Higher Learning II:
Talking About Mumia in Oakland Schools

By Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #999, March 21, 1999

On January 14, 1999 dozens of classrooms in Oakland devoted the day to discussing the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The next day, Mumia's lead attorney, Leonard Weinglass, spoke to several classes at two high schools in Oakland. The activities made national news, and the controversy was all over the Bay Area news media for weeks.

Before, during, and after the day of Mumia activities, teachers and students came under fire for daring to discuss the case. Administrators banned planned school-wide assemblies and teach-ins, forcing resourceful teachers to organize classroom events ranging from mock-trials to discussions of Mumia's writings in English classes. Oakland's new Mayor Jerry Brown lashed out at teachers and students for departing from standard curriculum, saying that in a school district with low test scores, the teachers should not be talking about Mumia. Newspaper editorials and the Oakland Police Department demanded the discussions be banned because they coincided with the funeral of an Oakland cop who was shot, and a right-wing talk show host incited his followers with rhetoric blaming Mumia's supporters for a so-called epidemic of cop killing.(See RW No. 991, "Higher Learning: Mumia Shakes Up Oakland Schools")

Recently I had a chance to talk with some teachers, students, parents and activists who were part of "Mumia Day" in the Oakland schools, and I learned a lot more about the powerful effect they had on others, and the changes they went through themselves to stand up for Mumia. [I've changed the names of the students and teachers to help protect them from reprisals from the authorities].

Not Appropriate
for Oakland Schools?

One of the ways the authorities went after the Oakland Schools teach-in was to say that it was inappropriate to teach kids about Mumia when their test scores are low. Karl, a social studies and media studies teacher, was outraged by this. He told me that the day he devoted to Mumia was "One of the most exciting lessons I've had in a long time. The students got very engaged."

In Karl's media studies class, students learn how to critically analyze news coverage. He said he incorporated a lesson on Mumia in this topic "because Mumia's case has been completely censored. I did a search on the web just for the Bay Area's major papers--the Chronicle/Examiner and the Oakland Tribune. In 1998, despite the fact that this case has gotten tens of thousands of people behind it, and it's known internationally, and there's ongoing events related to it that are newsworthy, there was one article in those three papers, in the entire year of 1998, that really discussed the case. Mumia's name came up in a search; a few articles just mentioned a demonstration that was held, but no information on his case. So, it seemed very appropriate to then look at the case in a Media Studies class, to say, what is this issue?"

Janelle is a student at Oakland High. After watching the head of the Oakland school board demand a ban on discussion of Mumia in class because overall test scores in the Oakland schools are low, she said "A lot of people are making decisions for us, as far as what we should be learning and what we shouldn't be learning. They said on the television that a high percentage of kids are doing bad in English and Math, but most of the time it's the counselors or teachers who put you back because they don't have enough space to put you in the proper class. That happened to me last year. I went to my counselor a couple times to try to get my classes changed and it still hasn't happened. So I'm going to take summer school. But then people make decisions for us, and tell us what we should be learning, when it's our decision. I mean, if something comes up that has to do with a lot of us, it's an everyday thing that we talk about. So why can't we talk about it in school?"

Martin teaches Media Studies and English, and he was unapologetic about discussing Mumia in class. "I took it up more as somebody who is sympathetic to Mumia. It's OK to be partisan. But at the same time I presented something that is objective, and showed both sides. This is a major issue, as far as I'm concerned, in the world. It's like, what would you do if Malcolm X was in this position, right now? You would try to get the facts out there, try to get people to examine it. And that relates to the death penalty--what kinds of people are in jail? What is three strikes all about? Those are issues that are vital, that need to be examined.

"My students are not outside of all this. Two months ago they brought in a military band, and had a pitch afterward about joining the army. Now, don't tell me that that's part of the goddamn curriculum. So, if they can do that, we can sure as hell try to bring in the case around Mumia and bring in important people like from Amnesty International (a speaker from AI was among those banned from schoolwide teach-ins by the administration)."

Monica, a 16-year-old who participated in discussions in class, said, "They should bring out more cases like this, and start showing us what's going on, because, if you look at Mumia's case, there's so many things about that case that are just not right at all. Then you look at the system, and you think. Our teacher told us the whole story, and I looked at the evidence, and I thought, that man deserves a new trial.... Now, I think they should change the system in some type of way because it's not working."

Janelle thought adult authority types are scared of what kind of information is discussed with teenagers. "They don't want us to open our eyes, and see that we can make a difference. We can understand what's going on. They just think that all teenagers are stupid."


Shortly before the scheduled Oakland teach-ins, an Oakland cop was killed. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle said "of course" there should be no Mumia teach-in since the police officer was killed. The official spokesman of the Oakland Police Department demanded that the teach-ins be cancelled. Janelle talked about how students in her class felt about the police and authorities trying to use this incident to ban discussion of Mumia: "It didn't make any sense to them. They didn't see a connection. Mumia Abu-Jamal has nothing to do with the death of this police officer. This is about looking at whether someone has gotten justice or not, whether he's innocent or guilty of the crime he's accused of. They didn't feel it was fair they had to stop this educational process they were already engaged in when a police officer is killed, and nobody gives them the same kind of consideration. It really made a statement to them, I think, that they were supposed to give greater importance to this police officer being killed than to people in their own lives...."

Monica thought the death of the cop "was a good excuse for them, too, they was happy to have that come along so they could use that as an excuse."

But Janelle added, "We weren't gonna stop just because they said so. We talked about Mumia. What about Mumia's kids, and his wife? He can't touch nobody, he can't do nothing."

An Oakland parent, who's children had discussed Mumia in an elementary school class, was angry that thousands of police had motorcaded through Oakland for the officer's memorial on the same day as the Mumia discussions. He said, "I believe there's a lot of innocent men and women on death row, there for something they didn't do. Even on drug charges, there are cops out there who will plant drugs their own selves. They're trigger happy, billy-club happy."

Higher Learning

Karl's students compared the ABC 20/20 episode on Mumia with the HBO feature "A Case for a Reasonable Doubt." "With a lot more certainty than I expected, students identified the 20/20 piece as being very biased." Karl said that after the class he also found how 20/20 had cut the interview with Leonard Weinglass to change the meaning. "20/20 said, `Well, your own forensic analyst said that it was a 38.' And they have Leonard Weinglass saying, `he did.' And then Sam Donaldson says, `Yes, so why do you have any doubt?' And when Leonard Weinglass spoke in front of the school building, he said that in the case of that particular quote, what happened was that he said, `It was, if you only took that fragment, but there was another fragment that could have been a larger caliber.' And he said they cut that. So, that's an excellent example, a very blatant example, of slanting by network TV."

Martin's English students read essays from Death Blossoms, and wrote thoughtful and moving papers about how they were affected by what they read. Martin also organized a mock trial in one of his classes, where students put an important witness, William Singletary on the stand. Singletary's testimony was suppressed in the trial. When Leonard Weinglass visited their class, Martin's students wanted to know how the police could get away with keeping Singletary's testimony out of the trial.

Monica said, "I looked at Mumia's case from both sides, and it's just not fair at all. I put both sides together.... Mumia's not getting his fair justice if new evidence has come along and they just act like it's never there. I don't know how Mumia can deal with it, if it was me, I'd be going crazy.... We've seen a whole bunch of new evidence come into light. I think they should use it, instead of just throwing it away, saying this is not good evidence like the judge was saying. If any new evidence comes to light, you should use it, and try to make a new trial. They're talking about a man's life, they've got to realize that."

The students and teachers got a first hand look at how the media distorts Mumia's case and struggle around it. In Martin's class, an Oakland Tribune reporter sat in for several hours, and didn't include any description in his story of the thoughtful discussion that took place.

Janelle was angry at how the mainstream news distorted what she had to say. "This lady came in from a radio station, and she acted like she wanted to hear what we had to say. She actually asked us questions, we talked and everything, a lot of us had a lot of good things to say. But then the news went on a half an hour talking about the President and Monica, and then not even 5 to 10 minutes on us, and it made us seem stupid. All she had us saying was `yes,' `I think so,' and `I don't really know.' She put it together in pieces, like these teenagers don't know what's going on."

Monica added that "they tried to make it like we don't know what's going on, that our teachers are just telling us what to say. But we ain't even like that. I decided for myself what I think. I got my own mind."

Andrew and Ed have done community outreach work around Mumia before in Santa Cruz. When they heard about the teach-in controversy, they got in touch with teachers they knew at Bishop O'Dowd, an elite private high school in Oakland. Ed talked about how they saw the connection between speaking at Bishop O'Dowd, and the controversy in the Oakland Public Schools: "Our goal in going to O'Dowd was to cover all the bases. When we heard about the Oakland Public School teach-in, we were hyped. To me, it was totally unexpected. I didn't expect that big of a thing to go on in public schools at this point in the movement. We just thought how we could contribute to that, and we were in pretty good with a teacher at our old school so we did that."

Andrew said that when he and Ed spoke in classes, "One of the most frequently asked questions, one of the most basic questions, was how could this travesty of justice possibly occur? I guess a lot of people at Bishop O'Dowd have sheltered lives, so they're not really aware of a lot of the things that are going on. They're not really aware that there is a huge amount of police brutality against people of color, against lower class people in economic status. They're not aware of the way the death penalty is applied unfairly along lines of class and race and gender. So, it just came as a shock to a lot of people, it was really eye opening. And some of them want to get involved, and some of them will go back to their everyday world."

And Ed added that "the most important thing is that they have all learned who Mumia is, and they know that there's at least controversy about it. If they don't have an opinion, they at least know that it's a big deal. In some classes, a lot of people did take more information, and to me that was a good sign of interest. And one guy said he wanted our phone number to get more information, because he was planning on writing his term paper on Mumia."

The Impact of Mumia on Youth

I wanted to know what Monica and Janelle and their fellow students thought about Mumia, now that they had learned more about him. Monica talked about the impact of learning about Mumia: "He is special to some kids. I can't really speak for other kids, but I can speak for myself, because I'm not just a person who just thinks about myself, I think about what other people are going through.... And in his case, I looked into it, and it makes me feel real bad. What really got me starting to look into his case was the evidence that he's not getting justice. It seems like, just because of who he is. He seems like a nice man, from what I've been hearing. He spoke about nice things on the radio, he had a family, wife, kids. I heard he was a good father and good husband. He was a pretty good man from what I heard. And then I read two of his books, I read Death Blossoms and Live From Death Row, and another book about the case I got from my teacher, and another book I got from a lady who was selling them. In Death Blossoms, Mumia wasn't really talking about his case, he was just saying how he gets through prison. That's another thing that made me real sad, what he has to go through. Locked in a cell 23 hours a day."

Janelle and Monica both had been thinking about how Mumia's case fits into the future for youth: Monica said that "Just locking people up, just giving people the death penalty. It don't look like it's helping anything to me, it looks like it's just getting worse. Why aren't they saying, `Maybe our punishment is not doing a very good job, let's think about a different thing we can do?' Don't they see things are just getting worse? You know you can go crazy in that jail. I already thought about what if I was in his position."

"They don't want us to have any discussion of this," Janelle added, "but what if they sent up my brother to get the death penalty? That's when it's gonna grab my attention but I can't do nothing about it no more. Janelle thought that what was happening to Mumia was "no different from the witch trials we used to have in the 1600s, where because they didn't want women to be smarter than men--`I'll accuse you of being a witch."'

Janelle and Monica were also interested in Mumia's history, and his involvement with the Black Panther Party especially. Monica said, "I don't see what's so wrong with being a Black Panther, why did they have to use that as an argument for his death? I don't see why that is an argument for his death."

And Janelle asked, "Why is it that a lot of police officers were going after the Black Panthers, you know? They were just standing up for their rights."

Standing up for Mumia

The teachers and students who participated in Mumia activities had to deal with the risks involved, given that authorities had banned teach-ins, and tried to intimidate teachers from even discussing Mumia in class. At Karl's school, the principal forced teachers to sign statements that they would not discuss Mumia in their classrooms, and banned Leonard Weinglass from speaking. The fact that the Oakland Education Association had called for the teach-ins gave the teachers some backing, as did statements of support from activist Noam Chomsky, actor Ossie Davis, Mark Taylor of Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and from Mumia himself. Teachers who discussed Mumia have gotten many messages of support from parents, and nobody yet has come up with a student who complained about learning about Mumia--in fact many teachers reported that attendance, enthusiasm and involvement was never greater than when they devoted a class to Mumia.

As one of the teachers who had been on the news publicly saying he would discuss Mumia in his class, Martin said how important he thought the stand was that he and other teachers took: "It was broadcast internationally, that the Oakland teachers and students took up Mumia's case. It made a big impact. It also gave other people some backbone to think maybe they can do something like this. Then they had a big concert with 16,000 people in New Jersey for Mumia, and they tried to ban that. What's happening is that this kind of thing that we did in Oakland is part of changing the atmosphere, it has made it possible for more people to say we should do something too. It's a good question, what can we do about this? But one thing is to step out ourselves and step up. Mumia was just the age of these students when he joined the Black Panther Party, and we need people stepping forward like that now."

For both Monica and Janelle, getting involved around Mumia was their first political protest activity. They talked about some of the challenges they are up against, knowing what they know about Mumia. Janelle said, "I think this is to tell me, and other people who are great speakers, our age, to go out and say something about this. Because now it's grabbing my attention. Before, I was against the death penalty, but it didn't really get to me like this. I thought maybe people did deserve it, because the way they put it on the television, and how they talk about it. But now that I look at it, I'm like, how come I didn't know about <%1>Mumia? He's been in jail from about the time<%2> we were born. And we never heard anything about him until now, when we're 16 years old and just now hearing about this man!

"I really want to do a lot," added Monica. "I have many ideas to do something about this, because I'm really upset about this. I've got a big mouth, and I will tell it.

"We've seen a whole bunch of new evidence come into light. I think they should use it, instead of just throwing it away, saying this is not good evidence like the judge was saying. If any new evidence comes to light, you should use it, and try to make a new trial. They're talking about a man's life, they've got to realize that."

Oakland student

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