On May 1, 1886, the American Federation of Labor organized militant actions demanding the right of all workers to an eight-hour workday. On that day, workers walked off their jobs and withheld their labor from being exploited by the bosses.
As Martha Grevatt, a WW managing editor and retired Chrysler autoworker, wrote in WW: “About a quarter of a million took part in many cities, but Chicago, with its militant, left-wing labor movement, had the largest demonstration. There, tens of thousands laid down their tools, and women and men poured into the streets. The demonstrations continued past May 1, and on May 3 police attacked and six workers were killed.
“The next day a protest over the killings was held in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown, a policeman was killed, and a struggle broke out that left seven police and four workers dead. Eight workers’ leaders were convicted of murder, five of them sentenced to death. Four were hanged and one reportedly committed suicide. The other three were eventually pardoned.” (workers.org/2015/04/19516/)
Those eight became known as the Haymarket Martyrs – August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe. These martyrs could also be referred to today as political prisoners – persecuted for their radical, leftwing beliefs as labor organizers and anarchists.
Since that first May Day, we reflect on the many working class radicals over the last 136 years whose dedication to revolution was so unshakeable, their ideas and activities so threatening to the capitalist order, that our class enemy could not permit them to live. On this May 1st, we acknowledge that the greatest way to honor their legacy is to liberate those freedom fighters still in the enemy’s custody, living each day in defiance.
The work of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Workers World Party is to make it understood, on both sides of the walls, that prisons are concentration camps for the poor and the oppressed. These places are filled disproportionately with Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and people with mental illness and disabilities because that is who the capitalist ruling class considers to be dangerous and disposable. In such a system, all prisoners are political prisoners because the vast majority of them belong to a global working class.
Mumia Abu-Jamal: “voice of the voiceless”
And for over 40 years, the voice that resonated most clearly from the depths of the prison system was that of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal.
As Workers World First Secretary Larry Holmes said in remarks from a March 18, 2021, livestream event, “The struggle to free Mumia is in one way or another linked to consciousness about all the other political prisoners, because of his unique status as an international political prisoner in the struggle against white supremacy, racism, capitalism and imperialism in this country. This is how he’s known all around the world.
“A little more than 20 years ago, I was privileged to share the stage with the late Ossie Davis, the actor, along with his partner, Ruby Dee. Ossie Davis told a large crowd of thousands of people in Madison Square Garden Theater in May of 2000, the millennium, that it was the mission of the next generation of young radicals to free Mumia. A lot of those young people he was speaking to then are now middle age.
“Mumia may be more renowned because he is a political prisoner, because of the circumstances around being framed up and the fact that they did it because they were afraid of him, and they wanted to silence him.
“But Mumia’s more than a political prisoner. To know Mumia, to have read not all of his works, but even just a few of them, is to have insight into his revolutionary brilliance, his intellectual insight. He’s a Black working-class, revolutionary intellectual. Mumia is a Black leader. He’s a bona fide global Black leader. I look at this from the point of view of history.”
A new generation of Black radical leadership has ushered in a new phase of the struggle to free Mumia, a campaign called #LoveNotPhear that puts a renewed emphasis on reconnecting Philadelphia’s Black community to this city’s own native son.
Meanwhile, international human rights activists like Julia Wright, daughter of acclaimed novelist Richard Wright, reminds us in a public letter that one of the reasons Mumia is the most internationally recognized political prisoner of the era is due to his own passionate internationalism:
“Never forget that Mumia Abu-Jamal has bestowed on us that honor: We are global freedom-fighters. Never forget that Mumia, alongside many others in the Black Panther Party, took the struggle for freedom to the international level.
“Never forget that on that account, freedom fighters from the world over have adopted him as the ‘voice of the voiceless.’ And that they stand ready today to place their newly found voices at his service as political character witnesses.
“The effort to free political prisoners like Mumia must be international because, from the time of the transatlantic slave trade, the U.S. carceral apparatus itself was not confined to any recognized borders.”
“Prisons are used to eliminate the leaders of Indigenous resistance. Sitting Bull, the great 19th century Hunkpapa Lakota leader, was a U.S. political prisoner from 1881 to 1883 and was assassinated in 1890 during an attempt to rearrest him. The Oglala Lakota freedom fighter Crazy Horse was murdered by his jailers in 1877 at a concentration camp in what is now Nebraska. Chiricahua Apache resistance leader Geronimo died as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1909.” (WW 10/13/21)
Why we must free them all
Author and CUNY professor Dr. Johanna Fernandez connects this legacy of white supremacist political repression of African and Indigenous leaders to the immigrant labor and political activists targeted by the state. She told WW, “In the late 19th century, labor activists who were identified as part of the Haymarket Affair were rounded up by the police, accused of crimes they did not commit and sentenced to death. In the early 20th century, Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists, were executed by the state. In the 1950s, the Rosenbergs who were communists were executed by the state. And in the post-Civil Rights Movement era, Mumia became the figure that the state wanted to make an example of to send a message to those who dare resist authority, resist the state, resist capitalism, resist Empire — that this is what will happen to you.
“So when you ask the question, ‘Why do we need to be with Mumia?’ it’s because if we allow the state to get away with murder in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, we’re giving the state license to do the same with people who dare stand up for justice today.”
The question has only become more urgent since the advent of Black Lives Matter and the movement for environmental justice predicated on Indigenous sovereignty represented by AIM leader and political prisoner, Leonard Peltier.
Community leaders like Anthony Smith in Philadelphia, Dakota Access Pipeline protesters like Red Fawn Fallis and Jessica Reznicek, and countless other organizers and activists now constitute a new generation of U.S. political prisoners. Young whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale have been viciously prosecuted for revealing hard proof of the war crimes committed by the U.S. military in its imperial adventures abroad.
Larry Holmes urges us to remember that Mumia Abu-Jamal has been imprisoned for longer than many of these next generation political prisoners have been alive:
“Look at it this way. How can we possibly free these comrades, if we cannot free Mumia now, when his life is at risk behind those bars?”
For over 40 years now, the U.S. has been spending an unimaginable amount of effort and resources to fight back against the tide of people power demanding the liberation of Mumia Abu-Jamal. This is in itself proof that the ruling class believes his release would be a transformative moment in the struggle against mass incarceration, white supremacy, and capitalism. It would signify a bursting of the dam, unleashing a cascade of working class power. And from the confines of this vast network of dungeons, a millions-strong army of the working class will emerge to usher humanity into the next phase of its history.
The legacy of May Day is the ongoing fight for a world without capitalism under workers’ control.
To build a workers’ world, we must abolish prisons to free them all.
The writer is co-chair of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee. Monica Moorehead contributed to this article.