discussion on
Mumia Abu-Jamal,
Shaka Sankofa,
the death penalty
and racist repression
inside on the U.S.


The poor & Blacks on death row

Although Black people represent only 12% of the U.S. population, they constitute 50% of its prison population

The U.S. government invests more in prisons than in universities

(Granma International staff writer)

In the United States, the country which portrays itself as champion of human rights in the world, it would appear to be easier to incarcerate young people than to educate them and provide them with employment that could give them with healthy lives, affirmed Monica Moorehead, leader of Workers’ World and that party’s presidential candidate, speaking in Havana.

Together with eminent figures from the civil rights movement in the United States, Moorehead took part in an international roundtable screened on Cuban television on June 19, which focused on the racism and injustice existing within the U.S. judicial system, particularly in the application of the death penalty.

The Workers’ World leader confirmed that prison construction in that nation is a lucrative business. The penitentiary industry brings in more than $1.1 billion USD, by utilizing a cheap labor force which pays from 23 cents to one dollar per hour for slave labor, she noted.

Wall Street firms, among them American Express, and telephone companies are heavily involved in this business, in which the U.S. government has invested more than in education since 1996.

The African American activist observed that, despite a reduction in the number of crimes committed by young people, their rate of detention has increased. There has also been huge growth recorded by the female population in correctional facilities as a consequence of the use of drugs, in itself a result of the system.

She added that many of those women are raped with impunity in those prisons, as was recently exposed by a group in a New York penitentiary. Single women even have babies there, which constitutes a crime against humanity. To cap it off, rehabilitation programs have been virtually eliminated.


In another roundtable on June 20, Cuban journalist Arleen Rodríguez explored this issue. She explained that over half of the 84,000 women prisoners in the United States in 1998 were Black, "a figure that currently stands at 100,000, according to a publication specializing in that sector of the population."

In contrast, she quoted the example of the blonde white wife of a U.S. military attaché in Colombia who was exposed as a drug trafficker and is currently on bail, as opposed to her Colombian chauffeur, who has been arrested.

Analyzing what happened to the black movement which was such a strong force in the ’60s and ’70s, Rodríguez concluded: "It is in the prisons. It is dead." She then recalled how, in response to a question in the United Nations on the death penalty, a U.S. ambassador stated that if they didn’t kill prisoners the jails would always be full.


That is the reason that they want to silence Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist and member of the African American movement in Philadelphia, who has been on death row for 18 years, unjustly accused of killing a white police officer. As Moorehead noted, his constant protest constitutes the face of the battle against injustice and police violence in the United States.

In an exceptional and spontaneous moment during the roundtable, Cubans were able to listen to a message sent by Mumia from his cell, in which he once more exposed the situation of two million prisoners in his country, and he expressed his solidarity with the island-wide struggle being waged for Elián González’ return.

Mumia Abu Jamal spoke of the conditions facing imprisoned Blacks and Hispanics, including Cubans, the so-called "Marielitos" (Cubans who left from Mariel port in 1980), detained without a trial for an indefinite period, because the judges are never going to know that they are prisoners. That is U.S. "justice," which continues to be dominated by political ambition and anti-communism.

Exactly 47 years ago, two other children, one the same age as Elián, were orphaned; they and their parents were the victims of a rigged and brutal system. On June 19, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sent to their deaths on the electric chair.

Leonard Weinglass, the senior attorney on Mumia’s defense team, referred to three factors that make for unjust defense proceedings in a country which has 25% of the world prison population: race, class and politics.


The attorney emphasized that no millionaires or upper-middle-class persons are sentenced to death in the United States.

The 3600 prisoners on death row are the poorest of the poor, those with the worst education and medical attention. More than 90% of them have been victims of sexual and physical abuse, in addition to being dependent on public defenders because they lack the means to pay their defense, he stated.

Weinglass recalled that, of the 18,000 executions in the United States in the 200 years of the republic’s history, only 38 were white persons accused of killing people of color. In the prison housing Mumia Abu Jamal, there are 126 persons on death row and only 13 are white. In the U.S. justice system, the life of a white person is worth more than that of a Black person.

It was observed that the United States has the highest prison population in the world, with 519 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. As Cuban journalist Lázaro Barredo noted during the June 20 roundtable, 50% of the two million in jail are black, even though Blacks represent only 12% of the population.

Lennox Hinds, professor of law at Rutgers University and an eminent attorney, exposed the discriminatory nature of justice applied in the United States and insisted that in order to understand it, one has to go back to the genesis of that nation, which was marked by racism and violence against the indigenous population, now marginalized, with the lowest social indices.

The case of Native American leader Leonard Peltier, who has spent 25 years behind bars, is one example of governmental action to repress such movements.

Hinds noted that the death penalty is applied in 38 U.S. states, in violation of the international agreement on human rights. Even two children, one Black and one Native American, has been executed. Nevertheless, no white man has been executed for raping a Black woman.

Legislation continues to be applied in a racist manner and the police force is an instrument of minority repression, he stated.

Gloria La Riva, a trade union leader in the state of California, commented on the paradox of the richest state in the nation containing so much poverty and unemployment. According to official figures, 112,000 Latinos are identified as gang members, which is doubtless related to the large percentage of these minorities in prison, for crimes they committed in order to survive.

La Riva noted that mounting a defense in California, for example, costs an average of $400,000 USD, which is clearly an inaccessible price for the great majority of the population.

Mumia is a typical case within the U.S. judicial system. The inefficiency of his state-appointed attorney and police threats against witnesses, to convince them to lie, constitute a perfect combination, matched by a prosecuting attorney who is now a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, and a judge forced to retire after the damage was already done.

Weinglass is convinced of Mumia Abu Jamal’s innocence and states that, after 18 years, the case has been put before a federal court, and that they expect a response by the end of the year. One further complication is that there were changes in the law in 1996, which makes everything more difficult.

Pam Africa knew Mumia in Philadelphia, during a time when the police murdered African Americans and Hispanics and never spent one day in prison. Meanwhile, Rosemary Mealy, his friend and a New York lawyer, recalled how Mumia, not yet 16, held a leading position in the Black Panther Party, which fought against police brutality in the community.

When he became a journalist, Mealy recounted, Mumia Abu Jamal utilized the media to expose to the world what was going on. For that reason, the FBI identified him as a threat and was involved in achieving his arrest.

Mumia stated that at the time he was given the death sentence he felt intense anger and the sensation that the injustice done was penetrating to the depths of his soul. Anger, injustice, outrage, fear, confused feelings that came from everywhere, but he hung on to the hope that they could not last, that he would turn them around.

Abu Jamal’s case was a political one from the outset, and could not have been any other way. He accuses the system. With a masters’ degree from the University of California, his three books and hundreds of articles have denounced the corruption, abuse and crimes committed in jails against minority prisoners.

Mealy noted that although the Justice Department initiated an investigation into police brutality three years ago, there have been attempts to avoid trials, and police officers involved in such acts are not appearing before the courts. She confirmed that many murderers of African Americans in New York remain at liberty.


Jeff Mackler, leader of the mobilizations to free Mumia Abu Jamal, voiced his grave concern over the imminent execution of another African American, Gary Graham, better known as Shaka Sankofa, a prisoner in Texas for 20 years, whose execution is scheduled for Thursday, June 22.

Gloria Rubac, who is fighting for the life of the young Black arrested at age 17 for killing a white man, emphasized that the governor of that state, George W. Bush, the current Republican presidential candidate, boasts the record of having approved the largest number of executions, 131, in the five years of his term in office, for which reason he is known as the governor of death.

Some 400,000 Texans live in extreme poverty, in 1,500 precarious shantytowns lacking safe drinking water and sewer systems, according to an AP news story datelined June 19. The shantytowns, it adds, are slums without paved streets located in abandoned and deserted fields close to the Mexican border, and house the most abject poverty existing in the United States. Although Bush has visited the lower Río Grande area on various occasions, he has never set foot in a shantytown.

Exploring the issue, Lázaro Barredo mentioned a Colombia University study which reveals that two out of every three executions are suspended as a consequence of grave errors committed by lawyers, prosecuting judges or police officers.

He stated that all the death sentences in three states have had to be annulled for this reason, citing the case of Illinois, whose governor—who has visited Cuba—ordered a halt to the executions and later confirmed that the persons involved merely merited light sentences.

Rubac noted that in spite of a lack of evidence against Sankofa, the detective in charge of the case decided not to investigate further because he was convinced of his guilt.

An independent investigation pointed to Sankofa’s innocence, but his defenders have sought out fresh evidence and plan to present an plea of habeas corpus, because since the new 1996 legislation, no court has been able to hear the six new witnesses, she noted.

Together with Mumia’s, this case has won international support, and both are having major repercussions in the United States itself, despite attempts to silence them. Magazines such as Newsweek are covering the issue of the death penalty in that nation, while an editorial in The New York Times has called for a new trial for Sankofa.

Marches and demonstrations have taken place in various states, including New York and California, and another is scheduled for San Francisco. Meanwhile, well-known performers, members of Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus and religious groups have joined their voices to the just demand.



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