The RW Interview
Fighting the Frame-Up--
From the Rosenbergs to Mumia
Revolutionary Worker #1022, September 19, 1999
Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. He is a signatory of the call for the September 19-25 Mumia Awareness Week. Meeropol has been active in the struggle to stop Mumia Abu-Jamal's execution since the early '90s and has spoken across the country about his parents' execution, Mumia's case and against the death penalty. He has also helped raise funds for Mumia's legal defense.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were political prisoners who were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, framed-up, and executed on June 19, 1953. Conservative forces persecuted Robert and his brother Michael after their parents were murdered by attempting to have them institutionalized. The two brothers were eventually adopted and raised by Anne and Abel Meeropol, supporters of the Rosenbergs.
In the 1970s, the brothers decided to try and reopen their parents' case. Using the Freedom of Information Act they sued many government agencies to obtain secret files. The files they received offer irrefutable proof that the government does indeed harass, target, frame up and execute political opponents. The similarities between the Rosenberg case and Mumia's are striking--a judge who worked with the prosecution to convict the defendants and influence the appeals process, threats and coercion used to get people to fabricate stories or change their eyewitness accounts; the suppression of evidence; the use of jailhouse snitches; an attempt by the authorities and the media to create an atmosphere where people would be afraid to step forward to stop the execution. The government succeeded in murdering Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Robert gave his time to do this interview in the hope it will contribute to the struggle to stop them from executing Mumia. Robert said, "We've got to do everything we can to win this fight. And I think it is winnable."
RW: Your parents were executed for their political beliefs. Could you tell our readers how this happened?
RM: My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were members of the American Communist Party and they were arrested in the summer of 1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. More particularly, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb and give it to the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2. There was no evidence presented at trial that they were directly involved in the transmission of anything to the Soviet Union. Testimony came from alleged co-conspirators, that is, people facing prison sentences or even the death penalty who agreed as part of a government deal to say my parents were involved with these other people.
RW: You've uncovered evidence that shows your parents were framed- up--what government agencies were involved in this?
RM: Back in the 1970s, we sued under the newly strengthened Freedom of Information Act. We asked for the files of the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, Army intelligence, the State Department, etc. I think we asked for information from 17 different agencies and we got information from all of them. This whole effort sort of went across-the-board of the government bureaucracy. We got a lot of previously secret documents. And what did these previously secret documents show? They demonstrated that my parents did not get a fair trial--that the trial judge was in secret communication with the prosecutors before, during and after the trial; that the trial judge, according to FBI documents, had actually agreed to give a death penalty to at least my father and possibly to both of my parents before the defense even began to present its case; and that the trial judge interfered with the appeals process and kept the FBI informed of developments during the appeals process and was actually pushing for a rapid execution even when he was sitting on further appeals in the case.
The chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass and Harry Gold, all changed their stories. In their initial statements, for instance, David Greenglass said Ethel Rosenberg wasn't involved in anything. Then during the trial he testified that Ethel Rosenberg was present during their meetings and typed up the minutes to their meetings. We also have files showing that a few weeks before the trial the prosecuting attorneys, in briefing some of the Congressmen who were involved with the Atomic Energy Commission, stated that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was virtually non-existent but they had to develop a case against her in order to get a stiff prison sentence--to convince my father to cooperate. And then a few days later David and Ruth Greenglass gave the new statements that she typed up the minutes--and then that became the evidence that led to her conviction.
In 1995 they released the "Venona transcriptions," what the government claimed was decrypted intercepted secret Soviet electronic transmissions from New York to Moscow. The spy they claim was my father, who is only mentioned by code name, was not involved in atomic espionage. He was involved in military-industrial espionage. It specifically says in these transmissions that this person, "Ethel," didn't work for the Soviet Union as a spy. Given that I can't disprove the Venona transcriptions, I actually try to ask and answer the question, what if they're true? Well, if they're true, then the government of the United States tried, convicted and executed two people for a crime they did not commit.
RW: Why do you think the government was so determined to execute your parents?
RM: My parents were unknown. They were just two poor people, members of the Communist Party living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then they got arrested and charged with being master atomic spies. When my father refused to name other people, then they arrested my mother to get him to name other people. As the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case grew and as the defense that my parents mounted through their letters grew, articulating the fact that it was all based on phony government frame-ups, they became more and more dangerous. General Lesley Groves, who was the military general in charge of the production of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico--where my parents supposedly engineered the stealing of the secret of the atomic bomb--said he believed that the information that went out in the Rosenberg case was of minor value but he'd never want anybody to say that because he felt in the greater scheme of things that the Rosenbergs deserved to hang.
RW: What happened to you and your brother Michael after your parents were executed?
RM: First my father was arrested and then we lived with my mother for a few weeks and then she went to testify before the grand jury that was still investigating. She left us with a babysitter and she didn't come home. She was arrested when she was done with her testimony and except for prison visits we never saw either of our parents again. The baby-sitter didn't know what to do with us. She took us a few blocks away to Tessie Greenglass' house, my mother's mother. We learned from FBI files that Tessie Greenglass was working with the FBI to get her daughter, Ethel Rosenberg, to back the story of her son, David Greenglass (Ethel's brother).
See, the FBI came to my parents very soon after the arrest and said, essentially, talk or die. They said think about what will happen to your children if you don't talk--and if you talk, Julius, you'll have a prison term and Ethel, you'll be released and you can take care of the kids. Well, they offered the same deal to David and Ruth Greenglass, who also had two kids, and they took the deal. So Greenglass got a prison sentence and Ruth was never indicted and never spent a day in jail even though she swore she helped steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Quite a contrast with my mother. So, Tessie Greenglass, David's mother, was trying to get my mother to desert her husband and back her brother's story. And the FBI documents reveal they hatched a very simple plan. Tessie told her daughter in prison--back David's story and if you do, you can be released and take care of the kids. When my mother refused, my grandmother then said well I can't take care of the kids. I can't handle them. I'm going to dump them in a shelter. And when my mother still refused, she carried out her threat. So we were then dumped in a shelter in the Bronx.
There were so many people who put themselves on the line to save me when I was a kid that I grew up with the most abiding respect for anybody who would take a chance in order to make this society a better place for all of us. So I grew up sort of as a child of the movement and it was no accident that I got involved first in civil rights and then anti-war stuff and then ultimately SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in college.
RW: You've published letters your parents wrote to you from prison. Is there anything about them you could share with us?
RM: My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. They wrote that they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. And I think that has multiple meanings. I think it meant, on a personal level to me and my brother, that other people would take care of us after they were no longer able to do so. But I also think it meant on the political level their political beliefs, the principles that they stood up for, their refusal to lie, their refusal to be pawns of the McCarthyite hysteria, in other words their refusal to be used to attack the movements that they believed in--that even though they were no longer able to carry on those struggles, others would be able to carry them on their absence. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same. And in some ways I've dedicated my life to carrying on in their absence. The Rosenberg Fund for Children is my effort to justify that trust.
The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a public foundation that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities. What that actually means is that we find people today in this country who are suffering the same kind of attacks that my parents suffered and if they have children we provide the kind of assistance that my brother and I were provided with. We connect them with progressive institutions so the kids can be raised in a supportive environment.
Some of them are the children of political prisoners, whether they be Puerto Rican nationalists, whether they be ex-Black Panthers, whether they be white revolutionaries, whether they be people who have fought against racial discrimination or sexual harassment on the job and been fired, whether they be activists who have been bombed, maimed, killed in the course of their activism. There are people like this all over the country who have either been attacked by government forces of repression or right-wing non-governmental oppression or what I call corporate harassment by corporations trying to fight against their progressive work. We just had our ninth anniversary. We gave away $100,000 to help slightly over 100 children in 1998. We've really been growing by leaps and bounds. The demands upon us have been increasing and we'll probably give away $150,000 this year.
RW: I read in a newspaper story that while you were in Philadelphia in the 1970s you met Mumia and he asked you whether what happened to your parents could happen again.
RM: Well, yes, that's true. Between 1975 and 1979 I was working full-time to reopen my parents' case. And one time when I was in Philadelphia there was a progressive radio talk show host who offered me an hour of his program, a very young Black man, and he interviewed me for an hour. And it really wasn't so much an interview in the sense that since we both came from similar perspectives we were both just discussing issues surrounding the Rosenberg case, police brutality, government secrecy, all these questions. And it was only natural for the question to come up at the end of the hour--well, did I think something like the Rosenberg case could happen again? And we both agreed that it could. It didn't dawn on me until I got involved in 1993 and 1994 in Mumia's case that this was the guy who interviewed me. And then suddenly I remembered with such clarity him asking that question. To the best of my knowledge Mumia is the first political prisoner in this country since my parents to face execution.
RW: Can you talk about some of the parallels you see between your parents' case and Mumia's?
RM: You look at my parents' case and you say here we have the people who the government wants to demonize--communists, charged with doing the thing that is supposed to frighten people the most, stealing atomic secrets. You have them linked together in a capital case. In my parents' case you've got the war against communism. Now you look at Mumia's case. It's the war against crime, the war against drugs, the division of society into us and them. In the 1950s the "them" were the communists. Now they're the Black, urban radicals. And what do you have? The thing that people are supposed to fear most--a Black man with a gun lurking in our city streets in the middle of the night killing a white policeman.
And then what you also have is my parents who didn't roll over and play dead. They didn't turn state's evidence. They not only fought back but they fought back articulately and effectively using the written word. You know, Mumia isn't the only Black man who's wrongfully sitting on death row. But like my parents, he uses the written word and of course his radio voice, which my parents didn't have, to articulate his position, to become a lightning rod to gather support. So you have a similar kind of effective resistance. My parents' case was THE anti-communist case of the 1950s. Mumia's case is THE showdown case on the death penalty and racism in the United States in the 1990s and into the next millennium.
From what I've read of Mumia's trial transcript, just like my parents' trial transcript, it's a joke. He didn't receive a fair trial. It's just so clear, it's so obvious. And every time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules to the contrary they condemn themselves. That's another parallel, a totally unfair trial. Recently there's been someone who's come forward to talk about Mumia confessing. You know, it turns out this guy didn't have access to Mumia when he said he did and he signed a newspaper ad two years later saying Mumia was innocent. I mean there's nothing more absurd than that. In my parents' case, when the FBI was first forced to release material through our Freedom of Information Act in 1975, what's the first thing they released? Statements they'd kept secret for 20 years, by a jailhouse informer who said my father confessed to him in prison. And they made a big deal about this. The FBI ultimately decided that this guy was so unreliable that they couldn't trust what he was saying. But of course the FBI glossed that fact over and the press made a big headline about the "confession." The same kind of thing, the same kind of tactics.
RW: Your parents' case went on in a social and political atmosphere where if you stood up against government repression you could get in big trouble. Now we've got the same thing going on with Mumia's case, where the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has just called for a nationwide boycott of Mumia's supporters and they're collecting supporters' names. Why do you think it's important for people to step out and take a stand on Mumia's case?
RM: The forces of repression in this country were mobilized around the military-industrial complex and the anti-communist hysteria during the 1950s and the Rosenberg case was being used to justify all that. And so if you took a stand against the Rosenbergs' execution, you took a stand against the military-industrial complex, you took a stand against the forces of repression and they were going to do what they could to take away your job.
In Mumia's case, you have the forces of repression who are trying to turn this country into a police state. They want more and more money for their budgets, they want to execute more and more people, they want to increase police departments, they want to increase their firepower. You have the whole massive movement to imprison an entire generation of young people, particularly people of color, the incarceration of almost two million people in this country. It's all part of the war on crime and of course in a war you need to kill people. And you need to execute people to prove that you're in a war. And you need to execute people to show that you're being victorious. And people who take a stand against that, are going to threaten that entire, for want of a better term, I'll call it the prison-industrial complex.
This is a showdown. If we can take a stand, if we can prevent this execution, if we can mobilize enough people to demonstrate the basic fraud behind these efforts, then we can put a stop to it. We can turn the tide. Because Mumia has become a lightning rod, has galvanized support. And we have the opportunity not only to save his life but as part of a more general growing anti-capital punishment movement demonstrate that the police forces are more dangerous to us, pose as big, if not a bigger threat, than all these supposed criminals running around in the streets. That's not to say there's not crime, that's not to say that there aren't problems, but frankly it seems to me that there's more police violence that's growing in this country. And if we can show that, we can actually stem this tide and turn it in the other direction.
We have the opportunity to do that here. And because we have that opportunity the other side is going to do what they can, the mainstream media is going to do what it can to prevent us. And one of the ways they're going to try to prevent us is as we try to reach out, as we try to go beyond sort of a left constituency, as we reach out into the general population, they're going to do their damnedest to separate us from that constituency. They're going to come up with Vanity Fair articles and 20/20 documentaries. Really what they're trying to do is separate those of us who are working to save Mumia's life from those who we are most likely to convince. And it's our job not to let them do that.
RW: What do you think it's going to take to stop them from executing Mumia?
RM: Well, it's going to take battles on all fronts. What that means is it's going to take expert legal work. Every single stone has to be constantly turned over. It's going to take a mass movement outside the courtroom. And the other thing it's going to take is those of us who are in the mass movement understanding that we need to broaden this movement.
I look at my parents' case, and I have all the files from the original committee to save them. There were those on the committee who said they were innocent. There were those on the committee who said well, maybe they were guilty of something but it wasn't stealing the secret of the atomic bomb, that was absurd. There were those who said well, we don't know if they're guilty or innocent, but we looked at the trial transcript, they didn't get a fair trial so they should have a fair trial. And then there were those who said this is absurd to execute people for conspiracy, which is a planning crime, or those who said that the death penalty is just wrong, they shouldn't be executed.
Well, if you look at those who are working to save Mumia's life, you find startling parallels. There are those who say he is innocent. There are those who say well maybe he did something that night but it wasn't first degree murder so he shouldn't be executed. Then there are those who look at the trial and say well, you know, this was such an absurd trial we don't know what he did, so let's give him a new trial. And then there are those who say I'm against the death penalty. We shouldn't execute this man or anybody else. For those of us who are fighting to save his life we have to make room in this movement for those who hold all these positions so that we're not fighting amongst ourselves in the process of trying to convince people--even if we believe he's totally and completely innocent we have to articulate all those other positions.
I don't want to talk about what we're going to do if they kill Mumia. I want to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And that's what our focus should be. We've got to broaden this movement. That's the key, I think, to saving Mumia's life. Plus, I never want to belittle the importance of excellent legal work. The two of them must go side by side.
My vision of what it's going to take to prevent them from executing Mumia is multi-faceted. There has to be a lot of little actions where it may not even be reported in the press, but people are going to see things in their neighborhoods. Who is this guy Mumia Abu-Jamal? People need to be talking about this person. There needs to be a discussion. And then there also simultaneously have to be "news makers" who are taking action, symbolic actions that are going to draw media attention on a national scale, anything from the Congressional Black Congress to Hollywood. We have to go to figures who command attention, whether they be writers, whether they be artists, whether they be Hollywood. These kind of folks do get headlines and we have to involve them in efforts. That massive civil disobedience that took place in New York City against the wrongful shooting of Amadou Diallo is another example of effective ways. And we have to recognize who the constituencies are who are organizing against capital punishment. Those are massive constituencies. And the churches are involved in that. We have to convince those folks--some of them are already convinced--that this is THE showdown case on capital punishment. Mumia has said, "It's not just about me, it's about all the 3,000 people on death row," and the best way to save all of their lives is to save his life. The movement has to be poised to act quickly and also have the stamina to not exhaust itself.
RW: What happened to your parents has shaped your whole life. It's been many years now since it's happened and you and your brother are still fighting for justice. Why?
RM: It took me until I was 43 years old to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, which is when I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. For me, I have figured out a way to transform the terrible thing that happened to my parents into something positive that I can do with my life and help others. I figured out what I would call positive revenge. I can't bring my parents back. There's nothing I can do to bring them back. But I can, through my activities, make them pay for killing my parents. That's what I see the Rosenberg Fund for Children is. It's making them pay. The work in helping the children of targeted activists, some of those kids are going to grow up and they're going to do as I have done. They're going to make the forces of repression pay. And I think that is the sweetest revenge.
I wake up every morning and I come to work and I do what I want. I don't feel that I'm sacrificing anything. I feel privileged to be able to do this work. The Rosenberg Fund for Children just had its first ever beneficiary conference. We brought together 30 young people whose parents have been targeted, people who have been beneficiaries of ours over the years, some of them new, some of them old. We brought them together for a long weekend of sharing of experiences. And what an incredible group of young people this group was! To see these people and to see how we have been able to help them and to bring them together so they can gain strength from each other. Some of them are incredible activists in their own right. They all carry within them the seeds of power. Seeing that was just wonderful for me.
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