In Defense of Mumia Abu Jamal From the Campaign To End The Death Penalty

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The Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) is
appalled by the news that several individuals of leading
anti-death penalty organizations have signed a confidential
memorandum stating that the “involvement of Mumia
Abu-Jamal endangers the U.S. coalition for abolition of the
death penalty.” The memo further argues that the World
Coalition Against the Death Penalty should not highlight
Mumia’s case because doing so “unnecessarily attracts our
strongest opponents and alienates coalition partners at a
time when we need to build alliances, not foster hatred
and enmity.” (
This memo was drafted on December 21, 2009, yet it
only recently came to light following the 4th World Congress
Against the Death Penalty, held on March 4 in Geneva,
Switzerland. At this meeting, a telephone call came in
from Mumia Abu-Jamal, and he addressed the audience.
At this point, several members of U.S. abolitionist groups
got up and walked out in protest.
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty strongly condemns
this action and completely disagrees with the approach
to the anti-death penalty struggle that this memo puts forth.
First of all, we unequivocally support and endorse
Mumia Abu-Jamal in his struggle for justice. We believe in
his innocence and see Mumia’s case as fraught with many
of the same injustices as other death penalty cases–racial
bias, police misconduct and brutality, and prosecutorial
and judicial prejudice.
Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on Pennsylvania’s death row
for the past 28 years and remains there because the courts,
under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, have
thwarted his efforts to win his freedom. From his prison
cell, Mumia has galvanized an international movement of
support towards his efforts to win justice. He has written
numerous books and articles shedding light on our prisonindustrial
complex as well as other historical and current
political issues. He is widely read, known and respected. His
commentaries on prison radio are nothing short of brilliant.
He has helped to educate millions of people about the true
workings of the criminal justice system. But most importantly,
he has been an inspiration to all those fighting to win
abolition, lending his voice of hope, his encouragement and
his unfaltering determination to our movement.
So why would a delegation of U.S. abolitionists would
get up and walk out of a meeting when Mumia addresses
the audience? Shouldn’t they have stood and applauded?
The explanation for this reprehensible action is
explained in the secret memo, which basically puts forth the
argument that to have anything to do with Mumia’s case
ruins the chances of winning abolition of the death penalty.
Why? Here is what the memo states, in part: “The support
of law enforcement officials is essential to achieving abolition
in the United States. It is essential to the national abolition
strategy of U.S. abolition activists and attorneys that we cultivate
the voices of police, prosecutors and law enforcement
experts to support our call for an end to the death penalty.”
This statement points to a very disturbing direction that
we have observed in recent years among some organizations
in the abolition movement–of compromising our
message in order to win the support of conservatives. This
has lead leading death penalty organizations to downplay
the impact of race in the criminal justice system and to
advocate reaching out to law enforcement as a means of
winning abolition of the death penalty.
Those who espouse this strategy ignore or downplay the
role that police play in railroading many poor people and
African Americans onto death row. They ignore the role
that police, prosecutors and judges play as guardians of an
unjust legal system that disproportionately targets the poor
and people of color. The outcome of this strategy has led to
the marginalization of prisoners like Mumia, whose voices
from behind prison walls are so important in this fight.
The individuals who drafted the memo go on to identify
the voices that they seek to include: “The voices of the
Innocent, the voices of Victims and the voices of Law
Enforcement are the most persuasive factors in changing
public opinion and the views of decision-makers (politicians)
and opinion leaders (the 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.”
We in the CEDP couldn’t disagree more with this strategy.
We believe the most “persuasive factor” in changing
public opinion is to build a vocal, visible movement that
forthrightly puts forward its demands– instead of working
to make our message palatable to the opposition.
Consider the analogies to past struggles. What if Martin
Luther King compromised the goals of integration in order
to reach out and try to win over segregationists? No, he
reached out to organize and uplift progressive forces into
fighting for change. That is the kind of strategy we need.
The men and women on death row across the country-
-including the guilty–are not our enemy. The enemy is the
system of punitive thought that portrays them as monsters
so that the public can feel okay about killing them. It is
part of the punitive philosophy upon which the legal system
is based–the same system that breeds crime in the
first place, that gives so little support to victims of abuse,
that says it believes in rehabilitation but then won’t fund it,
that says it believes in education but then takes money
away to build prisons instead.
We reject the logic of having the Fraternal Order of
Police as a partner or ally. The FOP has organized against
our efforts to win justice for Mumia, for Troy Davis, for the
Burge Torture victims in Chicago and countless others.
Our approach is based on an anti-racist perspective. We
know that the history of aggressive policing, sentencing
and the death penalty has its roots in slavery–that the
tough on crime rhetoric of lock-em-up-and-throw-awaythe-
key is racially coded language.
The Campaign stands completely and unequivocally
with Mumia Abu-Jamal. We also stand by a different strategy
to win abolition.
Instead of marginalizing voices like Mumia, we should be
developing more innovative and creative ways to put them
forward–and not just Mumia’s, but others, including Troy
Davis, Rodney Reed and Kevin Cooper, to name a few. We
need to put the human face on this issue. We need to build a
movement that challenges the racism and class bias nature of
the death penalty–and to point out that these injustices exist
in the broader criminal justice system as well.
In order to build a fight that can win real justice, we cannot
marginalize “divisive” issues like racism. Instead, we have
to take them on frontally. And instead of reaching out to the
conservative elements in society, we should be reaching out to
progressive elements and building bridges there. Let’s not forget
that the lowest level of support for the death penalty (42
percent) was in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement.
Let’s work to place the fight for abolition squarely in the
progressive camp, where it most surely belongs.
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