SL Sectarianism, the IBT & the LAC

On 5 July our comrade Jason Wright wrote to Workers Vanguard (WV—newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S. [SL]) to object to the depiction of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) as among those who are pushing for Mumia Abu-Jamal to be “re-tried” rather than freed immediately. In the 4 August issue of WV (No. 874) the editors announced that they would not be publishing letters from us because the IBT is not “a legitimate political opponent.” We replied on 1 September suggesting that the real reason “WV is not publishing our letters [is] because the political points we raise are too awkward to address.”

We were mildly surprised when the 15 September issue of WV contained a response by Spartacist spokesperson Miriam McDonald to the letter they had refused to publish. The SL presumably considers this very clever, but most people are likely to find it a bit odd.

McDonald begins by pointing out that the SL’s participation in the 15 September protest for Mumia in Oakland California, organized by the Labor Action Committee (LAC), demonstrates their willingness to participate in united-front actions. We are happy to hear this, although we recall that they have flipped back and forth several times on this question in the past. On this occasion however, the SL certainly made a serious effort to mobilize its supporters and was a real factor in the demonstration.

The axis of McDonald’s letter is the suggestion that we endorsed the “new trial” demand at the 12 May 2000 “Labor Conference for Mumia” organized by the LAC in Oakland. Mumia sent personal greetings to the conference, the largest and most representative union gathering held in his defense to date. The event was supported by a number of labor councils and drew over 100 participants from a variety of unions. Leonard Riley, representing the predominantly black dockers in Local 1422 of the International Longshore Association, traveled all the way from Charleston, South Carolina to participate. Riley described how the struggles of his local to beat back a union-busting attack, the fight to remove the racist Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, and the campaign for Mumia’s freedom are “all part of the same fight.”

Despite their repeated calls for mobilizing the labor movement on Mumia’s behalf, the SL leadership’s hostility to the conference was evident right from the start when they refused a request by Jack Heyman, an LAC member and member of the Executive Board of Local 10 of the International Warehouse and Longshore Union (ILWU), for the names of union officials who had publicly endorsed previous events organized for Mumia by the SL and its legal defense arm (the Partisan Defense Committee—PDC). The SL complained that the LAC was treating the list of public endorsers of Mumia’s campaign “as if it were a direct marketing mailing list for sale to the next shyster. We wouldn’t [provide the list] so they [the LAC] tried to slander the PDC as ‘sectarian’” (WV No. 740, 25 August 2000).

A week before the conference, WV denounced “the chains forged by the trade-union misleaders that have shackled the unions to the political parties and the state agencies of the enemy class” and said it was necessary:

“to expose those who cover for this class collaboration. For example, the ‘Labor Conference for Mumia’ to be held in Oakland on May 12 is endorsed by the Central Labor Councils of San Francisco and Alameda County and a range of union officials, including ILWU longshore union president Brian McWilliams. But their aim is not to mobilize the unions in a class-struggle fight to free Mumia, but rather to yoke the unions to the ox-cart of the Democratic Party liberals, echoing in their conference call: ‘Justice Demands that “The Evidence Must Be Heard”.’ You can’t mobilize labor strikes for Mumia’s freedom when you’re in bed with the politicians of the capitalists against whom those strikes would be directed.”
WV No. 735, 5 May 2000

The suggestion that demanding evidence of Mumia’s innocence be heard somehow amounts to getting in bed with capitalist politicians is grotesquely sectarian as well as absurd. It is all the more bizarre given the SL’s important role in unearthing much of the evidence that the courts are refusing to hear—in particular the confession of Arnold Beverly, the man who has admitted committing the crime that Mumia has been framed for. The outrageous refusal of the courts to admit Beverly’s testimony, as well as a great deal of other exculpatory evidence, is a powerful indictment of the racist capitalist legal system. What possible motivation could the SL have, besides blind factional malice, to attack a simple demand to “let the evidence be heard”?

A year earlier, in April 1999, WV dismissed the historic action of the ILWU in shutting down every port on the U.S. West Coast in solidarity with Mumia out of sectarian hostility to Heyman, the central initiator of the action. On 24 April 1999, the day the docks were shut, Heyman and a group of ILWU militants marched at the head of a demonstration of thousands in San Francisco protesting Mumia’s frame-up. The SL refused to participate, because they disagreed with a central slogan put forward by the demonstration’s organizers. We immediately challenged this sectarian abstentionism:

“The SL did not organize a contingent in either the San Francisco or Philadelphia ‘Millions for Mumia’ demonstrations on 24 April and it is clear that you opposed mobilizing the labor movement (or anyone else) for these events. The ostensible reason for this sectarianism is that you disagree with one of the main slogans of the rallies (i.e., for a ‘new trial’ for Mumia). You prefer the call to ‘Free Mumia!’ So do we. Nonetheless we do not see this as a reason to abstain from participating in national events that are many times larger than any rallies the SL/PDC has been able to organize. Of course we participate in these demonstrations with our own slogans, including the call to ‘Free Mumia!’”
“Disagreeable Sectarians,” 1917 No. 21, 1999

The SL leadership has since acknowledged its abstention from these actions as an error. But they have yet to correct their equally sectarian attitude toward the 2000 labor conference, which comrade McDonald seems to think she can use as a weapon against us.

The conference participants unanimously approved a motion by the LAC that “in the event that execution becomes imminent, we call on the AFL-CIO to organize open-ended strike action, to stop the execution and free Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Yet many of the delegates had illusions in the American justice system (and the Democratic Party) and believed that Mumia could obtain justice with a “new trial.”

McDonald’s polemic boils down to an assertion that the organizers of the conference, including the IBT, are politically responsible for every motion passed at it, including those we explicitly opposed. She claims that an account of the conference proceedings (written by LAC coordinator Chris Kinder but mistakenly attributed to IBT supporter Howard Keylor on the web site which posted it) shows “how the LAC sought to shamelessly lobby the racist, capitalist, pro-death-penalty Democratic Party.” In particular she focuses on a passage which describes an amendment to an LAC motion made by Bob Mandel, an idiosyncratic Bay Area reformist. WV characterized the motion as amended by Mandel as:

“begging delegates at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] to give their party—and the bourgeois state apparatus—a facelift by appointing a new DNC chairman. (This went a little too far for the IBT, which had supported an earlier motion just to ‘condemn Rendell’s appointment’—i.e., the IBT only wanted a facial.)”
WV No. 740, 25 August 2000

We did indeed oppose the amended motion, but, unlike the SL, we consider the original motion to have been completely principled. It read:

“WHEREAS Ed Rendell has been appointed the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and will play a leading role in the Democratic convention in LA in August 2000, and

“WHEREAS Ed Rendell was the Philadelphia District Attorney when Mumia was railroaded and has continued to play an active role in seeking his execution, most recently by having a member of his staff plant a false story about Mumia ‘confessing’ in Vanity Fair magazine, and

“WHEREAS Ed Rendell as DA also turned a blind-eye to the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from Philadelphia juries and helped plan and execute the aerial bombing of the MOVE house which resulted in the death of 11 people including women and children, and the burning of an entire Philadelphia city block, and

“WHEREAS Rendell’s ascension to power directly threatens Mumia’s life and is strongly reminiscent of the dominant role of Dixiecrat segregationists in the Democratic Party for decades prior to the Civil Rights movement and the historic Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge at the Democratic convention in 1964,

“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that this conference condemns Rendell’s appointment, and

“FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that delegates to this conference will take this motion back to their respective locals and internationals for discussion and approval.”

Rendell is a particularly odious individual who played a key role in the frame-up of Mumia. If the SL thinks that criticizing him and drawing attention to his racist record amounts to prettifying the Democrats, then perhaps they also think that those who criticized the Dixiecrats’ exclusion of blacks from the Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention were also mistaken. What about WV’s own condemnation of Ronald Reagan for traveling to Bitburg, Germany “to lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi mass murderers” (see “Reagan Salutes Nazis—From Hitler’s Death Camps to Contra Death Squads,” WV No. 378, 3 May 1985)—was this intended to give Reagan a “facial”?

The SL’s opposition to attacking Rendell is not motivated by principle, but rather by a mix of one part idiot sectarianism and three parts factional malice. In responding to the SL’s criticism at the time we clearly explained that while supporting the original LAC motion on Rendell (reprinted above), we took an entirely different view when Mandel:

“surprised other LAC members by proposing the following amendment to the motion on Rendell:

“‘FINALLY RESOLVED that all locals are urged to call on any of their members who are delegates to the Democratic National Convention to raise motions at the Convention calling for a new trial for Mumia and condemning Rendell’s appointment.’

“This amendment made the motion unsupportable and our comrade Howard Keylor was among the few who stood up to vote ‘No.’ Mandel, who was once somewhat less subject to pressure, is the sort of opportunist who claims to favor Mumia’s release rather than his re-trial, but imagines that the key to success lies in politically adapting to more backward elements.”

McDonald’s crude attempt to smear us with Mandel’s version of the motion—despite the fact that we had immediately and publicly repudiated it—is an example of the “dishonest and cowardly modus operandi” all too common among the more cynical elements of the Spartacist tendency today.

Posted: 04 October 2006