As the nascent #BlackLivesMatter movement seeks reform of a criminal justice system that preys upon communities of color, law enforcement are increasingly attempting to quell protest and political dissent. Exhibit A: The case of Marylin Zuniga.
Zuniga, a public school teacher at Forest Street Elementary School in Orange Township, N.J., is a socially conscious member of her community. She coaches a “Girls on the Run” program, a confidence and self-esteem boosting initiative for third, fourth, and fifth grade girls. In addition, she coordinates a “Books and Breakfast” monthly program providing healthy breakfasts and free books to Newark children and families.
Zuniga incurred the wrath of the Fraternal Order of Police, which bills itself as “the world's largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers.” Her offense: She taught her third grade students about imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal during Black History Month, and the students later decided to write get-well letters to the ailing prisoner-activist.
“All year long we were exploring different social justice issues, what was happening in Ferguson with Michael Brown, what was happening in New York with Eric Garner,” says Zuniga, who received a master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Columbia University in 2014. “In February, I decided to do a civil rights leaders series focusing on black leaders not covered in our curriculum and our textbooks.”
These included Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Zuniga presented her students with a quote from Abu-Jamal: “So long as one person is silenced, there is no justice.”
“I would present them with a quote and they would discuss what that person did for our community,” Zuniga explains. “So we talked about Mumia being a journalist from Philadelphia, a commencement speaker, internationally recognized, and he advocated for his community.”
The students became fascinated with Abu-Jamal and, when they learned he was ill, wrote get-well letters to him.
During spring break, Zuniga was notified that the Orange school board suspended her with pay. At two public hearings held in April and May, Zuniga received an outpouring of support, after which she was terminated. The district superintendent said writing the letters “is in no way condoned nor does it reflect curriculum, program or activities approved by the district."
Zuniga, who plans to file a lawsuit, says the district “was contacted by the Fraternal Order of Police demanding my termination. Of course they had an influence on the decision to terminate me. This raises a lot of questions: Who decides what will be in our curriculum? Who decides what can or cannot be discussed?”
“No serious educator could believe that there was any legitimate educational reason to remove Ms. Zuniga from the classroom,” said Alan Levine, Zuniga’s attorney. “The haste with which school officials suspended Ms. Zuniga following the FOP’s highly publicized attack on her leaves no doubt what prompted their action.
“School officials are obliged to exercise their professional responsibilities without regard to pressure from groups whose goals have nothing to do with education.”
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and journalist who has written extensively on police violence, was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life without parole.
In a 2000 report, Amnesty International maintained that Abu-Jamal’s trial was “manifestly unfair,” “deeply flawed” and a violation of minimum international standards for fair trials. The human rights organization cited contradictory and incomplete evidence, faulty testimony, and a presiding judge—a former undersheriff of Philadelphia County and member of the F.O.P.—was accused of racial bias and incompetence.
Abu-Jamal’s arrest and brutal beating by police came at a time of rampant police brutality in Philadelphia. A 1978 investigation by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives found that a small but significant minority of Philadelphia police officers engaged in the “lawless” physical and verbal abuse of citizens.
Also that year, the police department orchestrated an assault against MOVE, a black liberation group of which Abu-Jamal was a member. And in 1979, the U.S. Justice Department had filed a police brutality lawsuit against then-mayor Frank Rizzo and other city officials for police brutality, citing 290 people, mostly of color, who were shot by police between 1975 and 1979.
But Abu-Jamal has become a bogeyman for the Fraternal Order of Police, fitting into their narrative of police who are beyond reproach.
“I think it's both alarming and outrageous that any teacher would use a group of innocent seven-year-olds to promote a twisted agenda glorifying murder, glorifying hatred, and glorifying violence,” Richard Costello, former president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police told Fox News. He called on the district to “immediately fire” Zuniga.
Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, welcomed the decision to suspend Zuniga, but said “it does not go far enough, in my opinion.” According to Burgos, “Zuniga has lost any benefit of the doubt that she can ever continue to teach our young people, without inserting her anarchy-driven agenda going forward.”
The attacks on Zuniga are consistent with other efforts by the police organization and police overseers.
Last year the F.O.P. successfully lobbied the U.S. Senate to block the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department because the lawyer once represented Abu-Jamal at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The F.O.P. also protested and sought to censor Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at Goddard College in Vermont last October, and demanded that Pennsylvania lawmakers enact a state law designed to silence Abu-Jamal.
In response to the ambush killing of two NYPD officers in December, New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch declared the NYPD would become a “wartime” police department. Earlier this year, NYPD commissioner William Bratton suggested that police patrol protests with rifles and machine guns, and recommended at a New York state Senate hearing on police brutality that state lawmakers increase the penalty for resisting arrest from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Undeterred, Zuniga believes there is a room for teaching social justice subjects alongside core subjects. She hopes her experience will encourage other teachers to take risks rather than retreat out of fear of job security.
“I know my child is getting an excellent education in Ms. Zuniga’s class, and she has great respect for him and the other students,” wrote parent Tamia Chatmon in a letter to the Orange mayor and the school board. “She gave me books for him to read, and websites for me to look at and, as a result of her support, he is now part of the Seton Hall reading program.”
Zuniga has also received letters of support from educators and academics around the country, including one signed by over 400 scholars including MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky, Dean Kevin Kumashiro of the University of San Francisco School of Education, and Marc Lamont Hill of Morehouse College. Another letter was prepared by scholars including Cornel West and James H. Cone from Union Theological Seminary.
“We also ask you to consider that the best teachers for the 21st century are and will be those whose commitment to those whose commitment to children’s learning—especially the learning of those children who are most poorly positioned by society, those who have too often been underserved by their schools—inspires them to take risks,” wrote faculty from Columbia Teachers College.
When police retaliate against teachers and determine the contents of a third-grade lesson plan, we are well on our way towards being a police state.
David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia. His writings have appeared on CNN and in theGrio, The Nation, The Guardian and The Progressive.