Thursday, September 20, 2007

Freeing the Jena 6

Last night I went to bed for a three hour nap, waking up at 2:00 AM to hit the road for Jena, Louisiana.

For those that haven't heard yet, Jena is a small town of around 3000 that, today, was the scene of a massive protest in support of six teenagers charged in connection to a fight that developed from months of racial tension at Jena High School.

I won't go into all of the details of the case at hand, here's a link to a timeline of events.

I will say, however, that it is obvious that the local District Attorney went way overboard with the charges and deserves all of this negative attention for being so stubborn and one-sided. There were obviously racial issues in the high school that needed to be addressed with discussion, workshops, and education. That the DA thought the best way to address the racial conflict was by incarcerating the black students demonstrates an obvious racial bias and a stunning naivety that this would somehow repair the Jena community.

Lots of folks have negative opinions about District Attorney Reed Walters, I spent the day with thousands of them.

Jesse Jackson in front of Jena Courthouse

There is no doubt that people are outraged at the application of justice in Jena, that is what sparked this mass mobilization. The crowd certainly expressed their displeasure with the situation in Jena, but the protest atmosphere was closer to euphoria than revolution. People were mostly high-spirited, both moved by the unity and excited by the spontaneity of it all.

Hot 8 Brass Band always gets the crowd moving.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of this particular protest activity was the way in which it was organized. The story of the Jena 6 went largely unnoticed in the mainstream media for almost an entire year. The general stalwarts of African American political organization, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan did not inspire the primary interest in the story. Rather, outrage over this particular incident fermented virally, under the radar of the mainstream media, and even mainstream African American media.

The story was kept alive locally as it developed by radio host Tony Brown and his "Eyes Open" program on 88.1 fm, which services Alexandria and its surrounds. At some point in August, nationally syndicated radio host Michael Baisden picked up on the plight of the Jena 6 and the story exploded. He has been given a lot of credit for organizing and promoting today's protest.

Quickly, the Jena 6 story became an internet sensation. The outrage over the story demanded direct action, and that is what pushed Baisden to reach out to Sharpton, Jackson, and others about the September 20th date. This article, in the Chicago Tribune, explains the emergence of the black blogosphere, its influence on this particular issue, and its expanding role into the traditional civil rights leadership.

Tonight, I logged onto facebook and searched within groups for 'Jena' and found that there are over 500 different facebook groups supporting the Jena 6 teens. If you're a facebook member, you can recreate this search for yourself. These groups began recruitment early on, as well, before news of emerging national discontent became a fixture. The group 'Philly Supports the Jena Six' has nearly 4,000 members and its main page includes a wealth of activist information including contact information for all major national media outlets as well as several major local newspapers. Another group, called "
A MODERN DAY LYNCHING: FREE THE JENA 6" boasts nearly 15,000 members.

Oh, Oyster, actually one gubernatorial candidate did make his mark at the rally in Jena.

Sorry about the picture quality, but those FREE bottled waters bear the campaign logo of the famous anti-racist John Georges. This article confirms his actual presence there.

Check back in later for an anecdotal story about the interaction between the old-guard African American leadership groups and the crowd that may illustrate the shift in mobilization tactics written about in the Chicago Tribune article linked above.


Maitri said...

Thanks for GOING and for the writeup, E. What mixed emotions.

As for John Georges, his bottles were at the NO AIDS walk. Does this guy even know what and whom he's supporting or does he not care?

E said...

He's like that kid that won the class presidency in fifth grade because he brought in lollipops.

Anonymous said...

The easy thing for him to have done was NOT go to the NO AIDS walk or to Jena out of fear of what the dividers would say. Real leaders care about the understanding the tough problems and are willing to give everyone a seat at the table -- it is the only way to work to find the common ground we need for solutions.

As for the water, I like it -- it is much better than the Bobby Jindal Kool-Aid so many people seem to be drinking!