By Abayomi Azikiwe
An historic conference entitled “Freedom for the Unjustly Incarcerated” was held on April 20 in the Midtown District of Detroit where MOVE organizer Pam Africa and the Rev. Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor spoke extensively on the plight of political prisoners and the criminal industrial complex in the United States.
The event took place at the Cass Commons located in the First Unitarian Universalist Church, which serves as a center for popular education and activism in the city.
Pam Africa arrived in Detroit from Philadelphia during the early morning hours of April 19 along with Razakhan Wali of Judicial Research, Inc., an organization which provides assistance to incarcerated people throughout the country. During the course of the day, both veteran organizers met with local activists working on issues involving the status of juvenile lifers in Michigan, environmental justice, police brutality, housing foreclosures, gentrification and the overall struggle against institutional racism and economic exploitation.
The activists who met with Africa and Wali included: Jeanetta Lewis of the Detroit People’s Task Force; Darryl Jordan of the Cass Commons; Kimberly A. Woodson of Redeeming Kimberly; Blair Anderson, former Black Panther Party member in Illinois; and Derek Grigsby, Mike Shane and Debra Simmons, all of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, co-sponsors of the events over the weekend.
The visit by the two guests from Philadelphia came on the heels of a major legal victory which has paved the way for an appeal hearing on the initial conviction of former Black Panther Party leader in Philadelphia, Mumia Abu-Jamal. The revolutionary writer and activist has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania since December 1981. Abu-Jamal was wrongfully convicted in the death of a white police officer in Philadelphia and was sentenced to death. He spent over 25 years on death row and was eventually given life without the possibility of parole in the aftermath of a major international campaign in his defense.
So-called “progressive” Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner had attempted to block the decision to grant Abu-Jamal an appeal, complicating the process which could have resulted in further unnecessary legal wrangling, stalling the potential release of Mumia, an award-winning journalist, radio commentator and supporter of the MOVE organization. Pam Africa has served as a principal organizer in the case since the 1980s, when the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal was formed.
Nonetheless, another global campaign was waged to demand that the prosecutors withdraw their motion to halt the appeal. Krasner finally bowed to the pressure of this campaign and withdrew his appeal. This occurred the same week in which Africa and Wali arrived in Detroit, adding to the momentum in the broader struggle to free Mumia and all political prisoners being held throughout the country.
The U.S. has the highest per capita imprisoned population in the world which is disproportionately African American and Latinx. Almost exclusively composed of the nationally oppressed, working class and the impoverished, the prison population of more than two million people has become a major source of profit and social containment of the most marginalized sectors of the country.
Conference demands freedom for political prisoners
Pam Africa began the April 20 program by giving a chronological history of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the movement to save his life. There were two death warrants signed against Abu-Jamal in 1995 and 1999. It would take a militant campaign spanning numerous continents to have the executions stayed by the Philadelphia courts.
As a result of similar pressure and legal actions, Abu-Jamal was removed from death row finally in 2011. He was sentenced to life without parole, which is unacceptable to his supporters. He has always maintained his innocence in the death of police officer Daniel Faulkner. The Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP) and other law enforcement groups have sought to have him executed and continue to fight his appeals, demanding that he continue to be detained in prison for life.
Africa noted that it was the power of the people which has kept him alive. In recent years, Abu-Jamal was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a liver ailment which could be fatal. A cure for the disease is available with a rate of effectiveness over 90 percent. Prison officials had refused to treat Abu-Jamal, necessitating his supporters to mount an international campaign and file legal actions which won him the right to medical care, along with many other inmates in the Pennsylvania penal system.
Other speakers included Rev. Edward Pinkney of Berrien County, located in the southwest region of the state of Michigan. Pinkney, a former political prisoner, was railroaded through the courts after being accused of changing five dates on recall petitions aimed at removing the mayor of Benton Harbor. Hundreds had signed the petitions due to the perception that the then-mayor was compliant with the policies of Whirlpool Corporation based in the city.
Pinkney was sentenced to two and a half to 10 years in the state prison system. After being incarcerated, he was subjected to harassment by correction officers and officials. Nationwide support in his defense was able to lift the harassment and win his release after 30 months in detention.
Later, on May 1, 2018, the Michigan Supreme Court in a unanimous decision acquitted Pinkney of all charges in the case, saying that there was no law in existence under which he was convicted in late 2014. At present, Pinkney is assisting the people of Benton Harbor, an overwhelming African-American municipality just emerging from emergency management.
The need to free juvenile lifers
A second panel during the conference was chaired by Elena Herrada, former member of the Detroit Board of Education and a radio host on 910am in Detroit. Herrada interviewed Pam Africa just one week prior to her visit to the city.
Herrada has highlighted the injustices imposed upon those convicted of serious crimes in their juvenile years. Her weekly radio program often features prisoners and advocates for the wrongly convicted.
Several recently-released juvenile lifers addressed the conference as well. Kimberly A. Woodson spent 29 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Since being released in 2017, she has married and given birth to a baby. Woodson is seeking resources to assist returning inmates who have spent many years behind bars.
Efren Paredes, Jr., another juvenile lifer still incarcerated for a conviction issued when he was a teenager, called into the conference from state prison. He is working tirelessly to bring about the enactment of a U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating the resentencing of those convicted of serious crimes as juveniles.
Since the release of Jose Burgos, another former juvenile lifer without parole, he has been recounting the circumstances under which he was imprisoned and spent over two decades in correctional institutions. He spoke to the audience about the years-long process of gaining his freedom just several months ago.
Jeanetta Lewis of the Detroit People’s Task Force (DPTF) read a moving essay about efforts to win the release of her son incarcerated in Michigan. Debra Simmons of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition spoke on the problems with the Highland Park Police Department in hiring and promoting officers implicated in illegal and unethical practices.
Another former prisoner who is out on bond pending appeal, Siwato-Salema Ra, was convicted in 2017 on a weapons charge even though she held a permit to carry a concealed weapon. She thanked members of the audience for the work done to win her release while she awaits another trial. Siwato gave birth while shackled in a state prison for women. Her case gained widespread support throughout the state.
Hush House Community Museum and Leadership Training Institute owners Charles and Sandra Simmons discussed the situation of their son, who is serving an extended sentence in prison in the state of California. The son called into the conference and reported on the conditions prevailing in the correctional facilities there.
Mandates from the conference
Participants agreed to work harder for the release of all political prisoners and juvenile lifers. A demonstration outside the Highland Park police headquarters on May 2 was endorsed by the gathering.
Moreover, the general theme was to link the struggle of the people fighting against injustice on the outside with those on the inside. Prisons are merely another form of exploitation and oppression designed to enhance the authority and profit-making capacity of the ruling class and will inevitably have to be abolished in the course of the transformation process in the U.S.