When It’s Not that Black and White: Orange Politics and Marylin Zuñiga

There has been a perspective that has oft been excluded from the national limelight surrounding Ferguson and even Baltimore that I have finally come to appreciate. How do the people who are down for the movement feel when their fellow activists and protesters come to their town with their own ideas of what is wrong with the city? Now I’m not saying that pointing out how Ferguson’s city government was structured to support racism or how  Baltimore City’s Police commit acts of state sanctioned violence should be ignored, instead I want to understand the unique position of being trapped in between the two worlds. For instance, how does a family member of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake feel if they are also down for the movement but can’t reconcile their activism with the initial statements that Mayor Rawlings-Blake made where she called the teens participating in the Uprising “thugs”? (This example extends to people closely connected to President Obama as well with his race neutral rhetoric). I ask these questions because last night I attended a board of education meeting in my town of Orange, NJ where the board was to come to a decision concerning Marylin Zuñiga who was suspended with paying following her students writing letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal .  I support Marylin not only because I feel that it was brave that she created the atmosphere where her students would take the initiative to write to a sick man but more simply the girl just started teaching and surely if a teacher can do this and not be fired, Marylin should not be either considering this is her first year.

Now pay attention because this is where things get complicated. The board meeting was held in the Orange Preparatory Academy auditorium. This was the same auditorium where I remembered having assemblies during elementary through high school. The same auditorium where my eighth grade graduation was held. The same auditorium where I participated in numerous concerts and a musical (y’all ain’t know this though). This auditorium held a special place in my 22 years of life in Orange so I guess it was ironic that it would be the same auditorium where my inner activist came up against my understanding of my community. Last night as I was sitting in the auditorium I was happy to see so many people from near and far, including Tamika Mallory, showing their support for Marylin  yet when they started speaking publicly I realized how the issue wasn’t so black and white as the protesters and the board were trying to make it seem. Protesters were angry at the board for their treatment of Marylin and demanded that she be reinstated. On Twitter people were criticizing how the program was structure with children saying the Pledge of Allegiance because black lives don’t get to experience the “liberty and justice for all” (I totally understand and agree with this critique). As a resident of Orange, my friend and I knew not to show up at 7:30 because we knew that there would be other matters that the board would address beforehand, so there wasn’t a conspiracy to delay the conversation (trust me I would be the first to tell you if there was). When the board returned from a recess, the lawyers did their dance speaking pass each other over semantics and legalese. Marylin gave a very beautiful speech about why she teaches and how she wants to be there for her students. A lot of people basically called the board members Uncle Toms and Mammies who were serving white supremacist masters (dang son!). Others came up to the mayor and criticized him. People also pointed out how problematic it was that the school board was appointed but since a majority of those speaking were not from Orange they did not know that a year of two ago there was a question on our ballot that asked Orange residents if they would like board members to be elected instead of appointed. Though I voted yes the question did not pass (still baffled at this by the way). It was when people started criticizing the white chain that the board had used to bar off some seats that I became more concerned with where I fit in in the two sides. I had seen the white chain used to bar off the front section of the auditorium many times before so it wasn’t too strange for me however protesters used the evocative imagery of the chain to talk of how our black ancestors were once held in them and now the all black board sat up and away from the audience on stage had the privilege to persecute [sic] Marylin (there words not mine). After hearing the complaints, I wondered if I wasn’t from Orange where I weas aware of my small town’s politics and practices, would I side with the protesters calling out the issues of the board and promising that if Marylin wasn’t reinstated that we would continue to protest? Answer: probably but I don’t have the luxury to live in that simplicity.

One of my concerns going into last night was that I was afraid that we would see a struggle between the big town vs small town mindset. Orange is in a weird position between Ferguson and Baltimore. It has an all black city council but the town is small and there are certain policies that made sense to officials before this story received national attention. As a person involved in my small community, I know people from the mayor to people at the board of education to local community organizations so I am very aware of how the politics of Orange work. Even before this meeting, I tried to reconcile my place in this debate. At the same time I don’t want my town to be influenced by outside perspectives, specifically the Fraternal Order of Police, who have no interest in Orange and who otherwise would just view my town as “a ghetto filled with thugs and welfare queens” (Heard it all before). However, the same argument could be used, and I am sure ran through some board member’s mind last night, that the people protesting did not have an investment in Orange for the board to actually take their critiques seriously. Though I hate the term “outside agitators” because of the racial history behind it, I can now see how black municipal governments and citizens could use that term to describe what happened at the meeting. Of all those who came to the microphone, about three or four were from Orange. An older lady that spoke, who apparently goes to all school board meetings, called for Marylin to be fired which made the protesters angry but trust me when I say as much as there are supporters of Marylin in Orange, there are those who view what she did as wrong. Although, I did not necessarily agree with the lady, I understood that she has long been engaged in the community even more so than me and her opinion does hold more weight to the board. Also, her views represents a unique brand of conservatism in Orange which is a Democrat stronghold. The other people from Orange who spoke in support of Marylin were great but my friend and I realized how the board could disregard their critiques because they were not the parents of the students that were in Marylin’s class (if these parents had shown up in droves to support Marylin, I feel that would have sent a powerful message). Marylin is not the first great teacher from Orange to be faced with scrutiny from the board, trust me I know and I have often disagreed with the board over the treatment of some of the teachers who were very influential in my life. Yet it is the peculiarities of this case involving Mumia Abu-Jamal that brought the national spotlight to Orange that make this decision controversial either way. I found myself wondering would I be called an Uncle Tom if I was an appointed board member even though a lot of my friends view  me as radical on issues of racial justice?

As I sit typing this post in my bedroom in the community I love and want to make better, I want both sides to move beyond the simple and easy clear cut black and white definitions. As much as I am for challenging those that use their power to oppress and how I understand that sometimes a black face in a position of leadership does not mean equality (i.e. we have a black president yet still he embraces race neutral language when discussing black anger against institutionalized racism), the board  had a difficult decision to make but ultimately they at least in theory are there to serve the residents of Orange and their children. There were threats about further legal action if Marylin was not reinstated but that wouldn’t hurt the board it would only hurt the students in the district. Orange is comprised of mainly renters so the school district does not get as much money from property taxes as surrounding areas like West Orange, South Orange and Montclair (just want to say gentrification is not the solution to this problem). Even if Marylin’s lawyer lost the case, the school district would have less money to use for programming that could have benefited the students. If this is really about the students we have to proceed with caution to make sure that they do not suffer not only because of the politics at play but also from the lost of important resources. At the same time, I support Marylin and feel teachers like her should be cherished. IF a mistake was made we need to learn and move forward from it. At around 12:20 AM May 13th the board meeting adjourned after a very cryptic vote that left many of the angry and tired protesters scratching their heads (I will wait for an actual news site to report what the vote did). Last night showed me that in my journey to be more civicly engaged in my community, that there will be times when my personal ideologies and understanding of the various situations and the parties involved will be lost in the gray. If I was a community organizer in a neighborhood in NYC, I wouldn’t care as much about my opposition’s feelings but working in the community you grew up in with people you see everyday makes this impossible. All I ask is that we retire the lazy generalities because they do not help Orange or Marylin at the end of the day.

P.S. A Dominican woman who spoke on the behalf of Marylin claimed her blackness and I LIVED!!! Especially considering my own experiences in the country.

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