Several thousand people gathered at Pershing Square in downtown, L.A. Sunday before marching to the Staples Center, the site of the Democratic National Convention, to draw attention to the pending execution of Mumia Abu Jamal. With temperatures well into the nineties, spirits were high and responses to the speakers and particularly the music, stayed enthusiastic throughout. The atmosphere was relaxed and the police presence, while ample, was relatively subdued. The march was orchestrated and led, with consummate skill, by the Los Angeles Coalition To Stop The Execution Of Mumia Abu Jamal with the support of several organizations. The crowd was strikingly diverse with people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds attending, many from as far away as Northern California and Oregon down only for this day's event and intent upon drawing wider public support and awareness of one man's struggle that seemed to speak to them all.
An acclaimed radio journalist and political activist, Abu Jamal was convicted of the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in June of 1982. The most basic details of the incident, in which Abu Jamal was also wounded, have been hotly contested. He had intervened in a street encounter between his brother and the slain officer, Daniel Faulkner, and a possible third party that some witnesses said had fled the scene. No one else was indicted. Abu Jamal had no previous criminal record. The trial was marked by clear judicial bias, inadequate representation, insufficient evidence, tainted prosecution witnesses, and by the suspicion of political motivation.
The circumstances and conduct of the trial have drawn widespread international condemnation from groups and prominent individuals as diverse as Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, the National Black Police Association, Elie Wiesel, and the European Parliament.
Mumia Abu Jamal had been a long-time thorn in the side of the Philadelphia political establishment and had garnered the personal animosity of the police department and then mayor Frank Rizzo with his persistent and pointed reportage of corruption, racism, and police brutality.
Undeniably charismatic and eloquent, Abu Jamal has continued to speak out on a variety of issues and published extensively from his cell on Death Row. Attempts to quash his voice have continued as well. National Public Radio and Pacifica Radio have both cancelled programs featuring him at the last moment due to pressure brought to bear largely by the Fraternal Order of Police, then senator Bob Dole, and the New York Times. An attempt to ban Abu Jamal's book, Live From Death Row was made in 1995, also by the FOP. In Mumia Abu Jamal's words, "They don't just want my death, they want my silence".
The case has come to symbolize for many a wide host of issues from racist bias in the U.S. judicial system, censorship and First Amendment issues, the rise of the 'prison industrial complex', and the morality of the application of the death penalty in this country. Behind the symbol, however, is the single galvanizing fact that a man's life is at stake for a crime he may well have not committed and who received a trial of dubious fairness at best. It is this human face that saves the issue of Mumia Abu Jamal's fate from abstraction and has driven so many people to political action.
"I got involved with the Mumia movement through my next door neighbors who were in the Black Panthers during the sixties" a young woman from Oakland who had come down for the rally and gave her name as Geogia. "They had both been jailed for their political beliefs and turned me on to some of Mumia's writings. I don't think that anyone should be jailed for what they believe and I think that's what is really going on. They want him dead because what he says is dangerous. Its dangerous to their interests for people to speak the truth."
Another young man who identified himself only as Ron from L.A. said "I first heard him on pirate radio and his voice actually struck me first. Then when I listened to him for a while I realized that there was no way I could just sit back and let this man die. It just wasn't acceptable to me". An older woman leaning on a sign reading 'Stop The Killing' told me, "I think that murder is wrong in any case whatsoever. I think that Mumia's innocent. If he wasn't, I'd still feel the same way".
The legal process of Mumia Abu Jamal has entered a crucial and perhaps final phase. The U.S. Supreme court declined to hear his case in October of 1999. His legal team, headed by Leonard Weinglass, immediately filed for a writ of Habeas Corpus on the grounds of numerous violations of Abu Jamal's constitutional rights in the lower state courts. The case has been assigned to Judge William H. Yohn of the Federal District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania. Yohn is to decide whether to grant an evidentiary hearing which would allow presentation of new evidence and the evidence previously not allowed by the Pennsylvania courts under the original judge, Albert Sabo, who has also ruled under state law on previous appeals. The presentation of this evidence would necessitate a new trial, which could well save Mumia Abu Jamal's life and perhaps even eventually free him. If Yohn rules that this evidence is inadmissible, then under the strictures of the 1999 Effective Death Penalty Act, no further Federal appeal is possible. The case will be thrown back to the state courts and, barring the exceedingly unlikely intervention of an Executive Order, Mumia Abu Jamal will almost certainly be dead within the next few years. Judge Yohn is expected to make his ruling as early as September.
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