A Demonstration Against the Death Penalty at the Republican Convention

By the International Action Center

An Account of the August 1 Actions to "Shut Down the Prison- Industrial Complex, Free Mumia" at the Republican Convention

By Brian Becker

Thousands of youths poured into the streets of Philadelphia Aug. 1, surrounding the buses of Republican Convention delegates, blocking intersections and courageously holding their ground against heavily armed police.

"No justice, no peace, until Mumia is released" was a chant heard over and over as the youths tied up downtown Philadelphia in large and small actions starting at 3:30 p.m. and continuing through rush hour and well into the evening. By the end of the day 470 people had been arrested.

While it was the Republican National Convention that originally sparked the call for protests, it was clear that the police in Philadelphia had become a focus for demonstrators. It was easy to see why.

In an incident eerily reminiscent of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, cops were caught on videotape July 12 carrying out the lynch-mob-style beating of an unarmed Black man, Thomas Jones.

A few days later a cop gunned down Robert Brown, an emotionally unstable homeless man, in the middle of the Amtrack train station. His crime: he had raised a chair against police officers in the train terminal.

The police in Philadelphia framed-up death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1981, as they have hundreds of innocent African American and Latino prisoners who were only recently released after the web of police misconduct and wrongful arrests was exposed in court actions.

In the hours preceding the demonstration, police illegally raided the offices of the protest organizers, seizing puppets and literature and arresting 80 people. This was the same tactic the police employed on April 15 when they shut down the protest headquarters prior to the mass actions against the IMF and World Bank.

Police brutality was met with stiff resistance and determination on Aug. 1. The police had the guns and clubs. They violently attacked demonstrators, especially after the 6 p.m.-7 p.m. news hour had ended. But the youths fought back.

Two Philadelphias on display

Philadelphia was a city of contrasts that day. Inside the First Union Center was the assembled throng of Republican Convention delegates. Ninety-seven percent white, mostly rich, they represent the most right-wing, racist and anti-gay political sector in the United States.

Their swank, minutely scripted extravaganza ran as a free "infomercial" on all TV networks. The lavish convention banquets and parties were paid for by a generous gift of more than $28 million from Microsoft, General Motors, Lockheed-Boeing and other capitalist corporations and banks.

Outside, thousands of youths took to the streets carrying placards bearing the likeness of two death-row prisoners. One was Shaka Sankofa/Gary Graham, who Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush executed on June 22. The other was Mumia Abu-Jamal, who sits on Pennsylvania's death row awaiting execution. Across the placard was emblazoned the slogan, "Not one more lynching!"

Many organizations participated in civil disobedience, mass marches and other protest activities including: the Free Mumia Committee of NY, International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu Jamal, SLAM from NY, Direct Action Network (New York), Philadelphia Direct Action Group, Refuse and Resist, International Action Center, Workers World Party and others.

While anti-racist demonstrators "locked down" intersections at 16th St. and Vine, 12th St. and Market, 30th St. and Market, and in many other strategic locations, a march led by the International Action Center was joined by hundreds of militant youth chanting "Free Mumia, remember Shaka." As that demonstration grew in numbers and militancy it poured into the streets.

At one point the marchers surrounded a chartered bus as it was picking up Republican delegates at their hotel. Prevented from moving for more than 20 minutes by the throng of marchers, the delegates were confronted with George Bush and the Republican Party's ugly record of racism, toleration of KKK and other white supremacist organizations, executions and union busting.

Just blocks from the First Union Center, a delegation organized by the IAC was arrested while carrying a huge six-foot-wide sign with Sankofa's picture. Eight IAC members were arrested.

"George Bush is guilty of the murder of Shaka Sankofa, an innocent Black man," stated Larry Holmes, an IAC leader who was arrested. "We will not let the memory of Shaka fade away. Bush is a racist murderer. The death penalty is an extension of lynch-law justice in the USA. We will remember Shaka as we fight to free our brother, Mumia Abu-Jamal."

Mike Africa, Jr., of the MOVE organization was also arrested at the demonstration. While some demonstrators were engaged in civil disobedience, a large number were arrested when they were victimized by police attacks and sweeps. Africa was not carrying out civil disobedience.

"Mike Africa's arrest shows a pattern of harassment ... to intimidate MOVE members," stated a MOVE Organization press release. Africa's parents were both imprisoned in a police action against the organization in 1978. On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the MOVE house, killing 5 adults and four children in a blaze that wiped out an entire African American neighborhood.

Next stop: Democratic Convention

While the convention has been a closely orchestrated event to give the Republican Party a warm and fuzzy "compassionate" makeover, the event has been exposed by demonstrators in the streets as a festival of corporate vultures who profit from prison labor while celebrating an institution of terror that is reserved exclusively for poor people: U.S. death row, where nearly 4,000 people await their execution.

George Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is a fig leaf for the racist and anti-worker program that he represents. Texas has more poor people than any other state. It is a "right to work" state, which makes it illegal to have a union shop in the factories, offices and fields. The labor movement dubs this the "right to work for less."

And George Bush has distinguished himself as a cold-blooded executioner. He killed Shaka Sankofa, even though so much evidence pointed to his innocence, because he wanted to show that the Texas Death Machine is infallible. He has killed 138 prisoners so far, more than any other governor in U.S. history.

As bad as the Republicans are, the Democratic Party does not represent any authentic progressive alternative. Both are parties that represent big business and capitalism. The same corporations that fill the coffers of the Republican Party make the same or similar contributions to the Democrats. While they have some tactical differences on domestic and foreign policy, both parties have supported and maintained the blockade of Cuba, the 1991 Iraq war and ten years of genocidal sanctions that have followed, and the war against Yugoslavia.

Both Democrat Al Gore and Bush promote the death penalty.

It was under the Clinton/Gore administration that death-row prisoners lost most of their rights of appeal. Shaka Sankofa would not have been executed on June 22 except for Clinton's signing of the so-called Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

Clinton adopted most of Newt Gingrich's Contract on America. He eliminated welfare rights for seven million children. He strengthened anti-gay bigotry in the military with his notorious "don't ask, don't tell" policy after initially promising lesbian, gay, bi and trans people that he would outlaw discrimination.

Clinton promoted HMOs and the profit margins of insurers, thus abandoning his pledge to provide health care for all people. After eight years the number of people who can't go to the doctor has increased from 42 million to 44 million. Instead of providing universal health care, Clinton spent billions on Star Wars and National Missile Defense schemes, plus billions on prison construction and the hiring of 100,000 more police.

So the new movement that filled the streets of Philadelphia demanding freedom for Abu-Jamal, an end to the death penalty and shutting down the prison-industrial complex will move next to Los Angeles, the site of the Democratic Convention.

This is the right thing to do. Progressive change occurs only because of struggle and militant mass action. That's the real lesson of the vast changes that came from the 1960s and 1970s. The movement must be politically independent of the capitalist parties.

Without losing an ounce of its militancy, the struggle must broaden to draw in larger segments of the working class, especially the lowest-paid workers and youths.

International Action Center
National Peoples Campaign/Millions for Mumia
39 West 14th Street, #206
New York, NY 10011
212 633-6646 212 633-2889 FAX
email: iacenter@iacenter.org
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