Thousands protest against Mumia’s possible execution

Rob Kuznia

PHILADELPHIA — When a police officer stopped Michelle Gross for turning onto a one-way off Lyndale Avenue in 1995, she said she was wearing a “Free Mumia” T-shirt.
“He saw the shirt and went berserk,” Gross said. “He called me a cop-killer lover, handcuffed me, took me to the station and paraded me around for everyone there to see. It was bizarre.”
Three and a half years later, her passion for the movement to overturn the conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal — and his subsequent death sentence — has not gone away.
So Gross, who said she still harbors distrust for the police, coordinated a bus trip to Philadelphia to bring representation from the Minneapolis chapter of Refuse and Resist to the Millions for Mumia March.
On Saturday afternoon, 45 people from Minneapolis — including 18 University students — were scattered throughout the crowd of about 10,000 in the march through downtown Philadelphia. Because police refused to conduct an official count, the number is only an estimate, according to the Associated Press.
The crowd gathered in honor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s birthday and to dissuade Pennsylvania’s governor, Thomas Ridge, from signing a death warrant authorizing the execution.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 for the murder of a police officer named Danny Faulkner. The incident occurred while Abu-Jamal intervened in a struggle between Faulkner and Abu-Jamal’s brother.
Supporters of Abu-Jamal decry numerous aspects of the case, including both the reputation of the Philadelphia Police Department and the specifics of the case itself.
The Philadelphia Police Department is the only major city police organization to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. Since the ongoing investigation began, at least 137 prisoners have been released because they were wrongly prosecuted, according to a resource book on Abu-Jamal’s case.
Supporters of Abu-Jamal also allege that police officers bribed witnesses, withheld evidence and lied in court to prosecute him.
“One of the most astounding facts about the case is how testimonies which would benefit Mumia were silenced,” said Matt Tyler, a senior attending Central High School.
Among other examples, Tyler cited a police officer who said Abu-Jamal confessed to killing Faulkner in the emergency room. But in police records, Gary Wakshul, another officer who was with Abu-Jamal in the emergency room, wrote “the negro male made no statement” in his report. During the trial, the judge said Wakshul could not be called to the stand, because he was on vacation. Wakshul, however, was at home.
The case was also complicated by Abu-Jamal’s affiliation with the Black Panthers since age 15 and his widely broadcasted criticisms of the Philadelphia Police Department as a radio journalist.
At the march this weekend, supporters came from a myriad of factions. Anarchists wearing black masks and waving black flags led the procession, followed by four miles of protesters, among them groups like the Black Panthers, the Trans-gender Association and vegans.
Picket signs, buttons, pamphlets and T-shirts espoused countless anti-establishment messages like “No Support to Capitalism’s Racist Anti-Worker Police,” or, just simply, “No!”
Media vans, police cars and curious onlookers surrounded the march, while media helicopters hovered above.
Several high-profile speakers riled the crowd, including Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a former member of the Black Panthers who was recently released from prison after serving 27 years for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine also spoke, later donating $80,000 to the cause.
“We gotta talk about pickin’ up a gun, because that’s a tool,” said a leader from the Black Liberation Army to the crowd. “You young people, deal with people that you trust and you know,” he said. “And tell no one else what you’re gonna do and when you’re gonna do it.”
Eric Larson, an individually designed interdepartmental major at the University, was pleased with the rally.
“The way people behaved here was more demonstrative of how they felt than other demonstrations I’ve been to,” he said.
But Thomas Ienus from St. Paul Technical College said he thought there were too many speakers. In addition, he said the inflammatory rhetoric hampered the cause.
“The subject matter (of the speeches) was too militaristic,” he said.
The Minneapolis bus seemed like a microcosm of the event in Philadelphia because of the wide range of political beliefs the riders possessed, said a participant from Duluth known only as Glo.
“Everyone seemed very politically involved,” she said.
Three of the riders are involved with the Highway 55 protest; others were involved with issues involving globalization, animal rights and the war in Kosovo.
Glo, who considers herself a communist, is an affiliate of a Duluth animal rights group named “Animal Liberation.”
Duluth resident Giavanni Conti, a Bolshevik, said he was disappointed by the lack of action taken at the march.
“I’m not going to say that I’m opposed to burning cities down,” he said. “And if the governor signs Mumia’s death warrant, I’m going on a hunger strike.”
Peter Schmitz, a 43-year-old counselor at the Seward Community Support Program for disabled persons, said the demonstration would have a bigger impact if people would have embarked upon civil disobedience.
“The Civil Rights laws didn’t happen in the 1960s because nice politicians were elected,” he said. However, he had mixed feelings about participating in illegal activity.
“Yes, I would like to, for the impact,” he said. “But no, I can’t, because I have to be at work on Monday.”
Schmitz also said he originally did not want to come.
“I really didn’t like sitting on a bus all day long and putting up with the movie ‘Braveheart’,” he said. “But I felt it was the responsible thing to do.”
“Braveheart” was a contentious issue on the bus, as some thought that it pandered to right-wing affiliates.
“Talk about a white supremacist movie,” said Rebecca Hill, a graduate student in American studies at the University. A Nazi magazine once listed it as the best movie of the year, she added.
But despite some of the political differences, the bus ride was a bonding experience for people, said Gross.
“At first, most of us didn’t know each other,” she said. “On the bus, we shared food and talked. Now people are getting each other’s addresses and phone numbers. It wasn’t just 45 people sitting on a bus by themselves.”