Fight for Mumia at Castlemont High

By Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #1108, June 24, 2001, posted at

Senior students at Oakland's Castlemont High School got a bitter taste of so-called freedom of speech under this system when the school administration refused to respect their selection of Mumia Abu-Jamal as their graduation speaker.

Twice during this school year, graduating seniors at Castlemont voted to have Mumia speak at their June 13 graduation. After the first vote, the administration said the student's choice was not valid because "not enough Latinos voted." So there was a second vote, with more students participating--and they again voted to have Mumia speak. Castlemont principal Ronald Miller then made it clear the issue was not about voting procedures; he simply picked someone else--an Oakland minister--to give the commencement address.

Students continued to meet with the principal in the weeks before graduation to attempt to negotiate for the right to hear from Mumia. They met with the minister who Miller appointed to speak instead of Mumia. The minister told the San Francisco Chronicle that the students "feel a connection to (Mumia); they sympathize with the social injustices he's seen as a Panther." The minister proposed sharing his time with a tape of Mumia's address. The Castlemont principal continued to meet with students up until just two days before graduation--when he cut off discussion.

When this controversy first hit the news, another school administrator was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "I don't think these students know enough about this gentleman to be on this kind of mission. They barely know who Martin Luther King is." This administrator also said, "There is a lot of bull as far as I'm concerned, they can argue until hell freezes over, it makes no difference. They don't know what they want."

And higher up on the chain of command, School Board President Jason Hodge decreed, "A graduation is a celebratory event.... It is not about creating a political sideshow or spectacle, and that is all this is."

Students and even their families were pressured by administrators to disassociate themselves from Mumia. Student organizations at Castlemont like YACIN that supported Mumia's right to speak came under fire from school authorities. In the midst of the battle, Oakland school administrators sent a chilling message to teachers with a highly publicized firing of a substitute teacher accused of taking her class to a pro-affirmative action rally. And, on the very evening of the Castlemont graduation, the school board overrode student protests and voted to contract with the Oakland Police Department to police the schools next year.

The Mumia/Oakland Connection

The valedictorian of this year's senior class at Castlemont, Massanda D'johns, said that Mumia "is a symbolic representation of us. He is fighting against police brutality and injustice. At Castlemont, those things happen every day."

For several years, Oakland students and teachers have been active in the battle to stop the execution of Mumia. Activist teachers have introduced Mumia to students, and the message has connected widely and powerfully with students in this overwhelmingly Black and Latino district.

The Oakland school district hit national news a little over two years ago when a group of teachers proposed a district-wide teach-in on Mumia's case. The teach-in was attacked by Mayor Jerry Brown and banned by the school administration. Nevertheless, many teachers organized classroom activities around Mumia--some in the face of explicit threats by administrators.

In the time since, hundreds of Oakland students have become involved in the struggle to free Mumia. Students at Oakland High School dedicated a Black History Month assembly to Mumia. They read poems from Mumia's book Death Blossoms, updated the student body on the status of his case, and showed an exciting student-made video titled Oakland Students Say Free Mumia. The Black History Month assembly at Castlemont was dedicated to political prisoners. And on May 19 of this year, students graduating from Oakland's Merritt College heard a recording from Mumia congratulating them for their struggle to name a student lounge after Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. A student leader at Merritt said of Mumia, "We consider him a hero because he was an acclaimed journalist and a renowned leader of the Black Panthers in Philadelphia."

I talked to Alfredo, a Castlemont student who was active in the fight to have Mumia heard at the graduation. He explained his perspective on how students connect with Mumia:

"OK, just growing up in East Oakland, it's a 'bad neighborhood'. We're always being harassed by the police. It all comes down to us because we are people of color and it seems like they think we don't deserve better. This school is mostly African Americans, with Latinos right behind African Americans. Then we have Asians, Pacific Islanders--Tongans, Samoans and Fijians.

"We're like basically a 'criminals' school. We got cameras, we have I.D.'s." Pointing to a spot above the classroom where we were talking, Alfredo said, "That little black dot there is a camera. There's another camera. Oh...there's another camera. They try to hide the cameras. They lock the bathrooms. They deny you an education because you come late for class or you don't have an I.D. This year we had an I.D. policy, you need to have an I.D. to go to class. If you don't have an I.D., you have to go pay a dollar to get an I.D. What if somebody don't have a dollar? You can't get into class because you don't have a dollar to get an I.D. Basically, they're setting us up to fail.

"The seniors learned about Mumia two years ago. Mumia was going through the same things. It was in Philadelphia in the 1970s. And now it's the year 2001 and we're still going through the same things. He's been put on death row for trying to fight to stop the injustices in our communities. That's why I feel we still have the same things going on. Castlemont is the most political high school in the district. We all go to rallies to try to stop injustices in our school and our communities.

"That's how I understand it.... Because he went through the same things. A lot of seniors said the same thing. So that would be a perfect person. He feels what we're going through."

I asked Alfredo about the arguments from the administration that Mumia is not a "proper role model" for inner city youth. He said, "From reading the newspaper, they said that Mumia wasn't relevant because he's in prison.... That don't have nothing to do with it. One administrator said we don't even know about Martin Luther King and we want Mumia. She don't even know what we're going through. For real. We're trying to get our education, and we're trying to get a real education. Not about the same people. If you go around asking about Martin Luther King, everybody's gonna know. But if you go ask about Mumia, only certain peoples gonna know. Only people who have teachers that would really teach you the truth and let you know what's been going on ever since Black people's been targetted, you know?"

Widespread Support

Just like two years ago when they banned the teach-in, the school authorities' decision to ban Mumia from being heard at the Castlemont graduation was all over the news in the Bay Area and got coverage as far away as Philadelphia itself.

There were at least four major newspaper stories as well as TV coverage. And it came through loud and clear that the students wanted to hear Mumia and the authorities were trying to shut them up.

In a column titled "Castlemont high students show political awareness--Castlemont students rattle chains for Abu-Jamal," Chronicle columnist Brenda Payton wrote, "The adults who oppose the choice say it is inappropriate for a prisoner on death row to address the graduates. But they miss the point. Abu-Jamal is not simply a death-row inmate, he is the center of an international protest movement. He also happens to be an intelligent and powerful speaker with a chilling perspective of the criminal justice system. The administrators may not relate to his experience, but unfortunately many of the Castlemont students have firsthand knowledge of the injustices of the system, either through their own experiences or those of family members."

In response to a call for support sent out by activists from Refuse & Resist! and the October 22nd Coalition's Youth Student Network, many people from different walks of life sent messages of support to the Castlemont students and faxed messages of outrage to Oakland school administrators.

Veteran activist Yuri Kochiyama sent a message to the Castlemont students telling them: "Keep fighting to get [Mumia] to give the commencement speech at Castlemont! His message will be powerful! Young people need a Real Hero! A freedom fighter! A teacher! A role model! A Man with Courage, Dignity, and Integrity! There's no one like Mumia! Don't go for second best. Get the best! Your first choice....Mumia! Ona move."

An activist in the U.K. sent a message saying, "The behaviour of your school officials is a disgrace. Are they afraid of Mumia's intelligent and insightful spoken word performances or just a bunch of miserable bastards? Fight the power."

A fax to the Castlemont principal read in part, "How pathetic, and frightening, if this is the way you choose to deal with the threat of words! And how stupid you must take your students to be, if you think this will shut down their minds."

Messages of support and protest came from students, activists and others from Nevada, Wisconsin, and around the Bay Area. Among those who spoke out in support of the students were long-time ACLU activist Grover Dye; Al Weintraub, Chair of the S.F. Bay Area local of the National Writers Union; and San Francisco Board of Education member Eric Mar.

The Graduation and the Future....

Castlemont High School sits in the desolate heart of East Oakland. The nearby blocks of MacArthur Boulevard are home to empty lots that double as dumps, abandoned businesses, storefront churches and liquor stores. And no decent jobs. Black and Latino mothers carry their children without strollers as they wait for busses or walk to areas with stores that sell groceries.

Graduation is a big deal at Castlemont. According to numbers published in the SF Chronicle, out of some 700 incoming first-year students, only 158 made it through four years to graduate. So students and their parents and relatives were proud of those who made it. But people also expressed anger at not being able to hear from Mumia. Many graduating seniors and other students wore green "Labor for Mumia" ribbons distributed by activists who have been taking up Mumia's case in the unions, including in the Oakland Teacher's unions.

I talked to students at the graduation ceremony. One student told me, "If the seniors voted for Mumia, that's who [the principal] should let them have. What's there to hide? I could see it if he was saying something negative, or trying to discourage us. I think it's messed up that they wouldn't let them have him."

Another student, who attended the ceremony with her graduating brother, said, "This was the seniors' last year. What was the point of giving the seniors an opinion on who to speak if they were going to deny it anyway? It seems really like they're being fake to me--throwing it in their face and snatching it back. That's not right. I wouldn't want them doing that to me. My brother is a senior. He voted for Mumia. If they have the tape [from Mumia] and the principal just says no, I say that was wrong....

"I try to keep up with Mumia's case...I know he's been on death row for quite some time. I believe he shouldn't be there in the first place."

"I was kind of mad," another student told me the day after the ceremony. "Next year is my year. I will be graduating. I'm the one graduating. I'm leaving into a new world. I went through the whole stage of high school. For once, respect me. All the time youth never have a say. They turn their back and do whatever they want to do.

"First, when you come to high school, the freshman class is the biggest class. Then, by the time you make it to the end, it's just a hundred or a few hundred graduating. So we all need to wake up. You got to get an education. Even with an education, you still ain't nobody. They still not gonna listen."

Through their efforts to have Mumia as their graduation speaker, the Castlemont students gathered support from other students, teachers, and even some in the mainstream media. They set off a new round of debate that opened more people's eyes to the injustice of the government's attempts to execute a revolutionary political prisoner. The students' action--and the moves by the school authorities to silence Mumia's voice--is a challenge to students and others everywhere to find new ways to expand the breadth, determination, and diversity of the battle to stop the execution of Mumia and free him.

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