Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal rally on his 67th birthday for his release

Protesters take to the streets to demand freedom for Mumia Abu Jamal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters take to the streets to demand freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On Saturday, his 67th birthday, supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal staged the first of two weekend rallies seeking his release from prison, where he is currently serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner. The case has pitted Abu-Jamal’s supporters, including a long list of national and international celebrities who say he was framed, against police and their supporters, who resent the attention given to a man convicted of murdering a fellow officer.

A crowd of several hundred people began to gather at the north side of City Hall about 2 p.m. Either on mic or in the crowd, some wore black placards declaring, “Innocent,” in white lettering. Signs reading “Free Mumia,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Abolish Police” were in evidence.

Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence in a case that has drawn scrutiny over claims of police, prosecutorial and judicial bias and misconduct, including a report by Amnesty International.  His attempts to overturn his conviction have failed repeatedly. Officer Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, and the Fraternal Order of Police along with several subsequent district attorneys have said Abu-Jamal got a fair trial and should remain in prison for life.

Having lost repeated appeals for a new trial, Abu-Jamal spent about 30 years on death row before a federal court vacated that sentence and the Philadelphia district attorney, with the consent of Maureen Faulkner, agreed to life without parole in 2011.

Supporters planned Saturday’s rally at City Hall before knowing the outcome of the trial against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty Tuesday on all counts for the murder of George Floyd last year. But rally organizers say the cases are linked to a long history of racist policing nationwide, as well as in Philadelphia.

Hundreds gather at City Hall to demand the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Hundreds gather at City Hall to demand the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist, wrote about police brutality and became a strong supporter of MOVE, the group espousing communal living, animal rights and Black liberation whose West Philadelphia home was bombed by the City of Philadelphia in May 1985.

The group has been at the forefront of an endless battle to free Abu-Jamal, who is now in poor health and recovering from heart surgery earlier this week.

Keith Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother,  told the crowd Saturday that Abu-Jamal is “doing OK  today” because of the efforts of the people in the crowd. “I’m always going to be here,” he said. “Moving slowly, but I’ll be here … You all keep me strong.”

Mumia’s brother, Keith Cook, speaks to the crowd at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Mumia’s brother, Keith Cook, speaks to the crowd at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Johanna Fernandez, a history professor at CUNY-Baruch College in New York, said of Abu-Jamal,  “He sounded strong.” She called for shutting down the anthropology department at Princeton University for its role with the University of Pennsylvania in the mistreatment of the remains of children killed when Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the MOVE organization in 1985.

“The bones of a child, I hope that child haunts these institutions and their professors to their graves,” Fernandez said.

MOVE member Pam Africa told the crowd Abu-Jamal told her that he’s being treated well “thanks to the efforts of you all here.”

Pam Africa calls for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal during a rally at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Pam Africa calls for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal during a rally at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She said she spoke to him briefly Saturday morning and he told her he was getting good treatment but was still being shackled while in bed.

Abu-Jamal’s personal doctor, Ricardo Alvarez, says he’s had a difficult time getting clear information from the hospital, but he believes his patient had coronary artery bypass surgery of two vessels and that he should not be shackled.

Africa criticized politicians, including District Attorney Larry Krasner, and the power structures involved with Abu-Jamal’s continued incarceration.

“You can not sit in that cesspool and be for the people for real,” she said.

Supporters say new evidence found and released by the Philadelphia district attorney shows Abu-Jamal was framed, and they are seeking to have it reviewed by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Six boxes were released as part of Abu-Jamal’s ongoing appeal process.

Fernandez, who is also a member of his legal team, said in an interview that the new evidence shows prosecutor misconduct, race bias in jury selection, and suppression of exculpatory evidence.

Johanna Fernandez, whose film, ‘’Justice on Trial,’’ disputes Mumia’s conviction, speaks at a Free Mumia protest at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Johanna Fernandez, whose film, ‘Justice on Trial,’ disputes Mumia’s conviction, speaks at a Free Mumia protest at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One piece of evidence includes a handwritten note from a key prosecution witness in the original trial, a cab driver named Robert Chobert, who asked the prosecuting attorney for money and said he was willing to sign anything, according to Fernandez.

“This suggests Robert Chobert was bribed by the prosecutor at the time,” said Fernandez. “This case needs to be reviewed immediately, given the magnitude of the new evidence. In previous cases where this kind of evidence has emerged, the defendant has either been set free or has gotten an immediate new trial.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner has filed a brief opposing Abu-Jamal’s appeals. A spokesperson declined to comment Saturday evening.

Madusa Carter of West Philadelphia was among those attending the rally as an “avid supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal and freeing all political prisoners.” They said that they have been following this case since 2014, and that they believe that being Black is political.

Medusa Carter of West Philadelphia.
Madusa Carter of West Philadelphia. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“Now more than ever, with the uprising last year and the pandemic, we’re going to find that more people are humanizing Black people these days,” Carter said.

Carter, like many at the rally, was wearing an “innocent” sign in support of Abu-Jamal.

“He is innocent of all charges. He is a journalist … who simply wrote about what was going on in the movement and the way the system was attacking us,” Carter said.

Jordan Whelchel, of South Philadelphia, helped out with security for the rally and march.

“It’s more important now than ever to try to get him home,” Whelchel said of Abu-Jamal and the state of prisons during the pandemic. In this moment in America, he said, people are “starting to doubt that the state actually has the best interest of the people at heart.”

As faith in these institutions is disrupted, Whelchel said, he believes that it’s important to look back and realize that there have been people fighting for human rights for decades — a tradition that he thinks activists today can “tap into.”

Lee Patterson came from Baltimore to show his support for Abu-Jamal. He said the United States is not a “free country,” and that America is against human rights for all.

“This is the most wicked nation in the world, and people can see it all around the globe,” Patterson said.

Patterson said that at this moment in America, he is starting to see people turn the tide.

Rita Harper came north from Atlanta to support and document the movement to free Abu-Jamal, a case that she has been following for years now.

Rita Harper came north from Atlanta to support the Free Mumia movement.
Rita Harper came north from Atlanta to support the Free Mumia movement. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“We’re in an age now where America is trying to right its wrongs, but one of those first steps would be to release our leaders back into our communities,” Harper said.

She believes that we need to be aware of “HR friendly” changes like Black Instagram squares and push for real, concrete change.

Darleen Troutman with the People’s Organization for Progress, who came to the rally from New Jersey, said she has been following Abu-Jamal’s case since Day One.

She said was happy to see a very diverse crowd in support of Abu-Jamal, whom she believes should not be sitting in prison while he is ill without seeing his family.

“Power to the people. Keep it going,” Troutman said.

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