Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal: An Open Letter to the Organizers and Attendees of the 2019 Rebellious Lawyering Conference

Feb 1, 2019
10:32 am

We, a collective of law students, are writing to voice our total and vehement opposition to the invitation that the upcoming Rebellious Lawyer Conference at Yale (February 15/16, 2019) has extended to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Philadelphia’s so-called “progressive prosecutor” has challenged a court ruling that granted Mumia Abu-Jamal the right to re-appeal his conviction. Abu-Jamal is an award-winning radio journalist, former Black Panther, and political prisoner known as the Nelson Mandela of our time. Krasner’s recent actions have not been rebellious but instead have served the establishment and done its bidding. We demand that Krasner be held accountable and that conference organzers take a stand by disinviting Krasner. Krasner must immediately withdraw his Notice of Appeal opposing Mumia’s historic legal win.

In 1982, Abu-Jamal was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of a white police officer in Philadelphia. In 2011, after more than 28 torturous years on Death Row, the Supreme Court allowed to stand a lower court decision that declared unconstitutional the manner in which his death sentence was obtained. On that basis alone, Mumia Abu-Jamal should be freed. But he now serves a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a Pennsylvania prison.

The possibility of re-opening Mumia’s conviction had been dormant for many years. Intentional actions of former D.A.’s, a biased judiciary in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, unrelenting pressures from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have kept Mumia’s rights to appeal on deep freeze. They had him continuously marked for death. But a recent decision has opened up the possibility to bring our Brother Mumia home. How so?

On December 27, 2018, Judge Leon Tucker of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted Mumia the right to reargue all of his Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petitions before the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Judge Tucker found that Ronald Castille, a Philadelphia DA- turned-Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, violated Mumia’s constitutional right to due process by refusing to recuse himself from Mumia’s case when it was before him and his colleagues in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1998 and afterward. Castille reviewed and denied four of Abu-Jamal’s appeals. Castille sat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 1994 to 2014 and was Chief Justice of that court from 2008 until 2014. As former Philadelphia District Attorney (1986 to 1991), his office presided over Mumia’s direct appeals. Judge Tucker based his ruling, in part, on a letter signed by DA Ron Castille petitioning then-Governor Bob Casey to send “a clear and dramatic message to all cop killers that the death sentence means something.” With this statement and other evidence in hand, Judge Tucker concluded that Ron Castille’s conduct and refusal to recuse himself from this case violated the Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Conduct and the law that derives from these rules. In his summary, Judge Tucker explained that the legitimacy of the courts rests on judicial impartiality—the standard that “Justice must be completely just without even a hint of partiality, lack of integrity or impropriety.”

At the time that Mumia filed his appeal to the PA Supreme Court, Judge Ron Castille was named Man of the Year by the Fraternal Order of Police, the institution rabidly committed to Mumia’s execution. But judical bias and misconduct in Mumia’s case doesn’t stop there. The presiding judge in Mumia’s trial, Albert Sabo, is known as “the Hanging Judge.” During his judicial tenure, Albert Sabo sent more Black and Brown defendants to their deaths than any other judge in the country. Moreover, court stenographer Terry Maurer Carter overheard Albert Sabo say to another judge, “I’m going to help them fry the nigger,” referring to how he was going to instruct the jury in Mumia’s case.

This is the case that the so-called progressive Larry Krasner is hell-bent on keeping out of the appellate process. Larry Krasner was voted into office by the Black, working-class people of Philadelphia, but in the hour of truth he has upheld the rulings of racist judges and is doing the bidding of one of the country’s most corrupt and homicidal police forces.

Mumia has been warehoused since 1981 as a consequence of political persecution by prosecutors in the office now overseen by Krasner. Despite being targeted and framed because of his political worldview and associations, Mumia has continued to fight against white supremacy and for the rights of the oppressed. The world knows him as the voice of the voiceless.

Krasner has followed in the footsteps of his corrupt predecessors by filing notice, on January 25, 2019, that he will oppose Judge Tucker’s order.

What follows are demands of law students who take exception to Krasner’s invitation to RebLaw 2019, and who, unequivocally, support Mumia Abu-Jamal:

First, disinvite Krasner as a keynote speaker. He must drop the challenge to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal. Krasner is not welcome to keynote or otherwise lecture in any progressive space, and certainly cannot be assigned the moniker ‘rebellious lawyer,’ while he exercises his considerable power to support the prison industrial complex — the very system that he promised the people of Philadelphia he would work to dismantle. Opposition to Mumia’s appeal is not only out of step with the principles upon which Krasner built his campaign, it also ignores the way public officials deprived Mumia of due process rights because of his rebellious reporting on “white power” in Philadelphia, on city hall corruption, and against the persecution of the MOVE organization, a community of Black environmentalists. In the United States, there is a long history of police and prosecutorial persecution of Black bodies when those same bodies have resisted fiercely and fearlessly. Three years after Mumia’s 1982 conviction, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a military-grade bomb that destroyed 61 homes and burned down an entire Black, middle-class neighborhood.

An invitation for Krasner to speak at RebLaw is not only an endorsement of his appeal of Judge Tucker’s just ruling, it is also an endorsement of the racism deeply embedded in Mumia’s case, in Philadelphia, in the criminal legal system, and in prosecutorial power.

The only way in which a disinvitation of Krasner might be avoided is IF Krasner were to meet the following three conditions: (1) immediately renew the public opposition to the FOP that he had announced and begun during his campaign for the office of D.A. and which had called forth the votes of many among Philadelphia’s black working class who long had suffered from the FOP’s stranglehold over its communities; (2) Krasner must immediately withdraw his Notice of Appeal regarding Judge Tucker’s December 27, 2018, ruling on Mumia’s behalf, and begin immediate scrutiny of all the ways former D.A.s built their case against Mumia and grounds for withdrawing prosecution of Mumia and (3) announce forthrightly that he stands with the people of Philadelphia and in the nation who recognize the injustices done to Abu-Jamal, especially by an FOP that has lobbied tirelessly for Mumia’s death.

To be sure, Larry Krasner is not Lynne Abraham, and the FOP knows this. Abraham is the former occupant of Krasner’s office, previously identified by the New York Times as America’s Deadliest DA. The FOP and its supporters hate Krasner. As of November 2018, they’ve had a lawsuit pending against Krasner because he has moved against corrupt officers notorious for lying. Krasner has reduced the number of drug arrests and prosecutions, and has made similar reductions in arrests and prosecutions of sex workers. There are other admittedly “progressive” elements that do represent some break from the old guard “law and order” repression of previous D.A.’s. But —and this is crucial— Krasner will not be successful in sustaining any of these slight gains if he capitulates to the pressure of his office. Earlier this January, the head of Philadelphia FOP was on FOX News’ Tucker Carlson show lambasting Krasner. Krasner needs to find the backbone to stand up to all this on the case for Mumia, the FOP’s public enemy no. 1. If Krasner cannot do that, all of his “reforms” will eventually be for naught. A new era of repression will arise. D.A. Krasner must exhibit his commitment to rebellious lawyering by laying bare the structural limitations of his office. That includes standing up “for the people” who fight for Mumia, and against FOP repression in Philadelphia. Then, and only then, would Krasner have earned an invitation to a conference such as this.

Second, Reb Law should create space for rebellious lawyers, not prosecutors. Prosecutors, those managers of the oppressive state, regardless of the rhetoric they may espouse during a campaign, should not be invited to speak at a conference for Rebellious Lawyering. Doing so is antithetical to the meaning of Rebellious and completely undermines the liberation struggle of people impacted by the carceral state. Krasner’s presence, and that of other institutional elites, upholds the status quo of state-sanctioned violence by strenghthening the grip of the criminal and crimmigration legal systems on Communities of Color. A “rebellious lawyering” conference at an elite institution like Yale, with a session on “resisting hierarchy on the Left” and with elite keynote speakers like DA Larry Krasner, is not rebellious. RebLaw is giving credence to the liberal idea that prosecution can be “progressive”—prosecuting people and putting them in cages can never be progressive.

Progressive prosecutors make minimal rhetorical and procedural reforms in an effort to adapt and preserve an inherently oppressive system. The only rebellious prosecutor is the one who refuses to prosecute. There is nothing rebellious about being a prosecutor who maintains power in a system but exercises moderately improved discretion. Krasner and other progressive prosecutors are “progressive” until their votes are jeopardized. They are “progressive” until there is a question of violence — and that’s when they leave criminalized survivors of sexual, physical, and state violence to rot in prison cells. Come time for the next election, Philadelphia will be left where it started — with an elected official, with absolute immunity, and the power to cage Black, Indigenous, Brown, queer, trans, poor and otherwise oppressed bodies with consequence. Prosecutors like this do nothing to secure our collective liberation.

The refusal to prosecute and the support of efforts to fund transformative, reparative, anti-violent and non-carceral approaches to justice is rebellious.

Rebellious lawyering is never having access to a law school and still advocating for the most silenced and oppressed. Rebellious lawyering is standing up to police unions (in this case, the Fraternal Order of Police—the world’s largest union of its kind) and freeing people from cages wherever you can. Making space to discuss support and activism for Mumia, an actual rebellious jailhouse lawyer, and the rest of our incarcerated siblings is much more rebellious and liberatory than inviting prosecutors to RebLaw. Rebellious lawyering is defending those most marginalized by the criminal legal systems at all costs and not turning away when doing the right thing is unpopular with the Fraternal Order of Police lobby.

Third, Mumia should be the keynote speaker, an actual rebellious jailhouse lawyer. RebLaw should center the voices of the most impacted, not those with the most power over the most impacted. When it comes to paying speakers to speak about the criminal legal system, it has become more than absurd to extend invitations to folks who are not impacted by these systems when there are phenomenal organizers and legal workers pushing the movement for prison abolition and radical change on the front lines every day. More than that, it moves beyond absurd to the realm of insult to have this particular man, who is exercising tremendous power, speak, knowing that he is actively opposing the release of Mumia from human caging. We should use this space to pressure Krasner, not pay for his time if he’s receiving payment, and co-sign his endorsement of human caging and the mass criminalization of Black, Brown, Native, queer, and poor people. As such, we demand that the speaking position go to supporting someone who is fighting for Mumia’s freedom, the freedom of all people of color, and political prisoners, or giving space to Mumia himself, a rebellious jailhouse lawyer.

RebLaw claims to be a space for “social change movements” and purports to “challenge hierarchies of race, wealth, gender, and expertise within legal practice and education.” Indeed, in the 2019 Welcome Letter, the RebLaw Directors themselves state, “We believe in an approach to law and lawyering that draws its strength from the voices of activists, organizers, and community members, not one that imposes its own vision of progress from above.” Providing any District Attorney a platform in such a space not only grossly violates the mission laid out by the organization itself, but also severely frustrates the larger liberatory goal of deconstructing and abolishing the oppressive State. We extend an invitation to RebLaw planners to create a true social-change space in the conference.

The Directors of RebLaw and all of those in a position to act on our demands, as well as Krasner himself, have the platform to drastically change the landscape in the struggle to support Mumia Abu-Jamal and other, related, struggles. They have the platform to actually support shifting power from those who maintain the status quo and reinforce systems of oppression, back to the community. RebLaw asks its attendees to “imagine legal systems that liberate rather than oppress.” We ask that the organizers of this conference do the same.

Finally, we ask the following of all attendees of RebLaw 2019 who want to stand in solidarity with Mumia, political prisoners, and people impacted by the criminal legal systems: (1) Boycott Reblaw altogether by refusing to attend if Krasner is to speak and/or (2) organize a separate teach-in space at RebLaw in support of Mumia.

We, the undersigned, declare “Freedom for all political prisoners! Freedom for Mumia!” Please sign this petition to join us in urging the RebLaw conference organizers to meet these demands.

Mike Banerjee
anneke dunbar-gronke
Denise Ghartey
Felipe Hernández
Emanuel Powell

UPDATE, February 1, 5:08pmET: RebLaw has disinvited Krasner. Here is the letter Latino Rebels received: