Mumia Speaks Out on Education

Interview with the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia


By Andrew Bonthius
April 12, 1999

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the U.S.'s foremost political prisoner, has been on Pennsylvania's death row since 1982, framed for a murder he did not commit. The manifestly gross nature of his frame-up has won him widespread support nationally and internationally. Locally, organized labor has come out solidly in support as well. The San Francisco County and Alameda County labor councils and the California Federation of Teachers have all officially supported the campaign to save Mumia.

Long before he was unjustly incarcerated, Mumia was speaking out as a defender of the black community against police repression, and against racism and exploitation. His political career began as a member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) and later he supported the MOVE group in Philadelphia. At the time of his arrest in 1981, he was driving a taxi to earn a living while he continued his hard-hitting radio journalism.

Jamal's trial was a mockery of justice from beginning to end. Witnesses who could have proved his innocence were not called and evidence that could have exonerated him was suppressed. His public defender lawyer was incompetent and lacked money for a vigorous defense. Black jurors were systematically removed from the jury, and a false "confession" was introduced. The standard nitrate test (on hands) to see if a person has fired a gun was not done on Mumia, nor was the alleged murder weapon tested to see if it had been fired. Numerous witnesses have now come forward to recant their testimony and say the police intimidated them to "finger" Jamal. A certain political calculus is necessary to understand why Jamal was convicted and now faces death; the facts in this case and Jamal's political history make it quite clear that his arrest was a direct result of the murderous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) by the FBI and the police who had targeted him since he was a young member of the BPP. More simply put, the trial was rigged and the jury was fooled.

However, steel bars and concrete walls have not silenced Mumia. From death row in 1993-94, Mumia recorded numerous guest commentaries for National Public Radio on a variety of issues from police brutality to racism to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) until opponents applied enough pressure to get him thrown off the air. His commentaries, often insightful and always partisan to the working class, the poor and the oppressed, continued a practice that had earned him the name "Voice of the Voiceless."

More recently Mumia has lent his voice to various labor struggles. In 1998 he endorsed a defense campaign of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union which was under legal attack by employers for demonstrating international labor solidarity with dock workers in Liverpool, England and he refused to be interviewed by strikebreakers for ABC-TV 's 20/20 program, in support of locked-out camera operators and technicians in NABET/CWA. Previous remarks of Mumia's have been received with great interest and we in the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia thought people would also be interested to know his thoughts on education in the U.S. Below are his unedited answers to questions put to him by the LAC earlier this month. He entitled his response:

'Vouching' for Public Education.

LAC: How would you characterize the state of public education today?

Mumia: The state of American public education may be termed, in a word, schizophrenic, for the elementary, secondary system is abysmal, while the university, higher-level educational system provided by states is excellent. Of course, this isn't an accident of history. It is a reflection of public policy, and a political determination that turns, as does much else in U.S. society, on the nexus of class, race and ethnicity. Historically, the nation's public schools functioned as acculturating agencies for the children of immigrants and ethnic minorities, who came to America escaping persecutions in Europe (economic and religious). It has largely fulfilled that function, and with the Great Migration northwards (and Westwards) of millions of African-Americans escaping the apartheid system of the South (ca.1915-1960), they were faced with a new challenge, one which the political system intentionally failed, and continues to fail, miserably, through an intentional under allocation of resources. Anyone who has questions about America's public school system, and how outrageously underfunded they are, need only dare read Johnathan Kozol's Amazing Grace, where he describes visiting schools in New York and Jersey which featured arctic temperatures, shattered windows, and rivers of human waste running through the halls.

LAC: Efforts to privatize public education are also generally anti-teacher union as well. What role do you think unions have to play in defending and extending public education?

Mumia: Unions, especially teachers unions, have a pivotal role to play in defending and extending public education. But, it would be disingenuous to say this without adding that they face formidable opposition, and therefore, a formidable challenge. Unions are quite capable of defending their pocketbook interests, but they tend to be insular, and concerned chiefly with those who share the craft. If unions are willing or able to expand their guild interests to include the interest of the community to educate their youth they could obviously strengthen their hand. It's a question of joined interests.

LAC: What do you think of the charter schools and the vouchers movements? Many defenders of public education consider them to be attacks on public education which are, nevertheless, finding some working class support here in Oakland and elsewhere because of the abysmal state of public education.

Mumia: The charter/voucher movement, while undeniably anti-teacher union in character, has another, more diabolical dimension. It is a refinement of the post-Brown desegregation-era response of white supremacists, who in the late '50s and '60s organized so-called "academies" (resegregated private schools) to defeat black emergence. The charter schools are the children of the "academies," for they are the resurrection of private schools with public monies, with zero political accountability. That said, there are undeniably some quite excellent black charter schools in cities like Washington, D.C., New York, Detroit and Philadelphia, but they exist for the few, not the many. These institutions can not serve the interests of the millions of black, brown and poor kids, who are already underserved by the public system. As public monies grow from a trickle to a flood into the charter/voucher system, the flow to public systems is destined to diminish.

It is inevitable that working-class and poor families will seek out the option that promises the best return, in terms of education for their children and grandchildren. On many occasions, charter schools, with smaller classrooms, a more selective student body, and thus, more money for lesser students, frankly offers more than the increasingly decrepit, and overcrowded public school systems. Should a concerned mother in Oakland somehow opt for what are essentially class interests, over personal, familial interests? To expect this is absurd. For when class-consciousness is decimated, individualist interests tend to dominate. Given the corporate mastery over the media, is it at all surprising that class-consciousness diminishes, and consumerist consciousness dominates?

It is precisely this capitalist consciousness that commodifies all of contemporary life, and thus makes free, public education a target of corporate, commodity consciousness. This capitalist consciousness is pushing for the abolition of all free public services, for as capital rules, all things have a price. Thus, "private" schools can receive public dollars until the stake is driven into public education, and shortly thereafter these funds too will diminish. There is a major shift in the American capitalist system, and education (that is "free" education) is not a priority. In capitalist parlance, it isn't cost-effective! If, as a direct corollary, the public education unions (who have been traditionally progressive in nature) are demolished, then, from the perspective of the right, so much the better.

LAC: Do the existing leaderships of the two national teachers' unions have a viable program to defend and extend public education given that they are so closely tied to the Democratic Party?

Mumia: In a capitalist economy, there is no appreciable difference between Democrat or Republican, for they are both essentially parties of big business. Given the long train of betrayals by Clinton, can it be said that he's fought for the interests of teachers or labor? Now, has he fought for the interests of Wall St.? As H. O. Havemeyer, the head of the old Sugar Trust once noted, he had "no politics of any kind . . . only the politics of business" (Josephson, The Robber Barons (1934), p. 350).

Where is the labor party? Can the Democrats represent the antagonistic interests of both labor and capital? If there is a conflict between the two, which will dominate-the interests of the rich or the many?

The local and regional unions are closer to the action, and therefore better placed to push the accommodationist union tops toward radical solutions, but unless I'm wrong they will only reap betrayal and loss, for the foregoing reasons.

LAC: The Oakland Education Association struck for five weeks in 1996 for the 3Rs (i.e. Reduce class size, Raise teacher salaries and Reallocate administrative funds to the school sites). These were minimal reforms within the parameters of a capitalist system that is unwilling to fund public education at the necessary levels. How do you respond to the need for teachers to strike for such historic improvements while in the short term it keeps students out of school?

Mumia: Again, it comes down to a question of interests. If teachers strike for higher wages they are apt to engender anger and antipathy, which is why the other two Rs of the 3-R program of 1996 are of value. If the OEA organized in the community, leafletted, and utilized black and community media, they could truly educate and hopefully gain the support of the service community-but, it takes work. When I was a kid in North Philly, thousands of black students walked out in support of black studies programs, and many of our more progressive teachers supported us. When they protested, that support was reciprocated.

LAC: If the existing political system is not willing to fund education at the necessary levels what should be done? Some have suggested that we should advocate taking (i.e. expropriation) the necessary money from the corporations in order to fund education. Where do you think the money should come from?

Mumia: If teachers unions can build and expand political support, the political bureaucracy and leadership can be pushed to find the dough. The corporate angle is a dead-end that leads to the commodification of public education, and the selling of a place in class. Money must, must come from the central organizing principle in society-the state. It is an affirmation of the central principle that this is a job of the entire structure - the state. To turn to private capital is to surrender to it.

LAC: There is a popular move afoot in Oakland which seems to be growing around the country to devolve decision-making to the school sites with parent, teachers and other workers at each site collectively making most all the major decisions about the school. What do you see as problems and potential advantages of this development?

Mumia: Decentralization of power is all to the good, as it involves those most directly involved with the child in the educational enterprise. The problems arising from this development are similar to the historical impetus for charter/vouchers: a rightist, conservative attack on what is seen as the rise in black, multicultural, and similar political power, as in school boards. But, just as some progressive black educators have utilized charters and vouchers to serve a segment of their community, and by so doing, utilized a conservative policy opportunity to non-conservative ends, so too the decentralization movement may have positive, communal effects.

LAC: Oakland NAACP leader and unsuccessful Republican candidate (supported by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce) for mayor, Mr. Shannon Reeves, aggressively race-baited and criticized our teach-in on your case and the death penalty saying that students should be learning to "balance check-books" instead. How do you respond to this kind of "leadership"?

Mumia: When money for public education is siphoned off to construct and preserve new prison cells, talk of "balancing check-books" is the sheerest demagoguery, for jobs in McDonald's barely pay enough for one to need a check-book. Will these kids be teachers? Given the planned destruction of the public school system, teachers, unionless, and working for small institutions, may themselves feel the need to dispense with check books for the same reason. Such Black conservative "leaders" as these who carry water for the Chamber of Capital - er, uh . . . Commerce echo their ancestors of yesteryear. In the fading years of Reconstruction, with white supremacy flourishing from the minds, mouths, and banners of the Democratic Party, there arose a class of "Black leaders," conservative businessmen, who advocated the ascension of the "check-book" over the history book. Some black merchants served on the central committee of the woefully racist Mississippi Planter's Convention (1871):

"Other black landowners and entrepreneurs echoed the shibboleth that government should be 'carried by men of refinement,' and, especially with the advent of the depression, shared Democratic resentments about high taxes and state expenditures. After establishing a land brokerage business in 1871, Martin R. Delaney lectured blacks repeatedly on the harmony of interests between capital and labor and spoke out against carpetbaggers. . . "
(Foner, E. Reconstruction . . . 1988, p. 546-7)

Politics and capital makes strange bedfellows, huh? To suggest that kids - any kids - whether in Oakland, Arkansas, Poughkeepsie or Pittsburgh, can only learn one thing, is patently absurd. Indeed, history is dangerous to the status quo precisely because it raises questions about how the existing status came to be . A fully commodified educational system will jettison all but "safe" history. It will destroy precisely that in children that makes true learning worthwhile: curiosity. What does a Black mayor mean, but the appointment of a manager to represent capital's interest, while simultaneously keeping the increasingly decimated black, working poor and unemployed in control? Remember, I come from Philly, where a "black" mayor bombed a home, and slaughtered 11 black men, women and children (of MOVE). The challenge of capital is to support any candidate who has demonstrated his ability to betray his "people."

Alla best!

March for Mumia
Saturday, April 24th
Meet 10:00am in front of the OEA office

We will leave at 10:00am sharp. This is an East Bay meeting point for everyone going to the demonstration in S.F. Walk with us, other union members and students to Lake Merritt BART. The main march in the city assembles in Delores Park at 18th and Delores Streets at 10:30am. There will be various labor contingents and we would like to have a large teacher's contingent. The ILWU has called a coastwide stop-work meeting for April 24th and will be leading the march.

Labor Donated