Who would demonstrate on a day like this? Weatherwise it was the nastiest day of the year. Berlin had been covered in snow for a week but on Saturday it thawed, the snow turned to slush and water, flooding sidewalks so that almost every step landed in a puddle, with more rain coming down to add to the mess. But weeks, even months of planning and effort had gone into just this date for a march demanding freedom, or at least a fair trial, for Mumia Abu-Jamal. He had been arrested an incredible 29 years ago, years spent almost entirely in a tiny cell separated by a glass partition from even his wife, children, and grandchild. Only his wonderful, vibrant voice had occasionally broken through this barrier, and his writings, too, regular commentaries and several entire books. His spirit has not been broken, which is why he is so hated — and so feared — by his many enemies.
Anyone who took part today had to be full of deep conviction: Mumia had not killed the police officer Daniel Faulkner back in 1981! The legal details in far-off Pennsylvania were hard to keep up with; had it really come down to a choice for three judges between death by poison or life in prison without parole? The facts had long since been put on the table, by Amnesty International, by detailed books, by a handful of moving documentary films. The jury members were hand-picked to be largely white and prejudiced; the alleged witnesses, under severe pressure by the police, using threats and promises, had constantly contradicted themselves; the judge was a notorious specialist in sending African-Americans to their death; the original court-appointed defense lawyer had done no research and not put up a fight; and the prosecutor and judge had illegally misled the jury. And there had never been a second trial to disprove the lies. New evidence had shown that, of the five bullets allegedly fired by Mumia according to the witnesses, only one was in the policeman’s body, no others were ever found, and it could not have been fired in that direction by the severely injured Mumia.
The involved legal struggle, which was not easy to follow, was additionally complicated by recent questions concerning Mumia’s legal team and who was to head it. Such questions could only be ironed out in Pennsylvania. For the German supporters, the key question was to save Mumia’s life and get out the facts which would achieve his freedom. This was the basis for meetings in towns and cities all over Germany, where the films were seen, the case discussed, and money collected to pay defense costs.
But who would defy the weather? It would be good to say it was a huge crowd. It wasn’t. “You need a life jacket to go out today!” one fellow said. But at the starting point in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, its most international, especially Turkish neighborhood, the first small handful gradually grew, greeting other faithful old-timers who have joined in for years, welcoming newcomers like the three fellows from Cameroun, and then set off through town, about 200 in number. Not what had been hoped for, but somehow an enthusiastic group all the same, with banners of diverse groups and parties, also calling for freedom for Leonard Peltier, the “Cuban Five,” and others, and stressing the demand to outlaw death sentences everywhere.
Through Kreuzberg and then into downtown areas they walked, using the somewhat drier roadways rather than the sidewalks, preceded and followed by the usual police vehicles, but with their own loudspeaker explaining things to passers-by. Down the famous Unter den Linden boulevard, its trees outlined with colorful Christmas lighting, past umbrella-carrying shoppers and tourists till they reached the US Embassy next to the famous Brandenburg Gate. The police enforced a certain distance, but the people in the embassy certainly got the message. They also got a written message pointing out that cities like Nuremberg and Munich have called for a new trial for Mumia, and so has a huge majority of almost all parties in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Will it help? It must help a little. That’s what the brave two hundred felt, and not one who took part was heard to regret defying the weather. The most common question was: What can we do the next time?
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).