The letter below was mailed on April 22, 2015 to the New Jersey Orange Township Public School District Superintendent and Board, as well as to the Mayor of Orange, New Jersey, Dwayne D. Warren, Esq. This letter represents a fuller statement of my support for Ms. Zuniga than I was able to give in my very brief remarks at the Board meeting of April 14. Leading up to that meeting we at EMAJ early on had written a letter on the matter trying to stem the quick firing of Ms. Zuniga as a result of intimidation by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and news media pr0-FOP news frenzy. The real story of that evening’s Board meeting was the way scores of community members came out in support of Ms. Zuniga – teachers, parents, community leaders and neighbors. They made such a strong showing, so passionate a defense and so reasoned an appeal, that the Board was forced to not follow through on terminating Ms. Zuniga, which the Board had shown every sign of planning to do.
While planning for the next Board meeting on May 12, at which local supporters will again demand Ms. Zuniga’s reinstatement, the support has only grown stronger. Scholars/educators have posted an even stronger support letter with an astounding array of signers from elementary, secondary and higher education. For latest information, check the Watch for Updates tab at the EMAJ website. And check also #ISupportMarylin . I also recommend the article on Ms. Zuniga, “Putting Our Children First: Teacher Marylin Zuniga Should be Back in the Classroom.”
Mr. Ronald Lee, Superintendent
and the Board, Orange Township Public School District
451 Lincoln Avenue
Orange, NJ 07050
Dear Mr. Lee:
With this personal letter on the matter of Ms. Marylin Zuniga, I amplify the brief remarks I gave to you at the Tuesday, April 14 Board meeting. I had driven up from Princeton, NJ to Orange, out of my sense that a grave injustice was done to Ms. Zuniga when she was suspended for supporting her 3rd-graders in writing “get well” letters to the gravely ill and imprisoned Mumia Abu-Jamal. The Board acted in both haste and seeming panic in response to the news frenzy instigated by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and by elements of the New Jersey police. Wisely, on April 14th, the Board listened to its community and did not terminate Ms. Zuniga. But now, she should be reinstated immediately and returned to her children in the classroom.
I want to remind you that all across the country the FOP tries to intimidate educators, especially when any teacher shows some compassion or support for Abu-Jamal. I have included Abu-Jamal’s writings in my Masters and Doctorate courses at Princeton Theological Seminary for over twenty years. Whether or not my students agree with Abu-Jamal, and whatever they think about his guilt or innocence, Mumia is always an exemplary thinker and catalyst for student knowledge.
It should be noted that I teach adults, and even that often disturbs the FOP. The FOP is not really defending your children here. They are vilifying Mumia Abu-Jamal and any who are open or compassionate to him in any way. On two occasions when I’ve organized public advocacy ads, or published in the media my views on on why Mumia should be released – a tirade, indeed near organized tantrum comes down upon my right to do so from the FOP and its supporters. Calls come in for my firing, disciplining, or suspension. Outright hateful speech fills my email and phone mail. Thankfully, my administrators have stood strong for my academic freedom.
Know that you, also, as a Board administration can stand strong and win when you reinstate Ms. Zuniga. The FOP has been resisted before – and successfully. The FOP intimidated college administrators whose senior classes invited Mumia to give their commencement addresses (via pre-recorded audio). In each case, the FOP unleashed all its “cop-killer” rhetoric. But these institutions stood strong: Evergreen State College, Antioch College, Kent State University, Merrill College (University of California/Santa Cruz), and most recently Goddard College. Not only did these schools go forward, ignoring police intimidation, the results were always very meaningful to the audience, whether they were supporters of Mumia or not. At Goddard for example, the audience gave Mumia a standing ovation.
The FOP also targeted the Oakland (CA) School District in 2013 when teachers’ online curricula compared US surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. to surveillance of Abu-Jamal (700 FBI file-pages since Mumia’s youth with no crime committed!). That curriculum was at first taken down, but later restored against FOP wishes.
The 3rd-graders at Forest Street School heard about Mumia from Ms. Zuniga during Black History Month, along with Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nearly all scholars in African American Studies would agree that Abu-Jamal belongs in this company (his new book comes out this year, his eighth, entitled Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Foreword by Cornel West, edited by Dr. Johanna Fernández, Baruch Coll./CUNY).
It was a wonderful and understandable act of compassion if the 3rd-graders wanted to write to this renowned figure who writes on mass incarceration. With nearly 1 in 4 black children likely to have an incarcerated family member (1 in 9, a parent), and Sesame Street running segments on mass incarceration in its “Little People, Big Problems” series, it was appropriate for students to wish to write Abu-Jamal. If the Board cannot honor justice in this matter, it should at the very least honor the children’s compassionate reflex.
Abu-Jamal is himself a just and compassionate person. He even supported police officers, in particular, those who suffered “double-jeopardy,” as Mumia argued (Live From Death Row, p.124), when they were tried twice for the 1992 crime of beating Rodney King, which sparked the 1992 LA uprisings. In contrast, the FOP can only vilify Abu-Jamal and any who express compassion for him. A brutal case in point is FOP spokesman Richard Costello ranting that Ms. Zuniga was “glorifying murder” (Fox News, April 9) when her children wrote Abu-Jamal the “get-well” notes.
To you and the District Board I conclude by saying this: Take the moral high road. You can stand up to, simply ignore, those FOP and NJ police unions that “go ballistic” over Abu-Jamal. You can do the right thing, reinstate Marylin Zuniga – and your school district and community will flourish all the more.
Mark Lewis Taylor
(writing and sending this letter on my institution’s stationery does not suggest that Princeton Theological Seminary agrees with the content of this letter )