." "They don't just want Gaza--they want to be human," he said. "Mumia is Gaza. Mumia is Guantánamo Bay...a 'disposable' who refuses to remain disposable but wants to be a human."

Dr. Cornel West spent the evening moving up and down the stage to hand out hugs to Frances Golden (Mumia's literary agent), Pam Africa, the IMPACT peformers and others, and rooted enthusiastically for all the speakers. "Mumia comes from a tradition," he said, referring to Frederick Douglass, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and more.

He accused the ruling class of having an "obsession with the 11th Commandment: 'thou shall not get caught'...[The] age of Reagan continues in the age of Obama." He called not for prisons but for "education, rehabilitation...for 2.3 million people in the jails" and called out for a movement of poor people and the working class.

A taped greeting from Mumia filled his audience with warmth, love and inspiration. Mumia spoke on the election of Obama, stating that, "People voted because they wanted to end the war, they wanted change...and still the machine of oppression goes on."

Reflecting on the Black Panther Party, Mumia said what motivated them, always, was to "serve the people...We didn't get paid, we didn't want to get paid, we were paid by the love people gave us." Addressing young people, Mumia recalled that Huey Newton was 24 years old when he founded the Black Panther Party, and he didn't send a letter to Martin Luther King asking, "Is this a good idea?" "Never think of what you can't do. You're young for a reason. You have to do what you were born to be--active."

The next step in the struggle for justice for Mumia is a march on the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., scheduled for April 26.

Visit the Free Mumia Abu Jamal Coalition Web site for information about the march.

Further Reading

From the archives