Mumia's Last Stand

A Celebrated Death-Row Inmate Implores Angela Davis to Organize the People on His Behalf

After the visit, Davis told reporters, "I found myself becoming more hopeful" that Abu-Jamal eventually will be exonerated. In the ensuing days, Davis networked with black churches that were supportive of her struggle. But a lot has changed in 30 years. Some were receptive, while others shunned Abu-Jamal in his moment of crisis.

It is an issue that the Reverend Al Sharpton plans to raise with black ministers and politicians when he visits Philadelphia to preach this week. "I am going to challenge the clergy in Philadelphia to join the push to stop the execution of Mumia," says the activist, who has been asked by Abu-Jamal's spiritual adviser, Reverend Steve Wiser, a political ally of Davis, to visit the condemned man. "These ministers have the political clout to let Governor Ridge and others know that they would not allow them to do this," Sharpton says. "This cannot be seen just as 'a left-wing movement'—there must be across-the-board resistance. I am going to tell them that if they do not stand with me to stop the execution, the blood of Mumia Abu-Jamal will be on their hands."

Davis endorses Sharpton's move, but she is concerned that convincing black leaders would require a considerable amount of arm-twisting, wasting valuable time. "I fear that we won't fully understand what it requires to build the kind of movement that can be successful," she says. "There have been demonstrations, wonderful demonstrations, but we have to do more than that. I certainly hope that we would have the patience and the skills to build the kind of campaign that would make it impossible for Mumia to be sent to the death chamber. If he is executed, it would be the most unimaginable setback, not only in movements against the death penalty and the prison industrial complex but for progressive political movements in general."

On October 28, two days after Abu-Jamal won a stay of execution, five members of the multiracial Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty met with Republican state senator Joseph Loeper at his office in a Philadelphia suburb. Ten days earlier, the state senate had rejected a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and refused even to order a study of whether the death penalty is administered fairly. The temporary ban was turned down 41-8. The five abolitionists, some of whom live in the 26th Senatorial District represented by Loeper, wanted to discuss their opposition to the death penalty with Loeper, the senate's Republican Majority Leader, and to gather more information about the Republican-led defeat of the amendment.

Asked to explain his vote, Loeper, according to the Reverend Jeffrey Garis, a minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and executive director of PAUADP, argued that the death penalty deters violent crime and that the courts might view a study as being a moratorium. Loeper, he says, told the abolitionists the senate was concerned that the courts would block executions, believing that none should be carried out while a study was being conducted.

Loeper then brought up the subject that, the abolitionists contend, influenced the senators' vote against commissioning a study. "The second factor was Mumia," Garis quoted Loeper as saying. "Governor Ridge had just signed a warrant for him, and his case is a significant issue for many of us in the suburbs of Philadelphia."

Loeper's remarks unnerved Garis, who had observed a large plaque festooning a wall in the senator's office. It was a commendation from the Fraternal Order of Police. "I found the implications to be extremely disturbing," Garis told the Voice. "If Pennsylvania's death penalty is truly just, wouldn't a study indicate this? Wouldn't a study potentially clear up many doubts about the death penalty and reveal the facts? Of course it would. And that is precisely why these senators don't want a study. Even the most oversimplified and biased study of death sentencing could not dispel the clear truth about Pennsylvania's death penalty: that it is applied in a highly racist manner; that defense of the indigent is atrocious, in large measure because Pennsylvania is one of the only states that provides zero funding for defense from the state level; and that the death penalty is sought and applied in a widely divergent manner from county to county."

Garis interpreted the senate vote against the measure as a chilling admission that "they are willing to kill people who may be innocent, people who may be sentenced to death because of the color of their skin, people who may have been inadequately represented," as is the allegation in Mumia's case. Some of the senators, Garis asserts, actually believe that advocating the execution of Mumia would advance their own careers.

"The political payoff is so great that Pennsylvania's politicians are willing to silence fundamental questions about the entire institution of capital punishment in order to see him die," the minister says. "It is, indeed, so highly politicized that it underscores the truth about the death penalty, not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country: that in the one place where politics supposedly has no place—in the application of justice and the ultimate punishment—it has now become the ultimate weapon. The fundamental democratic principle of due process has been replaced by a lynch-mob mentality. If a large enough segment of the population wants injustice badly enough, then anything goes." 

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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