14 November 2014

Pennsylvania Adopts Prisoner Gag Law to Silence Mumia Abu-Jamal

On October 21, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett signed into law the vicious “Revictimization Relief Act,” enacted with the express aim of silencing political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. An innocent man framed up for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia cop Daniel Faulkner, Mumia has spent 33 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The bipartisan rush to pass the bill came after Goddard College, a small liberal arts school where Mumia earned his degree while behind bars, aired a prerecorded address by him on October 5. This gag law sailed through the state House of Representatives in a unanimous, 197 to 0, vote. The statute allows prosecutors and “victims” of a “personal injury crime” (and their family members) to sue prisoners who do or say anything that would “perpetuate the continuing effect of the crime on the victim” by causing “a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

Mumia has been in the crosshairs of the capitalist state since his days as a teenaged Black Panther Party spokesman in the 1960s. That enmity grew in the 1970s when as a journalist known as the “voice of the voiceless” he exposed the racist Philly police vendetta against MOVE, the largely black back-to-nature group he came to support. On 9 December 1981, the Philly cops had their first opportunity to silence Mumia forever. Evidence shows that when he arrived at the scene of Faulkner’s shooting, the cops shot Mumia and brutally beat him on the street and later in the hospital where he was taken. When Mumia survived that ordeal, police and prosecutors proceeded to manufacture evidence to convict him, including by terrorizing witnesses and concocting a fake confession two months later.

After a 1982 trial in which Mumia was denied the right to represent himself and was repeatedly ejected from the courtroom, he was sentenced to death explicitly for his political views, primarily his Black Panther history. Federal and state courts have time and again refused to consider evidence proving Mumia’s innocence, especially the sworn confession of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, shot and killed Faulkner. (See the 2006 Partisan Defense Committee pamphlet The Fight to Free Mumia—Mumia Is Innocent!) In 2011, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office dropped its longstanding effort to legally lynch America’s foremost class-war prisoner. But Mumia remains condemned to life in prison hell with no chance of parole.

While the Pennsylvania gag law is directed against Mumia, if upheld, it portends similar measures in other states to further restrict the already barely existent rights of prisoners. By its terms, anyone who would dare to publicize their legal defense in Pennsylvania can now be sued for “perpetuating” their crime and causing “anguish.” This twisted logic could be used to justify censorship of everything from prison newspapers, such as the acclaimed Angolite published by inmates in Louisiana’s Angola prison, to interviews with inmates who maintain their innocence or protest the inhumane conditions of mass incarceration or oppression in the world outside.

At a photo-op “signing ceremony” for the new law, the governor railed against Mumia’s “obscene celebrity.” Seated next to him on the platform was Maureen Faulkner, Daniel’s widow, who along with the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) campaigned for Mumia’s execution for over three decades. Even after the authorities have buried him alive in a Pennsylvania prison cell, with his legal appeals effectively exhausted, the fact that Mumia can still gain a hearing for his powerful print and radio commentaries drives the forces of “law and order” into a frenzy. The ongoing vendetta against Mumia and other former members of the Black Panther Party captures how the bourgeoisie is haunted by the spectre of defiance to this system of exploitation and racist oppression.

Mumia and Prison Radio, which broadcasts his commentaries, as well as other prisoners and prisoners rights organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court on November 10 challenging the “Silence Mumia Law.” The lawsuit includes the claim that this gag rule could be invoked to prohibit journalists and organizations from publishing commentaries by Mumia and other prisoners. Civil libertarians and many in the bourgeois media have castigated the legislation as blatantly unconstitutional. “Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish’ as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing,” wrote the Harrisburg Patriot-News (17 October), which asked: “Does ‘breathing’ qualify as ‘conduct’ that’s now subject to court action?” An editorial in the Los Angeles Times (22 October) opposed the law even while expressing relief that in his Goddard address “Abu-Jamal didn’t insist on his innocence or even refer to the crime, except to note that when he resumed his studies he was ‘a man on death row.’ Instead, his speech combined reminiscences of Goddard and commentary on current events, from the war in Gaza to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.”

This is the latest of many attempts to silence Mumia and his defenders. In 1990, a PDC-initiated defense rally in Philadelphia was met by a cop backlash, with the Philly F.O.P. head declaring that all Mumia’s supporters were part of a “misfit terrorist group” who should be put on an “electric couch.” Over the next three years, the PDC and its fraternal organizations in Europe and beyond garnered wider support, significantly from labor organizations representing millions of workers, for Mumia’s cause and spurred other organizations to take up his case. This international support for Mumia rankled the forces pushing for his execution.

In 1994, when National Public Radio (NPR) agreed to run Mumia’s commentaries weekly on its program “All Things Considered,” the F.O.P. launched a national counter-campaign. From the floor of the U.S. Senate, Republican leader Robert Dole called for cutting NPR’s federal funding. Bowing to the pressure, NPR canceled the commentaries. The PDC, along with the Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, initiated a protest speakout that featured a reading of Mumia’s commentaries by several personalities. Among them was the late actor and political activist Ossie Davis, who was co-chair of the Committee to Save Mumia.

The next year, Mumia came to national prominence with the publication of his first book, Live from Death Row. This selection of powerful commentaries about Mumia’s life, prison and death row was critical in blowing the lid off the cops’ and prosecutors’ Big Lie campaign to slander Mumia as some kind of crazed killer. The forces of reaction hit back with a campaign against the publishing company, which made its money primarily from school textbooks. The publisher lost orders from schools all over the country. A barrage of editorials and op-eds against Mumia appeared in such newspapers as the New York Post, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Daily News, as well as on TV news shows like Dan Rather’s Eye on America on CBS.

It is a good thing that today some of the media have denounced the Mumia gag rule. We note, however, that the bourgeois press played its part in consigning him to a life behind bars by acting as a transmission belt for police/prosecutor lies and refusing to report any of the overwhelming evidence of Mumia’s innocence.

The state authorities who sought to strap Mumia to an execution gurney for three decades want to see him rot in prison, a forgotten man. We are determined that Mumia and other class-war prisoners not be forgotten, which is the purpose of the PDC’s program of support to these prisoners. This program is modeled on the International Labor Defense in the 1920s, which not only provided stipends to class-war prisoners as an expression of solidarity but also gave voice to their fight for freedom. Ever since taking up his case in 1987, we have fought for Mumia’s struggle to be taken up by the multiracial proletariat with the understanding that militant workers, fighters for black freedom and those opposed to U.S. imperialist depredations must have no illusions in the capitalist courts. Mumia must not be silenced! Free him now!

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1056, 14 November 2014)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.