OPEN LETTER TO THE OAKLAND UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT (May 27, 2014)
EMAJ – EDUCATORS FOR MUMIA ABU-JAMAL
20 Years Educating and Organizing for Abu-Jamal and Social Justice
To Oakland School Board President David Kakishiba, Acting Superintendent Gary D. Yee, incoming Superintendent Antwan Wilson and the Board of Education
With this letter we register our protest of the decision by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to shut down its Urban Dreams curriculum web site. The decision has every appearance of being a capitulation to elements of a police pressure group, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), whose strong-arm tactics of intimidation were recently projected at the OUSD through reactionary pundits on Fox News. Even though OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint enumerates several reasons for taking down the website, he also admits that the national Fox story is what precipitated its closing.
Closing the curriculum website denies faculty and student access to invaluable curriculum resources by Oakland teachers with social justice themes. In particular, this innovative Urban Dreams curriculum focused on media and educators’ censorship, asking students to consider parallels between the censoring of radical political speeches and writings of the post-1967 Martin Luther King and the censoring of today’s revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Closing the curriculum website denies faculty and student access to invaluable curriculum resources by Oakland teachers with social justice themes.
King’s radical politics were evident in his last years of his growing collaboration with Black Power leaders, his leading of study sessions with SCLC leadership on socialism, his support of the movement against the Vietnam War and his challenge to U.S. militarism, declaring at Riverside Church that the U.S., “my own country,” was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Abu-Jamal’s radical politics are expressed today in six books and hundreds of essays in audio and print formats. He produced them over 32 years of imprisonment, 29 of these on death row. He has continuously maintained his innocence against a 1982 death sentence (now, life without parole) for the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia policeman, Daniel Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal has become a skilled and inspiring analyst of a broad array of social justice themes: mass incarceration, police violence, economic exploitation, U.S. imperialism, the death penalty and systemic racism – also gender and sexual injustice. These essays have found their way into venues as diverse as National Public Radio, Yale Law Review, Street News for the homeless, Forbes Magazine and a host of others.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, shown at left in a 2013 photo, a college educated professional journalist, has continued to write news and commentary throughout his 30 years of imprisonment – an excellent role model for the disciplined scholarship expected of students.
OUSD teacher Craig Gordon, in a lively and well-crafted educational course design, offered an impressive curriculum encouraging students to compare censorship of King’s and Abu-Jamal’s radical writings. His teaching unit, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” deftly exposes how King’s ideas have been whitewashed and distorted and Abu-Jamal’s subjected to ideological distortion.
Gordon creatively led students to consider questions like the following: Why is this radical King absent from our education and media? How does his censorship compare with the silencing of other radical voices today, like that of Abu-Jamal? This is an invaluable pedagogy.
Predictably, Gordon and the OUSD came under pressure from both the FOP and Fox News.
The essay’s referenced “police union leader” was Philadelphia FOP Grand Lodge “Political Coordinator” Richard Costello, blustering – against all the evidence and in full ideological tantrum – that the OUSD, along with our organization, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ), was “committing psychological child abuse.”
Then, appearing on April 10, a Fox News essay took the FOP-Fox News attack to the national level. This essay was entitled “Lesson Has School Kids Comparing Martin Luther King to Cop-Killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Fox here used a tactic refined over the years by the FOP, namely, show-casing the grief of Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer whom Abu-Jamal is said to have killed.
She is quoted as declaring that the OUSD curriculum was an “absolute disgrace.” The Fox story adds, without quoting Faulkner, that the OUSD curriculum is “akin to teaching students violence.” The FOP and allied Fox News pundits’ strategy is to replace well-made arguments with a simple emotional appeal to this grieving widow’s declaration of outrage.
There is more operative here than personal grief. The story also shows the FOP and Fox News claiming alliance with Maureen Faulkner in their political hostility to academic freedom. The story holds that any mention of radical or militant people or their ideas should be purged from public schools “using our tax dollars.” The very day this national story broke – in fact, just hours later – the OUSD took down the Urban Dreams site.
We urge the OUSD to reopen the Urban Dreams website. It would find ready use again, as it had before. It would also be a continuing testimony to the courage and excellence of education emanating from Oakland teachers.
We want the OUSD to know just how far the FOP will go in exploiting news outlets for their vendetta against Abu-Jamal.
Consider the FOP’s role in the recent congressional debates about President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Adegbile had played a minor role as part of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF), when the LDF won a ruling that declared Abu-Jamal’s death sentence to be unconstitutional.
In a letter to President Obama and through their political and press allies, the FOP presented a distinguished and successful civil rights attorney, Adegbile, as undeserving of a post in the DOJ because he defended a “cop-killer.” This was a direct attack on LDF’s right to defend Abu-Jamal, whose claims of racial bias at his original trial were seen by a federal district court judge in 2001 as so strong that he “certified” Abu-Jamal’s racial bias claim as “appealable.”
By vilifying Adegbile for his connections to the LDF defense of Abu-Jamal, the FOP was attacking LDF’s right to represent a defendant with strong appealable claims.
Note, however, that neither the FOP nor its Fox News allies raised objections when present Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts went through his confirmation hearings, even though Roberts provided pro bono legal defense to John Ferguson, regarded often as Florida’s worst murderer. Ferguson had tricked his way into a woman’s home, shot eight people, then also, according to national news stories, “while under indictment for those crimes, shot two teenagers on their way to church.”
The FOP, again using the same Maureen Faulkner who denounced the OUSD curriculum, also often circulates proven falsehoods. One of the FOP’s most widely disseminated stories is that during his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal “smiled” at Maureen Faulkner when her husband’s bloody shirt was held up for display as evidence in court.
Investigative reporter Dave Lindorff long ago had confirmed from trial transcripts that this event never happened. Abu-Jamal was not even in the courtroom that day (Lindorff, “Killing Time,” pages 319-20, 356 note 16). The FOP and political allies continue circulating the story as if was true.
The story was used yet again in the recent confirmation debates about the Adegbile appointment. As Lindorff wrote recently, “[Republican] Sen. Pat Toomey … made full use of the false story in a speech on the Senate floor condemning Obama’s nominee Debo Adegbile … even embellishing on it by saying Abu-Jamal had “smirked” at Faulkner, when her original newspaper account had her saying he had ‘smiled.’”
It is important – especially for educators in these times – to stand strong against such crass acts of misrepresentation and vilification. Nearly anyone remotely associated with Abu-Jamal – whether the OUSD, its teacher Craig Gordon, renowned national educators or Nobel Prize winners – can be targeted.
The FOP even maintains a list of those who have spoken out for Abu-Jamal. They are on a “black list” – some feel it a kind of “hit list” – on an FOP page at its website. It is a display worthy only of the ugly McCarthyite legacies of this country. In fact, it may be worse, because it is maintained by a group charged by the state with the use of violent force.
We cannot back down in the face of this intimidation. We urge the OUSD to reopen the Urban Dreams website. It would find ready use again, as it had before. It would also be a continuing testimony to the courage and excellence of education emanating from Oakland teachers.
Looking forward to the Urban Dreams site reopening, we are
Mark Lewis Taylor and Johanna Fernandez, EMAJ coordinators
Dr. Mark Taylor, firstname.lastname@example.org, who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Religion and Society, and Professor Johanna Fernandez, email@example.com, who teaches in the Department of History and Black and Latino/a Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York are coordinators for Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ), http://www.emajonline.com, which has been educating and organizing for Abu-Jamal and social justice for 20 years.