Campaign To End The Death Penalty Interview w/Mumia Abu-Jamal
By Marlene Martin
Mumia Abu-Jamal is probably the best-known death-row prisoner in the United States—both because of the powerful campaign to prove innocence and win his freedom, and because of his own role in speaking out from death row for justice, whether the issue is capital punishment or racism or unjust wars.
But some abolitionists in the U.S. feel that Mumia’s voice “endangers” our chance to win abolition of the death penalty, and so they attempted to have that voice barred from addressing a gathering of abolitionists at the Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in December 2009 in Geneva Switzerland.
U.S. members on the steering committee of the World Congress sent a “secret memo” to Congress organizers urging them to exclude Mumia from speaking via a planned telephone address, because, they claimed, “involvement of Mumia Abu-Jamal endangers the U.S. coalition for abolition of the death penalty.
When Mumia did speak, a group of U.S. attendees stood up and walked out of the room.
In a nutshell, their memo argues that Mumia is attracting too much negative attention from the likes of the Fraternal Order of Police, and as a result is threatening the “delicate balance” to be achieved with law enforcement and prosecutors that they claim is essential to win an end to the death penalty.
According to the memo, “The voices of the innocent, the voices of victims, and voices of law enforcement are the most persuasive factors in changing public opinion and the views of decision-makers (politicians) and opinion leaders (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.”
Signers to the memo include: Elizabeth Zitrin, Death Penalty Focus; Renny Cushing and Kate Lowenstein, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights; Speedy Rice, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Kirstin Houle, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; and Juan Matos de Juan, Puerto Rico Bar Association.
Soon after learning of the “secret memo,” the Campaign to End the Death Penalty issued an open letter to the abolitionist community in defense of Mumia. (You can read it at nodeathpenalty.org.) We condemn any attempt to exclude Mumia’s voice from our movement, a voice that has been so sharp, so insightful and so important in helping to build and shape that movement.
As of now, not a word has been written about this incident by any of the individual signers or the groups they belong to—no retraction, no clarification, no explanation. And none of the groups these individuals belong to would sign onto the Stand with Mumia statement that other groups and individuals have endorsed (see page 7).
I wrote to Mumia to get his reaction. Our exchange follows:
I thank the Campaign to End the Death Penalty for your wondrous support. When the letter was read to me, I felt an odd mix of rage and disbelief. It speaks volumes of the movement and why it is so moribund. Once again, a white elite “polices” (pun intended) the movement, making sure it’s not too “radical” and is acceptable to the system. That ain’t a movement; it’s a regression!
When you heard that a group of abolitionists walked out of a meeting to protest your speaking, what was your reaction?
Well, I didn’t know these people, so it didn’t make any sense to me. I remember thinking that it was somehow political—but again it didn’t make any sense; had the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) infiltrated the anti-death penalty movement? That’s crazy.
Should abolitionists partner with law enforcement?
If you recall, in one of my earliest communications with you and the newsletter, I noted how the role of abolitionists was not to be taken lightly. They were revolutionaries fighting against one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in American society: Slavery.
You know the one group that abolitionists never bothered to recruit? Slave-owners. They knew that this was a waste of time. The current movement that uses that name clearly hasn’t used that lesson from history.
We forget how Lincoln hated abolitionists with a passion, and demeaned them in his speeches. Cops as abolitionists is just as nutty as the idea of slave-owners turning against the source of their wealth and status.
One of the sentences in the memo reads, “The support of law enforcement officials is essential to achieving abolition in the United States.”
Abolitionists should deeply study the history of their forbears—and learn these lessons of history. That history is struggle—sometimes unpopular, always controversial, but socially transformative. They can’t make deals with the devil and expect anything other than hell.
In order to win abolition, do we need to be more practical and less radical? That is the implication of the memo.
The abolitionist movement is, unfortunately, echoing history here, for after the Union triumphed in the Civil War, they put away their placards, silenced their songs and declared victory. When they walked away, they allowed Reconstruction to be a half-hearted failure.
Their departure from the field allowed politicians to betray millions of newly freed Africans to the tender mercies of the former Confederates—who launched a campaign of terror that lasted for a century.
Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” There was no struggle—and guess what? There was no progress!
What should abolitionists do?
Let us become that which we revere and remember. Let us BE abolitionists, strengthened by the positive contributions of our ancestors, Black and white. Let us STRUGGLE—to make progress. Let us build the movement by making it Blacker, more Latino, and more working class. Let us understand that social movements change history.
Have you received any apologies from anyone of the folks that walked out?
No apologies (unless like the memo, they kept it a secret).