Camp Free Mumia
Dillworth Plaza, Philadelphia
For 48 hours beginning May 11 Dillworth Plaza was liberated by those who believe that Mumia Abu-Jamal must be free.
They traveled many hours to get to this patch of concrete and strip of trees on the east side of Philadelphia City Hall—from Alaska, New Mexico, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York. And, most important, many came from Philadelphia.
This was a diverse crowd. They were clad in denim and khaki, kente cloth and Guatemalan weaves. They waved black, green and red flags and rainbow flags.
Their T-shirts quoted Mumia Abu-Jamal, Che Guevara, Assata Shakur, John Africa and Emma Goldman.
Scores of variously designed “Free Mumia” T-shirts—some faded almost beyond readability—demonstrated that long-time supporters of Abu-Jamal supporters had been drawn to this urban protest encampment.
The solidarity growing out of the rising new youth movement was evident. A youth wore a sticker on his backpack that read “Rape-Free Zone.” Other buttons and stickers read “Another Man for Choice” and “Straight but Not Narrow.”
The plaza was bedecked with banners with militant slogans. A dozen colorful tents sprouted in front of City Hall. Booths provided registration forms, logistical information, literature.
Some 150 people camped out all over the plaza on the night of May 11. More than 100 camped out May 12 despite cold and wind and choking pollen levels. Members of the group Food Not Bombs provided everyone with something to eat.
The sounds of chanting, drumming, hip-hop and militant rallies could be heard non-stop.
Drummers kept up pulsating percussion from nightfall to dawn. They gave energy to hours of vocal chanting demanding Abu-Jamal’s freedom.
And all night long people from the encampment—young and old—stood along the curbside, holding up posters reading “Honk if you support Mumia.” From dusk to dawn cheers greeted the steady cacophony of car horns sounded in support.
Judi Cheng, a supporter from Jersey City, N.J., estimated there were “nine honkers for every heckler.”
All told, it was a symphony of solidarity.
The encampment was a non-stop protest—from the moment the camp began to take shape on Friday afternoon to the time it was struck on Sunday.
It took great cooperation among strangers from diverse communities and far-flung regions. Many people commented on the mood of Camp Free Mumia—how relaxed everyone was with each other.
Particularly noteworthy were the bonds quickly forged between homeless African American men who regularly sleep in the shadow of City Hall and Abu-Jamal’s supporters.
Some of the homeless men told Workers World about the violence and racism the cops unleash on them with impunity. On the nights of the encampment, the police backed off from their nightrider attacks in and around the plaza.
“All night long we looked out for each other,” said Deirdre Sinnott, one of the International Action Center coordinators of the event. “Some of the most political people I’ve talked to have been the homeless.”
Brad and Douglas were part of a group that drove about 14 hours from Indiana to get to the encampment. The two white youths slept outdoors on May 11 in solidarity with the homeless.
Douglas told Workers World: “I wanted to have a little better understanding of what it’s like to have to sleep outside. It sucks. It was noisy, it was uncomfortable, it was cold, it was hard. The wind was very nagging. It gave me a lot of respect for the people who have to live this way year round.”
Brad found out about the encampment by visiting the www.mumia2000.org website. He involved others by sending out “a bunch of e-mails. And I asked my school, Manchester College, to help fund our transportation. I got $350 from Peace Studies.”
He said that Abu-Jamal’s case “represents so much that is wrong with the prison system, the death penalty and the Justice Department. I fully believe Mumia is a political prisoner because he speaks out so against the system.”
Brad explained: “I got involved through my anti-sweatshop group at Indiana University. Mumia is like one of the first activities for me—the birth of an activist.”
Natalie, from Manchester College, added, “The death penalty has been a really big issue on our campus.”
In their own words
Johnnie Stevens, a co-coordinator of the People’s Video Network, described the May 11 concert that opened the protest program: “The hip-hop concert was great. There was a constant flow—predominantly young people from Philly.”
Stevens said that after the concert people stayed to watch videos about Abu-Jamal’s case, the prison-industrial complex and the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE Organization. They were projected right onto the walls of City Hall.
A powerful tribute to the MOVE members closed the weekend’s program.
Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the bombing of MOVE, told Workers World, “This whole weekend is really important because it’s dealing with major issues people can’t afford to close their eyes to—like the death penalty.”
She referred to the recent affidavits filed by Abu-Jabal’s new legal team that contain a statement from a man confessing he was hired to kill Daniel Faulkner, the white cop Abu-Jamal is convicted of shooting. “Yet this man—Mumia Abu-Jamal—sits on death row. Why is that?”
And she emphasized: “Executions don’t only happen so-called legally by lethal injection, but take place on the street. Mother’s Day commemorates the 16th anniversary of the bombing of my family. This government has a lust for blood that has nothing to do with justice at all.”
Jason Corwin from the Seneca Nation, said: “I’ve been a long-time supporter of Mumia. I came into awareness of his case while working for Leonard Peltier [an imprisoned leader of the American Indian Movement]. Mumia really represents the finest qualities of human beings. He’s a caring family man, a strong, outspoken person for truth, and unwavering in his commitment to see all oppressed people—all oppressed life—gain their freedom.”
Rainbow bunting for Philadelphia’s annual Pride Fest hung from lampposts on all major thoroughfares. But none waved more proudly than the rainbow flags at Camp Free Mumia.
On the afternoon of May 12, Tim Eubanks, who described himself as a queer Black activist from New York, explained why he took part. “When I heard it was an encampment, the idea of that sparked my mind. It adds something to it to stay overnight. Walking up here today and seeing all the signs, the Rainbow Flags for Mumia banner, I got really excited.”
A group of Lesbian Avengers—Gunner, Jillian, Matie, Katie and Kate—explained why they traveled from Boston to be here.
Matie: “People are marginalized by the system and an injury to one is an injury to all. We all need to stick together.”
Katie: “Racism is so linked to queer oppression. Anyone who is not a white, straight, Christian, non-trans rich man is marginalized. Mumia has spoken out for queer rights.”
Jillian: “Coming with the Lesbian Avengers, there’s power behind that name and the power of the organization. Bringing that power to a cause that’s worthwhile adds rather than just coming as out individuals.”
Gunner: “It’s important to have a place to dialogue with people, to create spaces like this one here about causes and to be able to also dialogue with others about other issues.”
Corwin, the Avengers and Eubanks were speakers at the afternoon rallies that day.
‘The people united can never be defeated!’
The range of speakers demonstrated the broad solidarity that Abu-Jamal’s struggle has inspired.
Monica Moorehead, a national leader of Millions for Mumia, and Leslie Jones, youth coordinator of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, co-chaired the rally.
The program wove together the struggle to free Native warrior Leonard Peltier, oust the U.S. Navy from Vieques, defend the Charleston 5 dock workers, win a living wage for Harvard’s most impoverished workers, and defend Palestinian self-determination with the battle to free Abu-Jamal.
Speakers included Ramona Africa; Larry Holmes, International Action Center co-director and organizer of Camp Free Mumia; Pam Africa, national coordinator of ICFFMAJ; Marlene Kamish, one of Abu-Jamal’s new legal team members; Ray LaForrest, Haitian activist and union organizer; Mark Taylor of Academics for Mumia; Katie Herzig and Matie from the Boston Lesbian Avengers; Clark Kissinger, leader of Refuse & Resist; and Minnie Bruce Pratt, a national organizer for Rainbow Flags for Mumia.
One thousand marchers then stepped off from Dillworth Plaza to take their message to downtown shoppers. The march moved slowly down the broad avenues, making a whole lot of noise.
Borrowing a popular chant from the AIDS movement, protesters chanted: “Our brother Mumia is under attack. What’re we gonna do? Act up, fight back!”
Throbbing percussion of scores of drums, cowbells and other instruments accompanied the chants.
Many pedestrians, shoppers and drivers greeted the marchers’ demands with raised fists of solidarity, applause and cheers. One clapping bystander told her friend: “That’s right! They need to free him.”
Nodding at the powerful march, Pam Africa told Workers World: “People are organizing all over the world against this most terroristic government—in the face of the Republican National Convention, in the face of Seattle. Even the most traitorous tricks of this government haven’t been able to divide this movement.”
A whole row of people carried a 65-foot quilt made by Fatirah Aziz to demonstrate support for Abu-Jamal. Aziz had put out a call over the Internet for 8-1/2-inch squares, and got responses from Kentucky to Senegal. She quilted them together in three weeks.
Aziz told Workers World: “I wanted to make something to show how many care about him—people who couldn’t be here. It was a labor of love. “
The marchers passed a site of the Underground Railroad. Painted on the side of the building was a two-story mural of Harriet Tubman looking down on demonstrators, holding up her lantern to show the way to freedom for those escaping slavery.
Abu-Jamal demonstrators won overwhelmingly more support than heckling as thousands of predominantly white, middle-class runners and walkers passed by in a Mother’s Day “Race for a Cure” for breast cancer.
A sanitation worker who brought up the rear of the race was chanting along with demonstrators. And the municipal workers who cleaned the park afterward found many concrete ways to express their solidarity with the encampment.
By the time marchers returned to Camp Free Mumia, a strong wind had blown in a cold front. But the chanting, drumming and car horns blaring for Abu-Jamal throughout the night brought reporters back to the encampment at 2 a.m. and again at 4 a.m.
On Sunday morning, as protesters prepared to make their way to the closing MOVE event, Larry Holmes told those gathered: “The media hate to cover Mumia. But we made them do it. We were on every television channel, in every newspaper, we even got national coverage.”
The organizers had had to go to court just to get permits from the city to hold the encampment. Holmes concluded: “We’ve been here for 48 hours. We won this battle. But it’s not over. Not until Mumia is free.”
From Leslie Feinberg