Higher Learning:
Mumia Shakes Up Oakland Schools

Revolutionary Worker #991, January 24, 1999

After weeks of wild controversy that filled the mainstream newspapers and airwaves of the Bay Area, dozens of classrooms in Oakland's high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools devoted January 14 to studying and discussing the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And, on Friday the 15th, Mumia's chief attorney Leonard Weinglass spoke to classes in two Oakland high schools. Initial reports to the RW indicate that activities on the 14th and 15th included:

  • Two teachers at Oakland Tech conducted discussions and debates on whether or not Mumia was guilty. They invited TV news to cover their classes, and excerpts from the discussions were broadcast on the Bay Area edition of Fox TV news.
  • English classes, including at Oakland High read selections from Death Blossoms and wrote interpretive essays on their favorite reading.
  • A history class at Oakland High discussed Mumia's case as part of a lesson on race and class bias.
  • A media class at Freemont High watched the HBO video, "Case for a Reasonable Doubt," and the ABC 20/20 hit job on Mumia, and discussed which one presented the truth.
  • Adult school ESL classes used a script circulated by an ESL teacher, where one student played the role of Mumia, and another student asked why he was on death row, and why was the government trying to kill him.
  • CNN covered a discussion of Mumia in a History class at Oakland Tech.
  • An 11th Grade History class debated the death penalty.
  • Several teachers who think Mumia is guilty nonetheless led discussions in their classes, often being engaged in sharp debate by their students.
  • Social studies teachers held discussions of the criminal justice system, police power and media behavior.
  • Several elementary teachers used a curriculum they developed to discuss Mumia's case and the death penalty with students.
  • One of the largest events took place at a private school in Oakland. Three graduates of Bishop O'Dowd High School returned to speak to students about Mumia.
  • On Friday, January 15, Mumia's lead attorney Leonard Weinglass spoke to over a hundred students in three classes at Oakland High, where students asked detailed questions about the issues of the case, including asking how the police could get away with intimidating witnesses. Later in the day, he spoke to several classes at Castlemont High School, along with police accountability activist Van Jones, and Jeff Mackler from the Bay Area Mobilization to Free Mumia.
  • The classroom activities, and the battle that it took to have them, connected the case in a new way with the kids at the Oakland schools, who are mainly Black, but also Latino, Asian and white. (See "Students Speak Out on Mumia.") At one of the schools, a student who participated in a debate concluded, "I think we should be educated on this issue. They're trying to keep something from us." A student at Bishop O'Dowd said she came away from the presentation with a "feeling of complete desolation that Americans can get away with this. It's really upsetting."

    But the discussions of Mumia took place in the face of intense attempts to censor them. The Oakland superintendent of schools banned teach-ins that had been planned for at least four schools, and teachers had to conduct the discussions in their classrooms. At Freemont High School, administrators forced teachers to sign statements that they had been informed not to discuss Abu-Jamal's case in class on Thursday. And, in at least one case, school administrators stood in the back of a classroom for hours while a teacher led his classes in discussions about Mumia.

    Teachers Under Fire

    Last November, the Executive Board of the Oakland Education Association, the teachers union for the Oakland Public School system, approved a motion to "educate and organize its members to replace regular instruction with organized assemblies or other instructional events to discuss the issues around, and the protests about, Mumia's execution." The resolution declared that the teachers would "invite the support of other OUSD unions and of the Oakland School Board but our action will proceed in any case."

    As January 14 approached, heat began to intensify on the teachers to drop their plans. Major articles in the mainstream Bay Area newspapers called the plan "Ebonics II," a reference to the controversy that erupted when Oakland school officials endorsed a plan to take into account the use of Black English, or Ebonics, in classrooms. An article in the Chronicle ended by saying "the whole city (will be) watching Oakland's classrooms next Thursday." The battle went to a whole other level when, on the Monday before the planned teach-ins, an Oakland cop was shot to death. The San Francisco Chronicle demanded that "of course (the teach-ins) should be cancelled" because a cop was shot. And, the Chronicle, a paper that has ignored Mumia's case for years and regularly fails to report on demonstrations of thousands, had the gall to complain that the teach-ins would not be "balanced."

    Those attacking the plans for the teach-in focused their venom at statements issued by the teacher's union which said: "students in the Oakland system are largely minority, so prison and the death penalty are poignantly real issues for them," and, "we know that one out of four African American young men between 18 and 24 is either in jail or on probation." The idea of connecting Mumia to youth who are being criminalized, and who live under the gun, freaked out the powers-that-be. School Board President Noel Gallo, who was featured in the news as a daily hit-man against the teach-in, declared the teachers union was not "understanding that the fundamental issue is for them to educate students." Obviously, for the School Board President, education relevant to the lives of the youth on the workings of the justice system, is not the kind of education he has in mind.

    While the controversy raged, almost a full page in the Chronicle was devoted to contrasting "pro and con" editorials on discussing Mumia in school. Oakland teacher Bob Mandel wrote that "this case reflects the reality our students will face upon graduation." And that "pertinent issues include: the fairness of the criminal justice system; race and class-bias...issues of freedom of the press...and...issues of government surveillance of dissenters and repression of dissent." Mandel ended his editorial by calling on other school districts to take up the case.

    Under pressure from school officials, the leadership of the Oakland teacher's union met on Monday night to consider a proposal from some of their officials to postpone Mumia events until February. Some teachers argued that the timing of the teach-ins was bad, and that holding the teach-ins the same day as the cop's funeral would be considered offensive by the police, and that "rational discussion and balanced coverage by the press would be virtually impossible given the circumstances." Others argued that Mumia was framed for killing a cop, and there was no reason to cancel the event. Responding to attacks that the events would not be "balanced, a Freemont teacher said, "Balance is a bogus issue. When we talk about equal rights and Proposition 209 do we invite the KKK [to speak]? No we do not." One student told the teachers, "I can put myself in (Abu-Jamal's) shoes. It could be me who would go to prison without being proven guilty, I mean really proven guilty." One teacher told the RW that it was the stand of the students that won the majority to refuse to back down. At the end of the night, the union leaders voted 48 to 42 to not postpone the teach-ins, which at that point were planned for at least four high schools.

    When the results of the teacher's vote were announced at 10 PM Monday night, Oakland Schools Superintendent Carole Quan came down hard, and banned the teach-ins. Her order stated that "it became apparent that the event was being politicized." And that discussions of Mumia could only take place "outside of school on a non-school day." News accounts were ambiguous as to what would happen if teachers even dared to discuss Mumia in their classes. The principal of Bishop O'Dowd told the Chronicle, "The timing wasn't great, but canceling it sends the wrong message. We want our students to hear the arguments and come to their own conclusion in their minds."

    Meanwhile, the police worked behind the scenes to pressure and threaten teachers into silence around Mumia. Representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) including Maureen Faulker, widow of the cop for whose death Mumia was framed, contacted the head of the teacher's union. Materials from the FOP were sent out to teachers. Oakland police officials even had the nerve to try to tell the youth of Oakland that by learning about how Mumia was set up and framed for his revolutionary political activities, they were hurting the police department's "feelings." Police spokesman Arturo Bautista said, "We believe this is a slap in the face to law enforcement here and around the country," and he charged that the teachers were "putting their selfish personal, political agenda ahead of the city's and the police department's feelings."

    Mumia's Supporters Hit Back

    Joined by students and other supporters, the teachers struck back. On Wednesday afternoon, they held a press conference and speak-out at the Oakland School Board. They showed the media the letter that administrators at Freemont forced teachers to sign, banning discussion of Mumia in class. Statements of solidarity with the teachers were distributed to the press from actor Ossie Davis, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky,--and from Mumia Abu-Jamal himself. (See "Support for Oakland Teachers and Students.") After the rally, solidarity statements continued to arrive, including one from Mark Taylor and the Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal (AMAJ).

    A dozen students spoke about what it had meant to them to find out who Mumia was. Many of them said this was their first protest, and they never imagined themselves getting involved in something like this. The action at the school board was covered extensively by two local news stations, CNN, and the Bay Area mainstream newspapers.

    One student said, "We're studying injustice, not just in history but in the present day. For them to tell me we're not supposed to be doing that, that's absurd to me." A Castlemont teacher talked about "how proud I am that these students are expressing their opinions," and he said that "in many classes, it is the students who bring up to us the issues that are being addressed by this event."

    Addressing the attempts to squash the teach-in because a cop had been killed, one teacher said that this was "the kind of sensationalism that has prevented Mumia Abu-Jamal from getting a fair hearing." Another student, a young woman, said, "I never had to stand up for my opinions before. I learned how to form my own opinion. I never came to a protest or a press conference before, but I'm here. They say you're not mourning for the officer's family, but what about Mumia's family? They've been trying to shut me up for a long time, but they're not going to shut me up any more."

    Near the end of the press conference, a young student at Castlemont stepped out from the crowd to tell people that, "When a police officer killed my cousin, there was not a single camera at my house asking what I thought, or how I felt about what happened." After she spoke, she met with activists from the Youth Student Network of the October 22nd Coalition to enter the death of her cousin Bill Vaughn in the Stolen Lives Project.

    A parent of a child in an Oakland elementary school demanded, "How dare they try to keep my child from learning about Mumia?" She expressed her anger at how school officials kept sending home slips for parents to sign, refusing to let their children discuss Mumia in class. Van Jones from the Ella Baker Justice Center, and an activist against police brutality, denounced the shameful position taken by Shannon Reeves of the Oakland NAACP, demanding the teach-ins be cancelled. Jones said that in the '60s, any Black leader who spoke out against defending another Black leader would have been run out of town. A UC Berkeley student speaking for Refuse & Resist! asked, "What are they afraid will happen if this teach-in happens? Are they afraid the students will learn of the racism in the justice system? Are they afraid they will learn that the government is trying to kill the first political prisoner since the Rosenbergs?" And she told the students and teachers that they had shown a lot of courage in going ahead with plans for classroom discussions of Mumia, and that they should show even more courage in the future.

    In the wake of the activities on January 14 and 15, the teachers are discussing ways to continue the fight for justice for Mumia. At one high school, students and teachers formed a Free Mumia club. At the same time, the teachers who devoted their classes to discussion of Mumia remain under the gun, and it is important that people stay vigilant and be prepared to defend those who put their necks on the line to let their students learn the truth about Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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