Mumia Abu-Jamal’s name has become ubiquitous for the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. The former journalist and Black Panther has come to represent the plight of political prisoners both locally and internationally. Still, most Philadelphians are unaware that the struggle to liberate Abu-Jamal from life imprisonment is ongoing and picking up steam as judgments near. The major forces behind this movement are two organizations, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Educators for Mumia.
On June 25th, Abu-Jamal’s legal team, including NAACP Legal Defense attorney Christina Swarns, visited the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to hear oral arguments challenging Abu-Jamal’s resentencing from death to life in prison without parole. His attorneys argued that Judge Pamela Dembe, President of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, neglected to inform Abu-Jamal or his legal team of her motion to resentence Abu-Jamal to life in prison without parole. If he had not found out about the case, he would have lost the right to appeal the sentencing and appear in court to make a statement. Supporters argue that this neglect is another instance of abuse in a long history of legal violations regarding his case.
“The unconstitutionality of Judge Dembe’s actions echoes the history of due process violations in the Abu-Jamal case, which has spanned 30 years. In the original trial the judge, prosecutor, and police conspired to suppress evidence of innocence and to obtain a conviction,” said Professor Johanna Fernandez, President of Educators for Mumia. Fernandez is currently working with Educators for Mumia to get a professorship that will accommodate him while incarcerated and after his release.
Judges heard the arguments as they faced a courtroom filled with residents, activists, the media, professors, university students and artists all wearing red garments for solidarity. For these supporters, rallying for Mumia’s freedom goes far beyond the man and the icon and into deeper issues with the justice system.
“This is about addressing a system that thinks it has the right to lock a person away for the rest of their life when there’s no undeniable proof of their guilt. That’s not okay. If we allow them to do this, the Constitution is a lie. How can you say this country promotes life and liberty when they take away our freedom, families and livelihood with proof or chance for a person to defend themselves?” said Desmond Brown, a student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
In late 2011, ICFFMAJ’s founder Pam Africa celebrated as the prosecution discontinued its petition for Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. Her investment in his release runs deep. During his free years, Abu-Jamal publically supported Africa and her family at MOVE, a political and socially active organization founded in 1972. In his journalism he addressed the intrusive and murderous attacks on the MOVE compound in 1978 and 1985. During the latter attack, former Mayor Rizzo directed the department to bomb their Osage Avenue compound, taking 11 lives. Among the survivors of the bombing was Ramona Africa, who was present during the oral arguments.
“We don’t know when the judges will make a decision about this,” said Africa.
Still, Mumia’s supporters are optimistic and looking forward to an appeal, which would allow him to appear in court to make a statement. They hold hope that this will lead to his eventual release from prison.
“Life in prison is still effectively a death sentence,” said Professor Fernandez. “His attorneys want to raise questions about the constitutionality of life imprisonment. Judgment has already been passed in Pennsylvania questioning life in prison for minors.”
If Abu-Jamal’s attorneys can get judges in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to reconsider the constitutionality of life prison sentencing, this landmark trial might make America look more closely at its mass incarceration problem. More specifically, how it imprisons such a large percentage of its African-American population. The fact remains that an embarrassing amount of African-Americans are either imprisoned or living with a record of incarceration that eliminates many of their social rights. Michelle Alexander, a Mumia supporter and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, addresses this issue in her bestselling book. According to the NAACP, the U.S. is only 5% of the World population yet holds 25% of world prisoners. African-Americans constitute nearly 1 million of those 2.3 million individuals incarcerated.
“This is not just about Mumia Abu-Jamal. It’s about all of the black and brown men and women who are subjected to the violence of this justice system,” said Fernandez.