“We have a duty to fight for our freedom.
We have a duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
This chant has been popularized during the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations this past fall. The words are paraphrased from the freedom fighter and political exile Assata Shakur in her broadcast titled “To My People” on July 4th, 1973. Her words resonate today more than ever because they emphasize the importance of not only struggle, but also the need for us to overcome our unjust society. Furthermore, Assata tasked all of us with looking after one another.
With recent attacks on a New Jersey first-year teacher, Marylin Zuniga, who allowed her students to write get-well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, our time to protect one another is now.
The story begins in February during Black History Month. As Marylin mentioned in her public statement, her students participated in a civil rights series which highlighted multiple Black leaders. On February 5th, she presented a quote by Mumia Abu-Jamal as the lesson’s “Do Now” activity. Students were instructed to read and analyze the quote to determine the main idea.
The quote read, “So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice.” And, as organizer and activist Nyle Fort noted at a recent teach-in, it is a quote that could arguably be perceived as words by praised Black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela.
What is commonly left out of Marylin’s story are the facts about Mumia’s case and why he is considered a political prisoner by some, but only referenced as a “cop killer” by the media.
It is convenient (and lazy) for commentators to forego historical context of the Black liberation struggle in which Mumia was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Amnesty International published an extensive, international report on the case of Mumia. This report covers how evidence found does not point to Mumia being guilty, as well as the corrupt nature of Mumia’s trial, which also failed to meet international fair trial standards. For example, Judge Albert F. Sabo, who presided over the case, sentenced 31 people to death over a period of 14 years–29 out of the 31 condemned defendants came from ethnic minorities. This information about Mumia’s case, which is often left out of the discussion, is crucial for providing context for the decisions Marylin made in her classroom.
Later in April, Marylin mentioned to her students that Mumia was sick. Concerned, students asked Marylin if they could write get well letters to him. Marylin granted students permission, but contrary to what the media claims, this was not a required assignment. Even further, Marylin did not plan to send the the letters her students wrote. However, the students were insistent and Marylin arranged for the letters to be sent to Mumia. Proud of her students, Marylin decided to tweet about it. As a result, the publicity of her project began to catch fire.
With mounting pressure from the Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP), Marylin was immediately suspended. As Mark Taylor, a professor at Theology and Culture at Princeton University, has pointed out, the FOP has a history of intimidating educators and trying to influence what can and cannot be taught in classrooms. For example, a teacher in Oakland, Craig Gordon, was attacked in May 2014 for posting a unit on Mumia. Similar to Marylin’s case, the FOP attacked the district, forcing the Oakland School District to take down the unit. However, supporters of Mumia and Gordon protested the decision, called for reinstatement of the Mumia unit, and won.
Organizations such as the FOP should have no influence, whatsoever, in what is taught in the classroom and who teaches our students. As an organization, the interests of the FOP do not align with the interests of stakeholders in education who do have the children’s best interest in mind. By putting pressure on the school district, the FOP is attempting to silence any critique of their organization. Any organization that is willing to defend individuals who have taken the lives of children has no place in determining school curricula.
Whereas the Young Teachers Collective is unapologetically pro-organized labor, we must make a distinction between unionization that aims to uplift working class communities, and those that were historically used to repress movements that call for a just society. In Shawn Gude’s article, The Bad Kind of Unionism, he points out that unlike teachers unions, police unions are “peopled by those with a material interest in maintaining and enlarging the state’s most indefensible practices.”
As teachers entering the profession in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we must take a strong stand against all forms of police bullying and violence whether in the streets in or in our classrooms. From the senseless murders of Black youth, to the intimidation and fear mongering that Marylin is facing, we must remain on the side of the oppressed and not falter at the risk of being labeled “anti-union.”
Despite pressure from the FOP and the NJ State Troopers Union, there has been an outpouring of support from community leaders such as Orange’s Councilwoman, Donna Williams, fellow educators, parents and students, many of whom showed their support for Marylin at the Orange Board of Education meeting on April 14th. These community members testified in support of Marylin, and, Marylin spoke out as well. She stated, “The most important fact to highlight in this entire matter is my love for and commitment to my students. I have always put my children first and I have never and would never put their safety at risk.”
Towards the end of her speech, the crowd begins chanting “Let her teach! Let her teach!” This point should not be missed; one of her students recently spoke at a teach-in and asked for Marylin to be reinstated. These students have been without their teacher–a teacher who loves them and values their minds, voices, and ideas–for too long. The Orange BOE should have reinstated Marylin a month ago after witnessing the overwhelming local and national support for her teaching. By stretching this out, they have not only harmed Marylin Zuniga, but they have caused undue stress on students who miss her.
Although Marylin has received national and local support, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)–the union which she is a part of–has remained silence this entire case. The Oakland Education Association (OEA) has written a public letter of support of Marylin, but her own union has yet to take a stance.
Why New and Future Teachers for Social Justice Must Support Marylin
We, new and future teachers, have a lot to learn from the ongoing struggle that Marylin is facing. The threats and consequences she faces illuminate what it means for educators everywhere who want to teach with a social justice framework. Such a framework is pivotal because it is one that allows students to critically think about the world around them, especially in regards to injustices they may see impacting them and their communities.
The reality is that the students in Orange County School District may very likely know someone who is incarcerated. When the normalized message in our country is to ignore and neglect people who are and have been imprisoned, it is especially imperative that students are allowed to show compassion for them. The fact that our justice system works to criminalize and dehumanize Black people at a disproportionately higher rate (see: The New Jim Crow) makes teaching compassion even more necessary.
New teachers that hope to use the classroom to promote social justice have recently been advised by professors to “avoid teaching about issues that may be too controversial”. Marylin’s case has even been used as evidence why not to do so. We are advised to wait until we’re tenured to take risks in our teaching and to teach social justice–our Black and Brown youth cannot wait anymore. Our students cannot decide to bypass the effects of structural and institutional oppression, or wait until we get tenure. Rather than advising us to avoid such important discussions, shouldn’t we be learning skills on organizing for a better system? A system that welcomes dialogue regarding social justice issues, rather than pushing forth a Eurocentric curricula that only allows a month for the recognition of Black people?
Black and Brown students are forced to submerge themselves in an oppressive learning environment. We should not regurgitate these dehumanizing practices as our students suffer. We should not be complicit and accepting of an education system that discourages social justice education.
Marylin embodies what we strive to be as teachers. She cares deeply for her students, maintains relationships with their parents, listens to students’ voices and respects their wishes, and teaches for social justice effectively and unapologetically. In her letter to parents at the beginning of the school year, she wrote, “I hope to build a strong and supportive community of learners. Together, we will continue developing our own identities, and nurturing relationships with one another that allow us to expand our passion for social justice and our love for learning!”
How to Take Action
This Tuesday, May 12th, is the next Orange Board of Education Meeting. To show your support for Marylin, you can call Ronald Lee, Superintendent of Orange Public Schools at 973-677-4040 ext. 9 to demand Marylin be reinstated in her classroom.
If you are in the NJ area, please come out and show support for Marylin at the Orange Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, May 12th at 6:30pm at Orange Prep Academy, 400 Central Ave, Orange, NJ.
For Further Reading:
- #ISupportMarylin | NJTAG
- A Letter of Support from Nationally Recognized Professors
- Educators and Scholars in Support of Marylin Zuniga
- Letter of Support for Marylin Zuniga | Oakland Education Association
- Of Challenge and Controversy (Why I Support Marylin Zuniga) | The Jose Vilson
- On Marylin Zuniga and the Miseducation of Children of Color | Becoming Dr. J
- Putting Our Children First: Teacher Marylin Zuniga Should Be Back in Her Classroom | Huffington Post
- Student who wrote letter to Mumia speaks out |