The Movement Comes to Jena

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

Joanna Dubinsky

THE HUMID AIR felt electric as the sun ascended over the hundreds of buses idling a 20-mile stretch of Louisiana Route 49, the gateway to the rural hometown of the Jena 6. It was 6 AM, September 20, 2007 — the day Mychal Bell was initially scheduled to be sentenced for his role in the beating of a white classmate — and northeast central Louisiana, on the border of Mississippi, was looking anything but sleepy.

The buses, cars, and motorcycles — topped with groups of leather-clad African-American bikers — were arriving from points north, east, west and south. Our bus made the trek from New Orleans — in the southern part of the state — where a dozen buses made 1 AM departures from various locations, including the parking lot of a still-shuttered grocery store in a neighborhood struggling to rebuild from the 2005 flooding caused by the failure of the federal government’s levees.

As the drivers waited for direction from the state police, many riders disembarked to stretch their legs and take in the amazing spectacle. Impromptu chants of “Free the Jena 6” were interspersed with hugs and Black power fist salutes to passing cars and motorcycles.

Our bus driver cranked Michael Baisden, radio DJ and one of the organizing forces of the unfolding convergence. Baisden, reporting from Jena, announced that thousands of people had already arrived and hundreds of buses were still en route, but were being held up by state police who allowed only five buses to resume their course every 12 minutes.

This obstruction was enough to prompt some riders to start a march of their own. They had traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to be in Jena that day, and they would get there even if they had to walk the last 20 miles.

Fortunately the buses started rolling toward Jena; they continued to arrive long into the afternoon.

By now, the story leading up to the mobilization in Jena is familiar — nooses hanging from “white trees,” teenagers doled a different justice based on race. And though Jena gives a particularly egregious and clear representation of the persistence of racism in the United States, many activists have noted that similar instances of racism happen every day and in every part of the country — especially in the criminal justice system.

To understand the momentum around the Jena 6, you need only have seen Jena that day — with its population less than 3,000 and over 80% white — largely shuttered (complete with “Gone Fishing” signs, a favorite background prop for protestors’ pictures). Quite literally, Jena had been taken over by the tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators.

The turnout was overwhelmingly African American, multi-generational, and cross-class.

White folks were so few and far between on the streets of Jena September 20th that several protestors asked us — a group of white supporters — to pose for pictures. In addition, people did not come as individuals: they came in self-organized groups, with their college, churches, unions —Teamsters, UAW members, Postal Workers — or motorcycle clubs represented on their homemade “Free the Jena 6” t-shirts.

The usual leading forces were also there — Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, SCLC, various chapters of the NAACP, the Nation of Islam — but the real organizers were college students and radio DJs.

This bottom-up and decentralized organizing was clear on the day of the convergence, when — Jackson and Sharpton notwithstanding — no clear leader held sway over the proceedings, and the scheduled competing “marches” did not happen. Instead, groups gathered at the courthouse, the high school and every stretch of road in Jena. Some walked through the town, as if on a pilgrimage to see where the “white tree” — now firewood — had stood.
Along the way, groupings of dozens and sometimes hundreds chanted and held aloft their homemade protest signs.

DJ and Student Power

Hip-hop DJs like Michael Baisden — better known for their “grown and sexy” discussion of urban relationships than political analysis and mobilizing — were particularly important to the organizing. This parallels lessons from the Immigrant Rights marches of 2006: the followers and the power of radio DJs should not be underestimated, they can rapidly turn political. And though the DJs did align themselves with some of the traditional leaders — Baisden, for instance, put himself in the Sharpton camp — there was a certain level of autonomy and critique of the old guard in the radio banter, including the emphasis of the collective power of the Black community when that community takes to the streets.

But by far the most significant force were college students, especially from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Their presence is clear not only on the internet — where a petition received over 100,000 signatures and dozens of groups like “Free the Jena 6” and “Jena 6, Anytown, USA,” each with tens of thousands of members, popped up on the popular national social-networking sites Facebook and Myspace — but at the convergence where they were representing their schools, usually by wearing Jena 6-themed shirts that referenced their college.

The groundwork for organizing around September 20th began at home, with hundreds of protests throughout the country, many on college campuses, leading up to the convergence. What spurred into motion a generation that has been considered notoriously politically inactive?

One important denominator that activists point to is New Orleans. In the last two years, thousands of students — many African American — participated in post-Katrina relief work and political organizing. While some of these students came down to New Orleans to work with explicitly radical organizations with an analysis of racism, like People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, those participating in more mainstream organizations like the much larger faith-based relief efforts were likely — just by witnessing the devastation and abandonment by the federal government — to be radicalized as well.

Kali Akuno, organizer for People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) — the group which, along with the National Hip Hop Political Convention and hip hop artist Mos Def, was central to organizing the walkout of thousands of students on October 1st  — noted that students politicized in New Orleans were the “infrastructure” for the countrywide grassroots organizing.

According to another member of MXGM, college groups on 70-80 campuses have been participating in conference calls coordinating the Jena 6 protests.

While “Free the Jena 6” is still the central demand in growing movement — as the walkouts on October 1st and continued internet mobilizing reveal — activists are already asking what happens next.

This brings the political questions about Jena 6 into focus. Was Jena a Deep South exception — a place where Jim Crow remained entrenched despite the civil rights movement as some media outlets would have us believe? Some protestors embraced this framework: one protest sign read “New Orleans & Jena: Louisiana, shame on you,” as if the “backwardness” of the South was solely to blame for the racism revealed on a national stage in those two towns.

Was the organizing a visceral reaction to the kind of racism generally not accepted in 21st Century America — the story of the nooses — or was it the culmination of outrage to the years of systematically racist mass incarceration and unequal justice for African Americans, especially young African-American men? Was it the intersection of the two?

Addressing Criminal (In)Justice

The criminal justice system of the South’s thinly veiled racist history links contiguously with the bedrock of American racism: slavery. Former plantations, such as Angola in Louisiana, were quickly transitioned into prisons and filled with former slaves after the Civil War in an effort to maintain white supremacy during and after the failure of Reconstruction. But even in those “progressive” U.S. cities that do not have this history, the systematic racism of the criminal justice system reigns terror over communities of color.

Xochitl Bervera, who for years has worked with hundreds of courageous mothers, grandmothers and children — like the families of the Jena 6 — in her capacity as co-director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, is thankful that the Jena 6 have cast national light on Louisiana’s particularly harsh and racist system of (in)justice.

But she illustrates that we “relentlessly and persistently demand justice for the Jena 6” by “demand(ing) justice, not only in the form of dropping the charges against these specific youth, but in the systematic and thorough rooting out of racism from all wings of the criminal justice systems across the United States of America.”

Activists around Jena 6 are continually seeing this connection, as it often directly connects to their own experiences. As the slogan around Jena 6 shifts to “We all live in Jena,” youth are championing the six while looking at the criminal justice system in their own cities. And while a movement addressing the complexity of this system, what some have termed the prison industrial complex, is monumentally challenging — the new style racism it represents is so much harder to capture and address than the old-style Jim Crow racism — the movement does not seem to be losing momentum.

As new incidents arise — such as a white security guard breaking the arm of a Black high school student over the cleanup of a piece of birthday cake in Palmdale, CA. in late September — students are quick to organize a walk-out, some wearing their “Free the Jena 6” t-shirts. Organizing is continuing; but beyond protest, where will it go?

As with many movements, symbols, human faces and compelling (and clearly egregious) stories are often catalysts. This awareness couldn’t have been more clearly represented in Jena on September 20th as some demonstrators held high dozens of larger-than-life placards emblazoned with the iconic image of Emmet Till.

History will tell if the spark for the civil rights movement that Emmet Till’s murder in 1954 in Money, Mississippi provided will be paralleled by the spark to the “21st Century Civil Rights Movement” from the nooses hung in the “white tree” and the story of Mychal Bell and the Jena 6. What seems certain is that the struggle around the criminal (in)justice system is quickly becoming the new frontier of the next generation’s fight against American racism.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)