The Power Structure and the
Railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal
Revolutionary Worker #1064, July 30, 2000
Philadelphia is called the City of Brotherly Love. But like other cities across the country, the power structure, their political agents and their enforcers have no love for the poor and the oppressed. And they deeply hate those like political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal who take a revolutionary stand for the people.
Several current and past figures with high-level positions in the Philadelphia government hold three things in common: They all rose to their positions of power by supporting and directing the thuggery of the Philadelphia police department. They have all taken part in the framing of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and in the war on the MOVE organization*. And they were all products of the Rizzo era.
The Rizzo Years
Frank Rizzo was the nation’s “super cop” in the repression of the Black Liberation Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He first made a name for himself when, as deputy police commissioner, he “put down” one of the first Black urban rebellions in 1964. By 1967 Rizzo was the police commissioner and sent cops with clubs swinging into a demonstration of Black high school students demanding courses in Black history. These actions earned him the praise of President Richard Nixon. “As I see it,” Nixon said, “other cities could use Rizzo’s ideas.”
Rizzo’s “ideas” were not exactly new. They have been used everywhere that occupying armies hold down oppressed people. In 1970 Rizzo understood well what was expected of him by the national authorities when he launched raids on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party. He forced captured Panthers to strip naked and line up against a wall for news photographers. Rizzo had declared “open season” on Black radicals.
Based on this record, Philadelphia’s establishment tapped him for mayor in 1972, the same year that MOVE was founded. Rizzo was now big time—“the cop who would be king,” as one biographer tagged him. Clustered around Rizzo was a team of prosecutors who shared his views on “crime in the streets,” which was the 1970s code word for “Black.”
This team consisted of people like Ed Rendell, Ron Castille, and Lynne Abraham. All three were homicide prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office. The DA’s homicide division worked hand-in-glove with the homicide division of the Philadelphia police department. The police homicide division was notorious for the mistreatment, even torture, of suspects, some of whom mysteriously died in custody. Homicide prosecutors like Rendell, Castille, and Abraham worked with this unit on a daily basis and were skilled at looking the other way when police misconduct occurred—as it did almost daily.
The Philadelphia police department is the only major police department in the United States to be investigated for corruption by the U.S. Justice Department (although the records of this investigation remain sealed). But the Philadelphia DA’s office regularly blew off exposures of bribe taking, perjury, and brutality as “unproven charges,” as with the 39th Precinct scandal several years ago in which dozens of people were sent to prison on the basis of fake evidence and false testimony by police.
The key member of the Killer Elite is Ed Rendell, who became the District Attorney in 1977. In this capacity Rendell reviewed and approved all major prosecutions, while protecting Philly’s cops. For Rendell, more jails were the solution to all social problems. He once complained that the juvenile detention facilities “are only 80 percent full when they should be 160 percent full.”
In 1977 Mayor Rizzo set up a blockade of the MOVE house in Powelton Village to starve out its residents. This quickly became an international embarrassment to the United States. Under pressure from the federal government, it was DA Ed Rendell who entered into an agreement to end the 1978 police starvation blockade of MOVE, by settling all the trumped-up charges brought against MOVE. But Rendell then reneged on the agreement, and the courts soon issued arrest warrants for virtually every MOVE member.
On August 8, 1978 the police launched an all-out assault on the Powelton Village MOVE house. Police opened fire on the house, and MOVE members barricaded in the basement were flooded out with fire hoses. Then, as the TV cameras rolled, cops stomped and kicked Delbert Africa as he lay on the ground. After this brutal attack, Rendell appeared at a “victory” press conference with Mayor Rizzo. At this press conference, a young Black journalist named Mumia Abu-Jamal dared to challenge Rizzo and the Philadelphia police, Rizzo responded with a threat: “They believe what you write, and what you say, and it’s got to stop. And one day, and I hope it’s in my career, that you’re going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do.” Rendell was standing right next to Rizzo at that moment.
It was Rendell’s office who then brought the prosecution of the survivors of the attack. The MOVE 9, as they became known, were charged in the death of a police officer shot (most likely by other cops) during the wild police firing on the MOVE house. The nine were subsequently sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison each, despite the fact that the trial judge admitted in public that he had no idea who fired the shot that killed the cop.
It was this same Ed Rendell who approved and oversaw the prosecution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. On December 9, 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal was driving his cab on a downtown Philadelphia street. He saw a cop beating his brother with a metal flashlight and he rushed to the scene. There was a confrontation, and when the smoke cleared Mumia was lying in a pool of blood, shot in the chest. Nearby, Philadelphia cop Daniel Faulkner lay dying from bullet wounds. Mumia was charged for the murder of Faulkner—and has not spent a day free since.
Rendell knew well of Mumia’s radio journalism, his exposures of police brutality, his coverage of the MOVE 9 trial, and his background in the Black Panther Party. He also knew the nature of the police department and was fully aware of the absurdity of key aspects of the case, such as the claim, months after the fact, that Mumia had “confessed.” Yet he pushed ahead with the case. Rendell has publicly upheld his role in seeking the death penalty for Mumia. Speaking to a police rally in 1995, he said, “The actions in this case dictated the death penalty.”
Ed Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to January 2000. Today he is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee—one of the top posts in the Democratic Party in this election year.
Another member of the Killer Elite is Ron Castille. In 1985 when Rendell quit his job as District Attorney to run unsuccessfully for governor, he was replaced as DA by Castille. From his earliest days in the DA’s office, Castille had developed a reputation as a “cowboy” and on several occasions pulled his gun on people in the course of arguments.
It was Castille who produced the official investigation and whitewash of the horrific 1985 bombing of the MOVE house in which six adults and five children were killed and 60 homes burned down. Castille quickly impaneled a grand jury, then withheld from them a key and damning report by an independent team of forensic experts. Not a single police or fire official was indicted. (A jury found the city guilty in a subsequent federal civil suit.) In fact, the only person prosecuted by Castille out of the whole affair was Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the bombing.
Today, Castille sits on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Despite his obvious bias and personal interest in Mumia’s case, Castille refused to step down from the court’s ruling on Mumia’s appeal. In October 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously turned down Mumia’s appeal.
Castille also has strong ties with the Fraternal Order of Police, which has led the public campaign for Mumia’s execution. In 1986 FOP Lodge No. 6 named Castille its “Man of the Year.” In 1989 the FOP provided support for Castille’s re-election as DA. In 1993 the FOP endorsed Castille in his campaign for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Finally, a major aspect of Mumia’s legal battle for a new trial is the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, that is, the suppression and fabrication of evidence by the same District Attorney’s office that Castille used to head. Can anyone believe that Castille was “impartial” when he and his fellow Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices ruled on Mumia’s appeal?
The third and most infamous member of the Killer Elite is Lynne Abraham, the current District Attorney. Abraham is today internationally known as “the queen of death” for her outspoken advocacy of the death penalty, and for the fact that her office routinely demands the death penalty in every possible case. Working her way up as a homicide prosecutor in the DA’s office, she reveled in wearing a gun, eating doughnuts, and shmoozing with cops.
In 1972 she was tapped by Rizzo to head the city’s Redevelopment Authority. Introducing her to the press, Rizzo described Abraham as “one tough cookie.” In 1975 she was elected a judge, and in 1983 she joined Judge Albert Sabo as one of the select group of judges in the Court of Common Pleas who hear only homicide cases. It was like a dream come true for her—now she could actually pronounce death sentences. (Sabo came to be known as the “hanging judge” because he presided over so many death sentence trials—including Mumia’s.) But then in 1991, Ron Castille stepped down as DA to launch an unsuccessful race against Rendell for Mayor. In May of 1991 Abraham was appointed DA in his place.
As DA, Abraham has led the nation in restoring the death penalty that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, then allowed back under new restrictions in 1976. Over half of the death-row inmates in Pennsylvania today come from one city—Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love—and 80 percent of these are Black. This is the work of Rendell, Castille, and Abraham.
In fact, 85 percent of those sent to prison from Philadelphia are Black. Asked if she thinks that Black people actually commit 85 percent of the crimes in Philadelphia, Abraham said, “Yes, I really do.” Yet what the statistics actually show is that Philadelphia is 40 percent Black, while 64 percent of those arrested are Black and 85 percent of those sent to prison are Black, which strongly suggests a prosecutorial bias against Blacks.
At the same time, Abraham’s office has for years turned a blind eye to both police corruption and fraudulent prosecutions. The result is that in the 39th Precinct scandal, hundreds of cases were overturned and dozens of people released from prison because of police frame-ups and faked evidence introduced by police and prosecutors. Abraham has presided over a “police culture” in which it is assumed that the cops know who the “bad guys” are, so if they cook the evidence a little to get a conviction, then that is a public service.
As one might expect, Abraham’s career has been closely connected with the war on MOVE and the framing of Mumia. It was Judge Abraham who signed arrest warrants for MOVE members in both 1977 and 1985, setting the stage for both police assaults on the MOVE houses. Then a few days after he was shot by Officer Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal was arraigned in his hospital room on murder charges. The judge who made the trip to the hospital to get the railroad rolling was none other than Judge Lynne Abraham.
If Rizzo’s spirit lives on among Philadelphia’s elite, the spirit of the Black Panthers and the people’s movements of the ’60s lives on among the people. In their campaign to railroad Mumia Abu-Jamal into the death chamber, Philly’s Killer Elite have brought into being an international movement that unites people of all nationalities and backgrounds behind a common demand for justice. FREE MUMIA!
This article was based largely on an article by C. Clark Kissinger, contributing writer to the
RW, titled “Philly’s Killer Elite.”
*MOVE is an organization of mainly Black radical utopians. MOVE members refuse to respect the U.S. and its prevailing values, openly defy official power, and speak out against this system, which they consider utterly corrupt and destructive of life on this planet.
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