Friday, September 21, 2007

The Old Leadership vs. the New Crowd

Unfortunately, Mychael Bell is still in prison awaiting a new trial as a juvenile. I have no idea why the judge can't grant this kid bail. He's been in jail for ten months and his conviction just got tossed. Is he a flight risk? Give me a break.

Many still question the point of yesterday's protest. Will is actually help the six teenagers? Does it really indicate the birth of a new era of African American political activity?

I wrote yesterday about what made this protest different.
Or you could read this, about internet organization. Or this, about the role of black radio.

Here is a related anecdotal story:

At around 8:00 AM yesterday, in Jena, a large crowd was gathered in front of the La Salle Parish courthouse, where a podium was erected. The crowd was outraged but also excited and celebratory as leaders gathered at the lectern.

First to grab the microphone, were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which was a stalwart organization of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Of three or four gentlemen standing there in their yellow SCLC hats, one came forward and began to address the crowd, noting the historical importance of the SCLC, and his own personal intimacy with Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King. Largely, he seemed to be attempting to give as much credit to the SCLC as possible for their role in bringing about the Jena protest. People around me rolled their eyes, these guys were clearly past their prime, especially as far as their ability to connect to the hip hop generation is concerned.

As he spoke, another group that shared the stage began to shout over him, with the help of megaphone. This group was the New Black Panther Party. One woman, in particular was clearly uninterested in what SCLC had to say and continued shouting slogans through the megaphone as the SCLC official with the microphone pleaded with her. "Please, everyone will have a chance to speak. There is a certain way that we're going to do things."

The crowd became annoyed and chanted "We are United! We are United!" while the two groups were talking over each other. The woman with the megaphone showed no interest in waiting her turn, so the SCLC vacated the podium in disgust.

Now, with access to the microphone and its speakers, the woman stepped up. The crowd cheered along as she lead chants and slogans and applauded her as she introduced herself as a representative of the New Black Panther Party.

Next, she began to criticize the direction of the protest. She laid into radio host and protest organizer Michael Baisden for "selling out" the protest by bringing in Al Sharpton and negotiating with corporate interests by agreeing to hold an afternoon rally in Alexandria. She implied that by doing so, Baisden and protest organizers were short-circuiting the campaign to free Mychael Bell. While her critique of protest tactics may have produced valid points had she continued, the crowd was clearly upset by her attacks on the other organizers, booing her rigorously and renewing chants of "we are united."

She regained the favor of the protesters by chanting for Mykael Bell and handed the microphone over to another Panther. The damage was done, however, and his more radical statements were met by more booing and chants for unity and against "hate."

The microphone then went to a seemingly unaffiliated Reverend who got the crowd's undivided attention and admiration for a great speech that lauded the protest and the beauty of seeing so many different people together for one cause, etc. The SCLC returned to share the stage and the speeches continued without similar incidents throughout the day. The Panthers remained and seemed to adopt the unity rhetoric during their other opportunities with the microphone.

What is remarkable to me about this particular incident was the crowd's disinterest in these historic bastions of African American leadership. Throughout the day, I noticed that people posed for pictures with those dressed in the traditional uniform of the Black Panthers. This, to me, speaks volumes about their modern relevance as an organizing force. Members of the SCLC seemed like relics too, as they spoke about their own organization's importance and significance.

For me, this particular incident really underscores a shift in the way African American political organization is occurring in this country. These old movement organizations, SCLC and the BPP, are largely antiquated and provided little substantive mobilization momentum, particularly in comparison to the critical role of the blogosphere and radio. This is why I think so many people that have followed this issue closely or were there yesterday are so excited about this particular protest. It is easy to be dismissive of claims about the dawn of a new civil rights movement as fantastic or sensational. However, to shrug off the significance of the Jena mobilization misses a real chance to analyze a breakthrough in internet-driven political activism.


m.d. said...

Interesting anecdote.

In a post on my blog I think you commented on, I did not intend to be dismissive and cynical of the marchers' intentions. In fact, I wish I had been there because I believe I share the same intentions as many of the marchers.

But I wonder about the quality of intent of the marchers who were mobilized in this new way. It is quick and easy to mobilize with new media.

But will the new, younger, different mobilization stick around and see the job through? Civil rights movements are not quick and easy. With the advances in technology, I don't think mobilizing big numbers of people, particulary younger and "wired in" people, is a measure of the quality of the intent of the participants.

That's why I also wonder about the anecdote you gave. Is it a good thing to turn your back on the traditional groups that have stuck around for a while? They might be viewed as stale, but they are still here.

What would impress me is if newer, younger, more vibrant voices were coming from those bastions. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are still around because no one has stepped up to take their place.

The point I was trying to make with my post is that I didn't hear those new, young, vibrant voices in the media accounts I saw.

Remember, I wasn't there, like most of the nation. We must rely on the media to hear the voices of the march. Now that I think about it, relying on the media might be my biggest problem.

Thank you for your first hand reporting. I have no question of the quality of your intent.

E said...

I think there is a long and interesting discussion to have about the efficacy of the old institutional movement organizations of the 60s and 70s. I'm fascinated to see if we are indeed entering a new era of African American political insurgency.

m.d., you point out that the traditional groups, while "stale" may be instrumental because they are "still here." One thing that I've always criticized about these types of movement organizations is that once a movement recedes into a down or latent period, a movement org. seems to become primarily concerned with its own bureaucratic survival, its behavior more resembling a corporation than a devoted group of activists.

For instance, is anyone familiar with the role of the SCLC over the last 20 years? I haven't even googled it so I could be way off base.