[Pnews] Activists come to defense of Orange teacher who had third-graders write to Mumia Abu Jamal

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 15 13:43:10 EDT 2015

  Activists come to defense of Orange teacher who had third-graders
  write to former death row inmate

By Dan Ivers <http://connect.nj.com/staff/DanIvers/posts.html>
April 14, 2015 at 5:03 PM

ORANGE — <http://nj.com/orange>Local activists are rushing to the 
defense of an elementary school teacher who is facing possible 
termination after having her third-grade students write "get well" 
letters to controversial former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

Marylin Zuniga, a teacher at Forest Street Elementary School, is 
currently suspended with pay while Orange school officials weigh whether 
to fire or discipline her as a result of the assignment.

Larry Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, spoke 
out on the issue during a discussion on police brutality and other 
issues at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark Monday night.

He urged the approximately 500 attendees, including prominent professor 
and activist Dr. Cornel West, to gather outside Orange High School prior 
to a Board of Education meeting to support Zuniga.

"She tried not only to instruct her children in terms of skills, but 
also tried to help them understand what it means a compassionate human 
being," he said. "We need to support this young woman...her heart is the 
right heart."

Johanna Fernandez, a professor at Baruch College in New York City and 
advocate for Abu-Jamal's innocence who delivered the children's letters 
to Abu-Jamal on April 6, was also in attendance at the discussion, and 
echoed Hamm's call for solidarity and support.

"Unless we mount a struggle right here in Newark, she will be fired," 
she told the crowd.

In comments outside the event, Fernandez and others said they felt she 
was being unfairly criticized because of Abu-Jamal's status as a 
prisoner, and that much of the debate in the media had failed to account 
for the backgrounds of many of Zuniga's students.

Nyle Fort, a local activist who described himself as a close friend of 
Zuniga's, said the idea to write the letters actually came from a group 
of students in her class who were already aware of Abu-Jamal and recent 
news that he had been hospitalized due to complications from diabetes. 

He added that many students in the class, which is entirely black and 
Hispanic, have relatives in prison, which could remove any stigma others 
might have about having them write to an inmate.

**"I think it's really important to realize that black and brown schools 
have fundamentally different relationships to prison and the people 
inside of them than in white neighborhoods," he said.

"The idea that a young person that's in third grade should not be 
talking to an inmate fundamentally does not work in our neighborhoods."

Abu-Jamal, 60, is serving a life sentence for killing Philadelphia 
police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. He was originally placed on 
death row after his conviction the following year, but a federal appeals 
court ordered that he receive a new sentence in 2008. He is now serving 
life without the possibility of parole.

In announcing Zuniga's suspension last week 
Orange officials stressed that they had no knowledge of the letters 
until reports about them surfaced in the media. In a statement, 
Superintendent Ronald Lee said the assignment was "in no way condoned 
nor does it reflect curriculum, program or activities approved by the 

Fernandez, however, took issue with the outcry, characterizing the 
assignment as an act of bravery.

"It takes courage and determination and conviction for someone like Ms. 
Zuniga to have responded to the call of her students," she said.

Fernandez added that letters to Nelson Mandela might have drawn a 
similar reaction when the former South African president was branded as 
a terrorist by U.S. authorities. She has repeatedly compared Abu-Jamal 
to Mandela, who was given the label while serving a 28-year prison term 
for his political work fighting apartheid and racial inequality in the 

Fort drew a different parallel, citing the favorable academic treatment 
of explorer Christopher Columbus, which he said spoke to the "racial 
dynamics at play" in the issue concerning Zuniga.

"The idea that it's not controversial to teach children about 
Christopher Columbus, who is an architect of genocide, who is a serial 
rapist, who is a founder of white supremacy, but they can't write 
letters to Mumia, is unbelievably hypocritical," he said.

/Dan Ivers may be reached at divers at njadvancemedia.com 
<mailto:divers at njadvancemedia.com>. Follow him on Twitter at @DanIversNJ 
<https://twitter.com/DanIversNJ>. Find NJ.com on Facebook. 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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