Fight the Power
Last weekend, my son, Inti, who is 20 and I, who am quite a few years older than that, went to San Francisco to take part in a rally and demonstration in support of political prisoner and death row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal. The main demand is for a new trial for Mumia. It was the most powerful and energizing demonstration I have gone to in many years. We were part of a 15,000 person rally who gathered in Dolores Park in the Mission District of San Francisco at 10:30 A.M. on Saturday, April 24th. What was striking was the successful attempt to reach younger and older activists by the speakers and music as well as by the revolutionary content of the message. A speaker that really reached the rally was a college student from Chapman College, Rashad Richardson, who talked of people of all "racial" backgrounds fighting the oppressor and overthrowing capitalism. It reminded me of talks I had heard by the Black Panther Party 30 years ago. Also connecting the 1960's to the present was the reading of a poem, "War Without Terms", written by George Jackson, the author of "Soledad Brother", a legendary California inmate, writer and revolutionary who was killed in San Quentin prison. Much of the style was the contemporary--hip hop music, rap, spoken word.
About 12:15 we gathered to march to the Civic Center. It was a sunny and warm day. The drums gave the march energy as did the chants, e.g., "They Say Execution, We Say Revolution". There were contingents representing many constituencies including labor unions, gay and lesbian, Asian-American, Latino/a and many, anarchists and many left parties. The demonstration stretched for blocks with thousands of signs calling for an end to the death penalty, for freeing Mumia and all political prisoners, to fighting racism in the criminal justice system, to demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal and many, many others. There was a feeling of urgency as the possibility of his execution in the next year by the State of Pennsylvania is very real. I also sensed in the marchers a feeling of hope and strength and a commitment to preventing his execution by the State of Pennsylvania.
It took us about an hour to reach the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco. We marched through many communities, including some that were predominantly African-American. Thousands watched us from their streets and from inside their apartments and houses. Leaflets were handed out explaining the many injustices connected to Mumia's conviction and death sentence. There was little hostility by those we marched by but neither was there much enthusiasm or support, rather the tone of those we marched by seemed to vary from indifference to some interest in learning why we were marching and who Mumia Abu-Jamal was, but not to the extent of joining us. There is a lot more education to do on this case.
We then gathered at the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco where there were speeches and music until a little past 5 P.M. Some of the highlights included a speech from a member of the Longshoremen's Union, the ILWU. He recounted the history of the struggles of the ILWU from the 1934 strike in San Francisco to the present. The ILWU speaker was especially meaningful as he was backed up by three buses of members who marched, and even more because they announced that they had called for a work stoppage in support of Mumia on the day of the demonstration at all of the ports they worked at from San Diego to San Francisco and Oakland to British Columbia. The speaker announced it was successful. To many of the younger demonstrators I spoke to, during and after the demonstration, the work stoppage greatly increased their consciousness about the potential power of labor and the strength of coalitions for radical social change that included labor unions and workers. Angela Davis read a statement from Alice Walker in solidarity with Mumia and sending him love on his 45th birthday, which was the day of the march. Angela Davis analyzed the racism in the California injustice system where 7% of the population is black but 39% of those on death row are black.
Very notable and positive were the large numbers of youthful speakers who stressed the importance of supporting Mumia and his struggle for a new trial. These speakers were high school and college students from the Bay area, mainly Black--there were also Puerto Ricans and Chicano speakers who linked the struggle for Mumia to others such as the Puerto Rican political prisoners. A statement from Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN (Zapatistas) was read that wished Mumia a happy birthday, linked the struggles of indigenous people in Mexico to the struggles of people of color in the United States, and included a letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, and the Supreme Court demanding not clemency, pardon or mercy, but justice and a new trial for Mumia.
Many speakers also strongly criticized the U.S./NATO bombing of Kosovo. One long-term organizer and friend who is very active against the U.S. War against Yugoslavia lamented in a conversation with me, however, that although thousands and thousands of Bay area residents had turned out for the Mumia march, only a small proportion would turn out for a demonstration against the bombing. She was excited by the turnout, particularly of young people for Mumia, but blamed the left for not speaking out more against the war and mobilizing more against it.
Ed Asner and others pointed that the demonstrations on this day, April 24th, 1999 were perhaps the largest ever for a political prisoner. They were significantly larger than previous demonstrations for Mumia, which shows the movement in support of him is growing.
The speaker who most moved the crowd, my son and myself was Michael Franti of the music group, "Spearhead". Combining poetry, spoken word and speaking from the heart and brain, Michael Franti spoke about his faith in people to build a movement to free Mumia. He rapped about how the struggle was about Mumia but it was also about much more--it was about challenging the death penalty, it was about challenging the insane system that is imprisoning more and more people, particularly but not limited to African-Americans. Michael Franti talked about how he came to the march to have his consciousness raised and how it was. So were my son's and mine.
Who was at the Demonstration?
The official estimate, which appeared in the major San Francisco paper the next day and on TV was 15,000. This seems about right. Numbers I got from asking people at the demo were between 12,000 and 20,000. I estimate also that maybe ½ were of college age or younger which was very exciting. There was a strong anarchist influence among the young. The demonstration definitely included all ages, from parents bringing babies and their children to many, many seniors. All ethnic and racial groups participated and were represented in more than token numbers, e.g., there was a significant group of marchers behind an Asians for Mumia banner. Although there were substantial numbers of African-Americans participating, I had expected there to be a larger turnout at the demonstration than there was. My rough estimate is that 10-15% of the entire march and rally were African-American.
According to two close friends who attended the simultaneous demo on April 24th in Philadelphia in support of a new trial for Mumia, the march there was bigger than the one in San Francisco, their estimates were between 25,000 to 40,000 took part. I had expected the Philadelphia demonstration to be much bigger than San Francisco as there were major mobilizations in many cities besides Philadelphia, e.g., New York, Chicago, and at many, many colleges. One friend of mine told me that in Chicago a coalition of groups who had never been able to work together before, cooperated well and got eight buses to go to Philadelphia. I am not sure what limited turnout, although the actual numbers were certainly substantial. It was a success. From what I heard, the racial and age composition was similar in Philadelphia to San Francisco.. Probably because of the greater hostility of the police and city officials in Philly than in San Francisco to the demonstration, the official estimate in Philadelphia was intentionally low--I saw estimates of 3000 and 8000. That was very disheartening to some of the marchers. So was the lack of national coverage. Nevertheless that 40,000 or more people rallied in Philadelphia and San Francisco is very, very impressive. Hopefully, many of these people like me will be inspired to do more in support of Mumia. My son definitely is.
A brief for a new trial was submitted by Mumia's lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, to the U.S. Supreme Court, two days before the demo on April 22nd. The demonstrations, the support for a new trial for Mumia from all over the world, and the growing number of organizations supporting this demand increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take this case more seriously. We need to do more, to make it a small part of whatever activities we do.
Two Final Notes
I was somewhat dismayed that many of my friends in San Francisco, all of whom had been hard core leftist activists in the 1970's, did not attend the demo. Some had very good reasons, others didn't. One could hardly believe that I had come 800 miles just to attend the demonstration for Mumia. What I felt but did not fully express to her was that I didn't want to look back 20 years from now, and feel guilty that I had not done much to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal. We owe him and ourselves that. I have spoken to many people of my parents generation who wish they had done more in support of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg before they were executed in 1953. Let us not repeat the same mistake.
I also realized that unless you are actively challenging this oppressive capitalist system, the mainstream media and dominant culture are so powerful that even those who were leftist activists in the past but not the present, are influenced enough by the dominant institutions that they find many, many reasons not to support Mumia, not to act against the bombing of Kosovo, not to oppose the sanctions in Iraq, etc., etc. It is more than them just feeling powerless, it gives me an appreciation of how easy it is for mainstream viewpoints to take over our minds.
There is a major struggle at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA where I teach, whether Mumia Abu-Jamal will be the graduation speaker this June. That will be the subject of my next commentary. Stay Tuned!