Black Lives Matter: Let the Students Speak, Let Her Teach

This is Dan Falcone’s letter to a teacher named Marilyn Zuniga. Zuniga’s students apparently wanted to write Mumia Abu-Jamal “get well” letters after learning he had fallen ill. The students knew of him from a Black history lesson on the topic of civil rights. Zuniga was disciplined for the activity and suspended without pay. Since the suspension, the students’ rights to be facilitated by the instructor has received support from the dean of the University of San Francisco’s School of Education, Kevin Kumashiro; world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky; professor and social commentator Marc Lamont Hill; and Baruch College history professor Johanna Fernandez.

Dear Ms. Zuniga,

I wanted to thank you for your thoughtfulness, creativity, courage and careful attention to detail in theprocess of having young co-learners write get well cards to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The story of the fallen officer Faulkner is undoubtedly horrible, awful and sad. I have incredible sympathy for him and his family. I have close friends associated with members of the Philadelphia police and it is a truly sensitive and delicate matter.

Of course your sympathy, knowledge and foresight to help students actively participate and engage with goodwill to an activist who lives a life of resistance is noteworthy. I was saddened to see that you were suspended and removed from the classroom. Your school officials may have impressed certain cultural managers in Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China, but this should not happen in the United States, where expression rights are in fact unique in the world. I do realize that since the 2005 Supreme Court case of Garcetti vs. Ceballos, school employees have seen their unpopular speech rights gradually dismantled.

Across our nation’s schools I see students exposed to tremendous amounts of admiration for militarized law enforcement, politicians, veterans and members of active duty. The fascination with technology that lends itself to privatization and incarceration is also stunning. Other students join ROTC and have a fondness for military sacrifice and stories of valor including an affinity for the recent film, American Sniper.

The financial outpouring, educational support, and intellectual investment devoted to such thought exercises and entertainment formats involving aggression, invasion, occupation and killing is unflinching, unwavering and alarming in this country. It is all aided and abetted by adults. As a separate and asymmetrical issue, if students were to write letters to Taya Kyle to express sympathy forthe loss of her husband, for example, no school should ever be allowed to punish that teacher either.

At the same time, it is illiberal, immoral and hypocritical for schools, generation upon generation, in allowing military recruiters to enter and recruit a certain demographic of students. This is often done while falsifying how much money for college a person will get coupled with a second lie – where you will go after basic training. In actuality, the Enlistment Contract Sheet Section (C. h.) has the words that give the service rights to apply assets where duty is needed.

I find it sad but telling that simple yet profound letters to a sick individual could reach such violent opposition. Mumia Abu-Jamal was essentially detested by the local politicians and the police chief for years. He was ultimately failed by the legal system and he never received his basic rights of due process. Aside from not being Mirandized properly, no effort was made to establish a neutral jurisdiction. Abu-Jamal, deeply versed in law, was able to document and clearly identify perjury, doctored evidence and the coaching of witnesses. Yes, Officer Faulkner should not have died, but Abu-Jamal should not die nor decay in jail without a legitimate trial either. It’s rather simple.

Writing to Abu-Jamal is at best a chance to seek a better understanding for the legal ramifications, political phenomena and socio-historical contexts of the case and similar current affairs. For young people to start searching for these answers does not attempt to justify the death of a police officer, nor show insensitivity to his family.

At the very least, writing to Abu-Jamal is a chance for younger students to do what they often do best, empathize and intuit.Judith Butler recently wrote that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” [too] is something that should be obviously true, but apparently is not.

In short, I thank you for following your educational mission and engaging in this humanistic endeavor while valuing “intelligent dissent [over] passive agreement,” to quote Bertrand Russell.

Dan Falcone