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U.S. protesters campaign against death penalty in Philadelphia, 2000
In 1981, former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal was accused of murdering Daniel Faulkner, a police officer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A series of discrepancies emerged in the trial, which took place in June 1982. Although Abu-Jamal insisted that another assailant shot Faulkner, the police found two witnesses who claimed to have seen Abu-Jamal commit the crime. One of the witnesses, a cab driver, changed his testimony from the original story given on the night of the crime. The prosecution’s story was further undermined by four other witnesses who reported that they had seen a different black man run from the scene. Despite these uncertainties, the jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict, and in 1995, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge signed Abu-Jamal’s death warrant. Since 1982, activists in the United States and Europe mobilized to protest Abu-Jamal’s impending execution. His books and radio broadcasts from jail made him an icon for capital punishment opponents.
On August 1, 2000, up to four thousand protesters participated in an action called “Crashing the Executioner’s Ball.” The event was planned by a group called Refuse and Resist (R&R) as part of their sixth annual Freedom Summer, a campaign which encompassed a series of actions from July 24 to August 5. The actions, which were organized by the youth chapter of R&R, were intended to raise awareness of the Abu-Jamal case and stop his impending execution. One such action was the Face of Justice project, in which protesters plastered Philadelphia neighborhoods with posters of Abu-Jamal throughout the campaign. On July 26, the group initiated their community outreach with a public opinion poll. Protesters went door to door and approached Philadelphia residents on the street to ask them whether they were familiar with the Abu-Jamal case and whether or not they believed he should be executed. On July 29th, the group engaged in a public speak-out attended by roughly 70 protesters. At the speak-out, which was held in a park, youth members of Refuse and Resist discussed police brutality and Mumia’s upcoming trial.
According to their statement of purpose, the Aug. 1 action was meant to target Governor Tom Ridge and Governor George W. Bush, the soon-to-be presidential nominee, for their use of the death sentence. Since taking office in 1995, Ridge continued his support for the death penalty by signing 205 death warrants and overseeing three executions. The march was scheduled to coincide directly with the four-day Republican National Convention, which was hosted by Ridge in Philadelphia that year. In essence, it was an action “against the death penalty in the United States and against the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
The Day of Resistance opened with a press conference featuring Jesse Jackson, Jonothan Kozol, and others who gathered in the Old First Reformed church to speak out against the death penalty and demand a fair trial for Abu-Jamal. The conference, which attracted over 170 people, was sponsored by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty.
At around 3 PM, groups of protesters flooded Center City, chanting slogans and waving banners with pictures of Abu-Jamal that read “Not One More Lynching!” They chained themselves together with PVC pipes and linked arms to block the streets leading to the convention center where Republicans were scheduled to meet. In one case, people played soccer in the middle of an intersection. Protesters also tore down and burned the flags and decorations that had been hung throughout Center City in honor of the convention. They spray-painted slogans on police cars and threw debris into the street, effectively shutting down traffic in the middle of Philadelphia.
During the march, a coalition of groups including R&R and the Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty held a rally across from city hall. Featured speakers included Jeff Garis of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty; musician Michael Franti; Ramona Africa of MOVE; and Clark Kissinger, a correspondent for the newspaper Revolutionary Worker. The groups had a permit for the rally, and the police allowed the rally to take place without interference. However, at the end of the rally legal observers had to negotiate with police to keep them from arresting people as the campaigners left.
The Republican National Convention had attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters to Philadelphia in addition to R&R, while local activists were also mobilized by the multiple issues raised by the Republican presence. To some degree the police regarded the city as under siege as they responded to the variety of protest actions.
Throughout the city on August 1 there were cases of police brutality. In the early afternoon, police conducted a preemptive arrest in West Philadelphia. They surrounded a building in which protesters were assembling puppets and banners for the march and proceeded to arrest 70 people after confiscating their materials. Some were beaten by the police and hospitalized.
The details surrounding police-protester confrontations vary depending on the source. According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, some of the arrests were provoked by protesters’ assaults, which resulted in fifteen injured police officers. Other sources reported that policemen used violent tactics to suppress protesters, including the use of clubs and tackling protesters as they fled. By the end of the day, police had arrested more than 250 people. Many of the protesters who were arrested refused to cooperate by giving fake names to the police.
On August 2, over 400 people held a rally across from police headquarters to demand the release of the protesters. Some religious groups held a candlelight vigil in support of those who had been arrested, while others chanted slogans. Prominent figures such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Larry Krasner of the ACLU gave speeches at the rally.
As a whole, the protesters succeeded in disrupting the Republican National Convention and attracting widespread media attention; the issue of the death penalty was lifted up. The Freedom Summer campaign, however, had no immediate impact on their larger goal of reversing Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. As new evidence surfaced and new defense claims were filed, his case was reconsidered multiple times.
In 2008, when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals set aside his death sentence and called for a new sentence hearing, it was because the judges found the jury instructions to be flawed in the original trial. In April 2011, after a series of appeals, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed its 2008 decision to vacate the death sentence. Abu-Jamal’s life sentence was sealed on October 12, 2011, when the Supreme Court rejected a petition from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to reinstate his death sentence.