Walking Out of School for Mumia

Revolutionary Worker #1007, May 23, 1999

"We need to stop the execution of Mumia. Not only is it a really impassioning case because it's so blatantly unjust and racist but I think Mumia really touches kids. I think he touches kids because he really respects kids. I think he really fights for kids. He speaks up about a lot of things that all of us deal with on a daily basis--with police brutality, with racism, with classism, homophobia.... He's a real fighter for us and we don't want to see a man killed just because of his political beliefs and his race and we're going to do everything we can to stop it."

Student at Quaker Friends School
in Philadelphia

One of the most exciting and promising new developments in the struggle to stop the execution and free Mumia Abu-Jamal--and one of the most threatening for the ruling class--has been the outpouring of support from youth of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. In the months leading up to the April 24th Millions for Mumia protests, the youth movement has gained much momentum, shown by the many acts of solidarity initiated by young people as well as the massive youth participation in the marches themselves.

Organizers of the April protests put out a call for students to walk out of their classes on April 23 in support of Mumia. Hundreds of high school kids walked out. In nearly every case they risked arrest and "disciplinary measures" by school authorities. So far, the RW has heard about walkouts in Santa Cruz, California, Boston, New York and Pennsylvania. The following report gives the flavor.


In San Francisco, the RW talked to a member of the Santa Cruz Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who recounted the scene in Santa Cruz on April 23: "Yesterday, as we were preparing for our march, we encountered about 100 high school students from Santa Cruz High School, the public high school, all standing across the street from the high school with their fists in the air, shouting `Free Mumia,' and they all had signs with Mumia's face. It turns out the high school students had been organized by a youth who is 16 years old."

In New York City, there was a walkout at LaGuardia High School. Students at LaGuardia High School were active in mobilizing for the Philadelphia march, which many of them attended. They wanted to have a big meeting in their school but the administration said no. Flyers posted in and around the school were torn down by police (who are now responsible for security in New York City schools). Still, 100 kids walked out of the school. They were met by two busloads of cops. Sixty students were given desk appearance tickets.

One LaGuardia student told the RW, "There was a national walkout and cops were outside waiting to pick us up for truancy. The [administration] said the cops called the school. The cops said the administration called the cops...I think it's really unfair because if they teach us to believe in our rights and then we do something about it.... I just think that it was really wrong that they called the police and then we got people busted for truancy. And some kids who were too young had to call their parents. They just blew it totally out of proportion.... I've read his books, I read Live From Death Row and the other one and I think that they want to execute him so much because he's making us realize what's going on in the system." In Philadelphia on April 23, many students left school to take part in a centralized protest. Students from William Penn High, Ben Franklin High, Girls High, Central High Friends Select School and Germantown Friends School, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Community College and others took part in a day-long series of events. Rain forced organizers of a concert scheduled that night for nearby Love Park to seek a last-minute change of location. Despite the fact that it was moved to a fairly obscure spot in North Philadelphia, over 150 people managed to find their way to it nonetheless and it was a resounding success. The free-of-charge, all ages event featured hip hop, rock and spoken word performances by, among others, Ricanstruction, the Mohawk rap group Warriors Blood and Seeds of Wisdom (young people from the MOVE organization).


A walkout was held at Uniontown High School in western Pennsylvania, just half an hour from the prison where Mumia sits on death row. The RW spoke with L., a member of the Bruderhof Christian community, a senior at the high school and one of the organizers. L. described Uniontown as a poor city of 30,000 that used to be a mining center. The 1,400 students who go to the high school include "Black students from Uniontown, the poor and middle class white students from Uniontown, a lot of students from up in the mountains...and there's different villages outside Uniontown that come, too." L. told us why they walked out: "We were going to carry it out just to protest the death penalty and support Mumia Abu-Jamal. And then this killing in Colorado came up and we decided to tie it together to protest all school violence and also to protest the war in Kosovo. We're against basically all killing and all violence."

"We told the principal on Monday of that week and he was totally against this.... He threatened the school. Over announcements he said whoever participates in this walkout will get such and such punishment." He pointed to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and claimed he couldn't allow the rally to occur because there could be "violence" and "kids could get hurt." So the kids asked for an assembly at a safer spot inside the school. Again he said no. L. said, "They decided to refuse everything we suggested because they're totally against what we're doing." The kids refused to back down. Word of the walkout spread. By April 23 the whole school and city knew it was going to happen and why.

L. described it, "All the kids were totally supporting us. Most of the teachers were.... Kids were uneasy about getting detentions and suspensions and how it would look on their records, which is a big reason a lot didn't come, but they were totally behind us the whole way.... Some of the people who stayed home came down earlier and set up a sound system and blasted Rage Against the Machine...Everybody knew about it in the school and they were waiting.... At 9:50 we all walked out of school and walked to the front steps. The music was blasting away. And we were going to meet at the front steps and read a statement from Mumia Abu-Jamal for this event. But they wouldn't let us stay on the school property. So we moved to the other side of the street and there we read the statement so the whole school could hear it. And the kids were like leaning out the windows, cheering us on and stuff." About 100 kids walked out of the school and marched to the courthouse nearby.

L. said that a large number of kids in the school were intrigued to see kids from the Bruderhof "getting in trouble." According to L., "We have a very good reputation, you know, straight A students and never get in trouble. So us getting in trouble, us getting suspensions was a big, big thing in school. The kids couldn't believe it at first...they're all wondering when we're going to get in trouble, when we'll be put in `the box'." The following Wednesday, the principal began giving out punishments--a one-day in-house suspension in `the box' and five detentions for each student who took part. After the walkout and punishments, a lot of teachers asked for information about Mumia.

We asked L. why she was so determined to fight to stop Mumia's execution and what he meant to her. "After all these years of being convicted, thrown in the worst jails and prisons all over the place and basically treated as an animal, and after whatever it is, 17 years in jail, he hasn't given up hope yet. He still writes books even though he's not allowed to and he's totally into life, totally joyful.... Imagine being on death row for 17 years knowing you're going to die and to be able to live with that and still be joyful and live a life and not become suppressed. That's pretty impressive."


Young people recently formed a chapter of Refuse & Resist! in Boston, and got the word out about the call for walkouts. Word travelled throughout the city and suburbs as kids leafletted on the trains, heard about it word of mouth from their friends, or saw it announced on the Internet. The walkouts in the Boston area were held on April 16 because kids were on spring break on the 23.

In Newton, Massachusetts, 40 percent of the eighth grade class at the F.A. Day Middle School (about 100 students) walked out of classes on April 16. The students obtained a parade permit, staged a march through the town, and met with the mayor. They were later slapped with an hour's detention by the principal, who in turn was bombarded by e-mails protesting his action. At North Quincy High about 50 kids walked. They were able to get out because school authorities and police didn't know about the walkout. The cops were all sent to Quincy High. At Weymouth Junior High at least 15 students walked out and were chased through nearby woods by administrators and police. Some were arrested.

At Quincy High, a multinational school in a city just south of Boston, at least 30 kids walked out the front door. An unknown number of others went out other doors. Outside, students had a rally outside with a P.A. system in a wheelchair they called "the rolling P.A." They marched around the school "chanting and yelling things out to the students to get the hell outside and be heard.

J., one of the kids who walked out, told the RW: "I asked the principal if we could have an assembly instead of the walkout. He denied the assembly. So I told him we're going to have to have the walkout. I asked him if he wanted to know more about Mumia. I had a whole portfolio on Mumia. He refused to read about it. He did not want to learn about it at all.... All the kids know about it now. We wanted to at least make it a household name so they all know Mumia's name." J. was suspended for eight days, may fail this year and not be able to graduate. He's determined not to let the authorities stop him: "We're going to try our hardest to fight that. We're going to put on demonstrations. My mom filed an appeal to the school. All the other kids who walked out, I'm not sure, but I think they got 10 days suspension, too. I'm sticking up for them, too, and myself. We're all going to get together and fight that."

Like most of the kids who organized the walkouts, J. spoke angrily about the hypocrisy of school officials: "I believe our school systems are heavily oppressed and I don't like the fact that we can't bring in politics into the school. They don't let us. Or they don't let us think independently on what we want to think about.... Mumia means revolution to me. He's inspired me greatly to come out and be an activist. And his book, Live From Death Row, I just read it and it's an awesome book.... He tells what goes on in the prison system and how wrong they are, how they don't want education in the prison systems. It's like how are they supposed to make people better in the outside community when they just beat them all the time? They don't want to educate them.... It made me realize how many people there are out there that don't want this system that's oppressing them...."

At Weymouth High flyers about Mumia's case were passed out for over a month before the 16th. Students were warned not to pass them out during school by the principal. Signs appeared announcing the walkout. Some teachers let students speak about Mumia's case in their classes. Kids in the school started going on the R&R! Web site, which was announced on the flyers. There they'd find out all about how Mumia was unjustly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Word continued to spread until by April 16 all 1,200 students in the school knew about the walkout.

X., a student at the school, told the RW what happened that day: "A lot of students had whistles to let everybody know when to leave. The walkout was going to be at 11:05 when fourth period ended. At 10:30 they called me down to the office and kept me in there for about two and a half hours, at one point even putting me under legal protective custody. They locked me in there with a police officer.... There was a line of teachers inside the building at each door and then outside there were pigs everywhere, at least eight local cruisers and four state police cruisers. Some of the state police were just circling the building. But there were some of them stationed at the doors, too.

"So basically the teachers would stand there and tell kids to go to the office. If they walked past the teachers, they would walk into a line of police officers...I was able to see a little bit of it and there was like anarchy in the hallways with kids throwing papers everywhere, shouting `Free Mumia!,' going nuts. And the administration didn't know what to do.... 200 to 300 students attempted to leave the building. One student actually bowled over a state trooper and tried to get out of the building. He was grabbed by a teacher and thrown back inside.... About 20 students made it outside.... We faced a lot of difficulties, but it only strengthened our teaching...even the people that were reluctant to learn about Mumia before were a lot more interested.

"I was locked in the office until 12:15. Then they let me go to the late lunch, which I wasn't supposed to. So they escorted me down there and all the students were just cheering and going nuts. Everyone was asking me about Mumia and what happened. There were rumors around the school saying that I got arrested. It was absolutely chaotic. And then, to top it all off, all the other Mumia supporters from the school and a few from Quincy High, [members] of our Boston chapter of Refuse & Resist!, they were all out there behind the school and they all had their signs and they were all chanting and cheering and yelling and screaming...they were loud enough that they could be heard from within the school when the windows were open, but they were far enough away that the police couldn't do anything. So all the students were seeing these people out on the corner and they were seeing that there was a movement. I actually heard in the first lunch of the day all the students were chanting `Let Us Out! Let Us Out!' and `Free Mumia!' and going nuts. That's sort of uncommon in a white suburban high school. And it was just incredible. We were able to just do so much and we really scared the administration.

"As far as the rest of the day goes, I did not have a free minute. I was sent up to in-house suspension thereafter where I got to educate the kids in in-house about it. And the in-house teacher decided that I did a really good thing and that it was great that we were taking a stand.... It was incredible. It was one of the best days of my life.... I feel Mumia would be proud of us."

Most of the students who walked out that were identified got suspended for a day. X. told us: "They said that I would get three days if they proved I was the ringleader.... I called the ACLU and they spoke to my parents and advised us of what to do and basically we ended up getting off on a technicality.... I got to go to school the following Monday in my Mumia T-shirt, you know, flashing it around at the principals and what not. It was exciting. So, yeah, we raised a lot of hell and it was great.... Every time people walk by me in the hallway, they shout, `Free Mumia!"' X. is angry because school authorities "blamed" the Internet for the walkout. He said, "The students were well educated on the issues and you can't blame the Internet for something that the students did.... Just because they see us in maybe smaller bodies and they see us more as trends and more as peer pressure they just feel they can write us off for anything. And I mean we have minds. We're able to think.... They teach us about civil disobedience and the civil rights movement. They teach us about all these things and yet when it comes time to learn about them first hand, when it comes time to practice it, they think it's not good. They think it's taking away from educational time when in actuality it's probably the most educational thing we're ever going to get out of the school.

X. told the RW he thought the attempt to execute Mumia was "racially biased and morally wrong" and said, "I studied it for about three weeks before I really was sure that I could say I think Mumia's innocent or I know Mumia's innocent...Mumia believes in many of the same things I do and Mumia was also such a rich part of our history, I mean as far as the militant movements of the '60s and '70s is concerned, you know? I've always idolized the Black Panthers and what they were able to accomplish. And now I'm finally getting a chance to stand up against all the powers that are keeping people down, that are silencing people, that are just destroying community and destroying lives...The police are trying to silence me now.... Mumia is every person who's ever had to go up against the system and we can't let Mumia go up against the system alone. So we're all going to be right behind him."

Contributors to this article include NY correspondent Debbie Lang and a writer from Philadelphia who is active in the movement to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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