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Mumia Abu-Jamal and
the US Criminal Injustice System
by Steve Bloom, Steering Committee,
New York Free Mumia Abul-Jamal Coalition
Sometimes it seems to some—even very well-meaning people (I leave aside those who raise such questions cynically)—as if the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is overblown. True, there is certainly an injustice here. But is it a greater injustice than has been committed against hundreds, even thousands of others imprisoned and/or executed after only sham trials and minimal "due process?" And doesn't so much energy and time devoted to one individual case make it harder to build the kind of movement we need to overcome the massive reality of racist and class-biased injustice in the USA today?
Mumia's case does deserve the kind of movement which has developed around it, and participating in such a movement can be a useful springboard to help create an even broader effort around issues such as the death penalty, police brutality, basic human rights for all prisoners, etc. Often a single individual case of injustice or human tragedy can capture the essence of such a reality, and therefore the public imagination, far more effectively than pages filled with statistics. So one answer to the dilemma posed above is, simply, that we should focus on Mumia's case because it has managed to capture public attention in a way that no other case has.
But that there is something else which makes Mumia's case special, and therefore worth focusing on. We can enumerate a list of specific issues raised by our broad concern about the US criminal injustice system:
- capital punishment;
- police brutality;
- the use of prosecution and incarceration to muzzle political dissent and intimidate activists (with Black militants a particular target);
- a general disrespect for justice for the poor in our class-divided society; and
- the inhumanity and brutality of the prison system itself.
Mumia's case is the only one I know of which reflects every single one of these factors. Mumia's prosecution was pursued so vigorously because of his political views, and these were used in particular to get the jury to vote for a death sentence. He was brutalized by the police, had a jury from which Blacks were excluded because they were Black, frame-up evidence manufactured and used in his trial, and an incompetent attorney forced upon him. And he has suffered for almost two decades under the most brutal conditions of incarceration.
So there are many other cases, some of which even gain national publicity. We can think about Geronimo Pratt, for example, who spent 25 years in jail and is now free; or Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement framed up on murder charges stemming from AIM's occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in the 1970s who is still in prison; and Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham), who was executed last spring. These are all important, as are hundreds of other individuals who are much less known.
The reality is truly staggering. Seventy percent of the people in prison in the US are people of color. Forty-one percent are Black, while Blacks comprise 12 % of the population. The fastest growing segment of the prison population is Black women (mostly in jail on non-violent drug charges). Native Americans are the largest ethnic group per capita.
The state of Illinois recently found so many instances of erroneous judgment in death-penalty cases that it declared a moritorium on executions. And the reality behind this moratorium is not unique to Illinois. The June 11, 2000, Chicago Tribune reported on a study dealing with Texas—the death-penalty capital of the United States. The lead sentence from that article reads: "Under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has executed dozens of Death Row inmates whose cases were compromised by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys, meager defense efforts during sentencing and dubious psychiatric testimony."
A conference…documented…75 people who, in the previous two decades, had been convicted and sentenced to death but later proven innocent based on new evidence.
A conference in 1998 documented the cases of 75 people who, in the previous two decades, had been convicted and sentenced to death but later proven innocent based on new evidence. Some of them had come within days, or even hours, of their scheduled executions. But in 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the "Effective Death Penalty Act." This law specificies that a prisoner on death row may have only one federal appeal, and that appeal must be filed within one year after state appeals have been exhausted. Had such provisions been in effect earlier, many of these 75 individuals would probably have been executed before they could have proven their innocence.
Most people in the USA are simply unaware of this reality. Sometimes an individual development makes headlines—around Mumia's case, for example or what happened with Gary Graham in Texas. But even when there might be sympathetic coverage, the case is always made to seem like an exception. Mostly these facts are not a subject for public discussion.
The movement around Mumia sees education about the issue of capital punishment, and the runaway growth of the prison system more generally, as a fundamental task. One focus is on how a growth of the prison agenda is part of the reactionary political goals of the rich and powerful who own and control the USA. A bi-partisan social program has been pursued for years—to cut back on services, education, welfare, etc., and then to blame individuals who end up unable to "make it" on their own in a society where the safety net has been slashed. Law enforcement and prisons become a substitute for social programs in this context.
It is also striking to note how the increased attention to policing and prisons was a conscious response to the ghetto rebellions of the 1960s and '70s. First there was a wave of drugs that swept over the Black community, and then a "war on drugs" which in fact was a war on that same community, to impose a police presence there that even some community residents came to welcome as the only "practical" alternative they could see to the drug epidemic.
...the increased attention to policing and prisons was a conscious response to the ghetto rebellions of the 1960s and '70s.
The result in social terms is staggering:
- There are now more than two million prisoners in the USA—25 % of the world's total in a country that has only 5 % of the world's population.
- The rate of incarceration here is higher per capita than in any other nation, including South Africa under the Apartheid regime. It is 7 times the rate in England, 6 times Canada, and 20 times Japan.
- In the last 25 years the US population has expanded by 28 %, the prison population by 500 %.
- Since 1985 one new prison has been built per week.
- In California the budget for prisons is now higher than for education.
- In New York in the year 2000 there was a $760 million increase for corrections and a $615 million decrease for higher education.
- Thirty billion dollars was spent in 1999 on state prisons (thus not including federal institutions and local jails).
To offer easy solutions to voters, each politician believes that s/he has to be more "anti-crime" than the next. This fuels an outrageous, runaway development of prisons and police. And the "war on drugs" which is one of the key elements used to justify that runaway development is a pure and simple fraud. Every serious social scientist knows that decriminalization of drugs and treatment for addicts would be far more effective, and far cheaper, than law enforcement. Those who finance both Democratic and Republican campaigns and thereby set the agendas in Congress and in every state legislature know these statistics. No politician could get elected today advocating more money to treat addicts, while it is easy to raise money if they propose more cops and prisons.
There is also a huge racial disparity in the treatment of drug "crimes," with white youth getting probation for the same "offense" that will land a Black youth in prison. And there remains a big gap in the penalty for possession or use of crack cocaine, which is more common in the Black community, versus cocaine, the drug of choice among whites.
Black children are also far more likely to be tried as adults—something which constitutes a crime in itself, and shows once again how irrational this race to "get tough" has become. Juvenile crime statistics have fallen every year since 1994. Yet there is a continual campaign to try more juveniles as adults and hand down more punitive sentences. Children in adult jails commit suicide eight times more often than in juvenile facilities, are subjected to sexual abuse five times more often, and are twice as likely to be attacked with a weapon.
It is no accident that those who are pushing this reactionary pro-prison agenda in the USA are deathly afraid of the movement which has grown up around Mumia's case. They know full well the implications when young people on a mainstream campus like Kent State University learn enough about the legal issues, and about Mumia as a human being, to invite him to be the main speaker at their commencement exercises. And that is why the ruling powers in this country have spent so much time and money attempting to justify the death sentence handed down to Mumia—including segments on major TV shows like 20/20 and in mainstream magazines like Vanity Fair.
The whole system we are confronting is based on a profound racist and class-based injustice, and has to be fought politically if the legal challenge against Mumia's unjust conviction is going to have any chance for success. And those who start from the other end, from the perspective of fighting the whole racist and class-biased legal system must, likewise, understand the opportunity and necessity presented by this individual case. It is only by merging these conceptions and agendas that either can be effectively pursued.
The author is a member of the steering committee of the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and author of the pamphlet "Fighting for Justice—the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal" published by Solidarity. He is a member of the National Committee of Solidarity and a life-long socialist activist.