IPublished May 23, 2007 11:56 PM

Berkeley commencement supports Mumia

By Brenda Ryan

Leslie Feinberg, who has spent her life fighting for justice for workers and oppressed people and helping to create a modern transgender movement, received an honorary doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry.

The school, part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, awarded Feinberg with a letter of humanities doctorate at its commencement ceremonies on May 17. The doctoral diploma recognizes Feinberg as “a champion of justice for all people, organizer, activist, author and historian, who works tirelessly on behalf of workers, the poor, those imprisoned for their beliefs and the transgender community.”

“Merging theory with practice, hir work is an example of solidarity across differences and in the intersections of oppressions,” the diploma states, using gender-neutral pronouns. “Despite risks to hir personal safety and reputation, ze continues to write, speak and demonstrate hir commitment to countering oppressions and building organizations that insist that in our nation and communities, liberty and justice must truly be for all.

“By speaking when others were silent, honoring the stories of people who struggle to survive and working to bring them together, ze provides an example of life lived in service to the common good.”

Feinberg is renowned for helping to establish language to help understand and fight oppression based on gender and sex and for her books documenting the roots of that oppression. She is a long-time member of Workers World Party and a managing editor of Workers World newspaper.

Feinberg spoke openly as a communist at Star King’s commencement dinner on May 16. She said, “I think what brought us together here tonight is that we each sincerely want to change the world for the better. We may or may not agree on how. But we can meet by bridging conscience and consciousness.”

Feinberg told those gathered that Marx’s phrase that religion is the “opium of the people” is usually quoted out of context. “Marx was actually writing with great compassion for the suffering of the class that was, and still is, exploited, downtrodden and disenfranchised. Marx wrote, ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.’ Religion, he explained, ‘is the sigh of the oppressed,’ it is, ‘the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’ It was in that context that Marx said religion is an opiate for pain and suffering.

“Many of us in this room share this in common—we feel that suffering, hear the sighs and moans around us, struggle to change the soulless conditions. How can we unite to change those conditions?”

Feinberg noted that the following day people around the world would be in Philadelphia to support political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal at a court hearing to consider his petition for a new trial. Feinberg, who was wearing a sticker reading “New trial now! Free Mumia!” encouraged people to take these stickers and wear them in solidarity at the commencement ceremony the next day.

“The struggle to free Mumia is a defining case of our era, like the struggle to free the Scottsboro Brothers and the Rosenbergs,” Feinberg said. “It is part and parcel of the fight against racism and national oppression, against the prison industrial complex and the death penalty, used as a weapon by today’s rulers just as the emperors lined the road to Rome with crucified slaves to warn others against trying to rise up to break their shackles.

“We are modern-day abolitionists, who are organizing to end this system of capitalist economic enslavement and build a society in which each individual can contribute what they can and in return, receive all that they need and desire,” Feinberg concluded. “So I leave you with this question: Which side are you on?”

The audience responded by giving Feinberg an enthusiastic standing ovation.

At commencement the following day virtually every graduating student was wearing the Mumia sticker, as well as the president of the seminary, kitchen staff and ushers, who also handed out the stickers.

Mumia was the theme of Feinberg’s commencement address. “I raise my voice here for all those the government is trying to silence,” she declared. “I raise my voice to demand ‘Free Mumia Abu-Jamal’ so loudly that I hope this Black revolutionary journalist can hear me from his death-row cell in Pennsylvania.”

Feinberg also spoke out for American Indian Movement warrior Leonard Peltier and the Cuban 5, the peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are fighting for their right to self-determination and sovereignty, for undocumented immigrants, for Muslim, Arab and South Asian immigrants, and for those in the Black movement demanding reparations from slavery and the right of Katrina survivors to return to their homes.

The crowd again gave Feinberg a standing ovation. And after the reception that followed, a group of about 45 of the students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, including the president of the seminary, who had worn “Free Mumia” stickers on their gowns, gathered for a photograph to send to Mumia to show their support.

Mumia has been at the center of a commencement address before. In 2000, the Antioch College graduating class voted Mumia and Feinberg as their joint commencement speakers. The Fraternal Order of Police and the Klan fought the decision but the students prevailed.

The reception by the Star King School was another victory, Feinberg noted. “It’s a sign of the deepening and widening understanding of how critical the need for solidarity is to build a powerful movement to transform economic and social life.”

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Some of those who wore Mumia stickers<br>at commencement.

Photo: Steve Fisch

Some of those who wore Mumia stickers
at commencement.