Prison is not justice.
When you’ve grown up with cousins and former students revolving in and out of Rikers and Sing-Sing, preferring incarceration to the instability of what we constitute as free, then you’d know why justice is not truly served by throwing people into jail and doing away with their lives. I’ve seen humans thrown in prison through human casualty, human error, human prejudice, and human cruelty, too. Society throws living organisms that represents said persons, breathing carcasses bereft of the souls that once made their indiscretions youthful. The masters of the day often dictate what justice looks like, with policemen and women willing to execute on said distortion and judges preside over the show, obeying a set of abstract laws that the people supposedly want. That’s why the masters always say “the people vs.” even if we the people didn’t actually elect or select the person representing us, and, in many cases, we might object to an unfair carriage of whatever show happens in the courthouses. Thus, all prisoners are political as far as whatever the current politic is concerned.
That’s why, regardless of what we believe about former journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal and the murder of Daniel Faulkner, we must ask ourselves whether putting Abu Jamal on death row would a) bring Faulkner’s life back and b) show others the humanity it takes to still believe in the humans our society has placed there.
Thus, I support Marylin Zuniga, burgeoning social justice educator. When the story first hit, conservative forces including the local Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association began to descend upon her, and in certain circles, doxx her at every opportunity they got. Other mainstream news sources picked up on the story as well, including The Root, but I got involved because Orange, NJ is close enough to New York City for it to hit home. The stirring headlines read similar to yellow rags during McCarthyism or what one might read in James Bond flicks during the Cold War.
None of this made sense to me, so I asked the people on the ground. After numerous conversations with close friends and fellow educators in the area, it didn’t take much time for me to jump feet first in supporting her by calling her superintendent’s office and via this erudite hashtag, which I did not create but I take some credit in amplifying.
The first honest question I get is, “If your son was in that class, would you want your son’s teacher delivering letters to a killer in jail?” The answer depends on how we phrase the question. I would have wanted Ms. Zuniga to request permission from me and the other parents in the class before hand-delivering the letters, even if my son requested that she send his letter to Abu Jamal. I would also want assurances that names and addresses were scrubbed from the letter. I would also hope it was in the context of a lesson in restoration and rehabilitation for those in dire straits. But ultimately, yes, this is a fine activity. The second honest question I get is, “If this was a KKK member who had killed a Black kid, would you have the same feeling about this?” In my disposition, the answer is a complicated yet. If I believe in social justice, and I do, and the context of the lesson was compassion and rehabilitation, then I would want that letter sent.
My activism is predicated on what is necessary at the time I activate. Thus, I, like so many others, including the parents of her students, demand complete reinstatement for Ms. Zuniga. Looking at the breadth of vitriol thrown in Ms. Zuniga’s direction, one must realize that negotiating from the middle (“give her a suspension until the next school year and have her under a two-year probationary period with mentors”) is a losing strategy for what people close to the situation would call an honest rookie mistake.
The third honest question for anyone following this should be, “Why this? Why not other cases that merit your attention?” To that end, we as a whole need to challenge ourselves to work through the things we consider imperfect and complicated. Race as a social construct is more complicated than Black and white, so why would we expect situations that involve race to get simpler with race as an ingrained layer? 21st century activism means delving into situations where the heroes and villains haven’t been narrated for us, or are simply ideas, and, instead, work with the given elements to restore a sense of peace, akin to the classrooms we occupy. More so, how do we demand the difficult work of working through racial situations of others when we have so much to do of this ourselves? Self-healing matters.
To paraphrase Dr. King, the ultimate measure of a person isn’t during times of comfort and convenience, but during times of challenge and controversy.
During the last week, I fielded plenty of phone calls, messages, and e-mails either in support or against Ms. Zuniga, wanting to see if perhaps I made a mistake or my moral compass was jarred from a trying school year. I remain steadfast in the belief that I’m working with the same heart and mind that fueled so many of my successes and setbacks before. After reading and re-reading all presented material, this case falls right within my passions for social justice, the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and due process for all educators, even those who are still early in their careers.
After ?#?ISupportMarylin? made national news, I reflected on what all of this advocacy meant while we wait for Ms. Zuniga to get due process. Many of us weather online threats accompanied by American flags, naval crests, and reasonable racists just to assure that social justice education could breathe for another school year in Orange and perhaps across the country. Similar avatars lined my messages when I advocated for boys and girls of color whether they were victims of police brutality, outdated immigration policies, or victims of educational inequity. Imperfect as the circumstances may be, we have to believe that our hearts and minds are in the right place. With so many of our youth knowing prison second-hand through their parents, their older cousins, their extended families, writing letters to prison is the catharsis that allows our children to hang on
Our words and activism can’t just reside behind lit screens and gray keyboards, but in the streets and the classrooms where our present and future learn. Until justice is truly served, not just for Ms. Zuniga, but for all social justice educators, fairly and equitably, we must lock arms.