Protesters march for Mumia

Josh Linehan

More than 250 protesters, carrying signs and chanting “brick by brick, wall by wall, free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” marched down Cedar Avenue on Thursday night to protest Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge’s signing of Abu-Jamal’s death warrant.
Demonstrations similar to the one near the University’s West Bank were held around the country Thursday after Ridge signed the warrant Wednesday. Under the warrant, Abu-Jamal will be executed Dec. 2 by lethal injection.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio journalist who covered police brutality and corruption, was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. When officials arrived at the scene, they found Abu-Jamal lying wounded near the dying officer, his own gun and five empty shell casings.
Abu-Jamal’s supporters say he is innocent and is being held as a political prisoner. Abu-Jamal and his supporters have insisted he never confessed, prosecutors ignored evidence, the trial judge failed to allow the subpoena of crucial witnesses and the jury was racially biased against him.
Each side has insisted it has witnesses who either prove or disprove that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner.
Michelle Gross, a spokeswoman for the Twin Cities Coalition to Defend Mumia Abu-Jamal, said the protest was important because it might be the only option Abu-Jamal has left.
“The system has failed us. We have to win this fight in the arena of the streets, in the court of public opinion. We have to make it politically unacceptable to kill a man,” said Gross, who helped organize the rally and spoke on Abu-Jamal’s behalf.
The protest began shortly after 5 p.m. on Cedar and Riverside avenues. Demonstrators carrying signs and handing out leaflets gathered to listen to 10 speakers before marching.
Gross said the timing surrounding the signing of the death warrant was a direct attempt to silence opposition to the execution.
Ridge signed the death warrant two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Abu-Jamal’s request for a new trial and days before Abu-Jamal’s lawyers planned to file a habeas corpus appeal in federal court. A writ of habeas corpus calls for release from unlawful imprisonment.
“By signing this order, Ridge has placed Mumia on Death Phase II, where he can see only blood relatives,” Gross said. “The timing of this action is an attempt to silence Mumia at a time when his voice must be heard.”
Gross also said Ridge abused his power in signing the death warrant before Abu-Jamal’s appeal.
“This kill-crazed man has signed 171 death warrants since 1994, more than twice the number of death warrants signed by the governors in his state in the 25 years prior to his term,” Gross said during her 10-minute speech.
A previous death warrant signed by Ridge was stayed after a federal court accepted an earlier Abu-Jamal appeal.
Speakers reiterated their belief in Abu-Jamal’s innocence and insisted his appeal should be heard.
David Casebolt, a member of the defense coalition, said Mumia Abu-Jamal could not get a fair trial, and a writ of habeas corpus is his only chance.
“I hope the federal court decides to review the case and a fair judge orders a new trial. But there have already been so many injustices toward him it seems unlikely,” Casebolt said.
Paul Ford, a sophomore at Grinell College in Iowa, drove to Minneapolis to speak at the protest. Ford called for Abu-Jamal’s outright release.
“I don’t think a new trial is plausible. He can’t get a fair trial, anywhere, and he shouldn’t be put through one. The man deserves to be freed,” Ford said.
The burgeoning crowd, ranging in age from about 1 to 70, listened to speakers and chanted slogans as Minneapolis police looked on. As demonstrators began their march down Cedar Avenue, turning west on Franklin Avenue, they were flanked by six police cruisers.
“It’s peaceful. We’re just going to let them speak their mind,” said Minneapolis police Sgt. Patricia Hellen. When asked about Mumia Abu-Jamal, she had no comment.
The protest drew participants from activist groups around the Twin Cities including Amnesty International, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Highway 55 protesters.
Abu-Jamal’s case has also inspired protest from former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
An activist who calls herself Tree handed out leaflets at the rally. She said she was also involved in the Highway 55 occupation but felt the need to join Abu-Jamal’s supporters after Ridge signed the death warrant.
“I think the whole situation is utterly atrocious,” Tree said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize what kind of a country we live in.”
Another speaker, Peter Rachleff, an American history professor at Macalester College, said he spoke from experience when he stressed protesters must act now.
“It isn’t just some story. The United States government has executed political prisoners before,” Rachleff said. “The movement doesn’t need any more martyrs.”
Gross ended her speech with words from the prisoner himself. Upon hearing of the death warrant, Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “This is just the next stage of the fight. We will continue to fight. We will win.”
Another larger protest is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday in Peavey Park on Chicago and Franklin avenues.
Casebolt said the protesters’ diversity reflected widespread support for Abu-Jamal’s case.
“A lot of people from all walks of life are behind Mumia,” Casebolt said. “All I ask is that people take a look at the facts and decide for themselves.”

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at jlinehan.umn.edu. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3212.