Jena, Louisiana still crops up in the media from time-to-time, usually as shorthand for abiding racism. Darryl Fears’ Washington Post feature on the decline of traditional civil rights groups tips the hat to the Jena phenomenon in its closing paragraphs.
When six black teenagers in Jena, La., were being prosecuted as adults last year in the beating of a white classmate, the local branch of the NAACP played a small role in defending their rights, but it was Color of Change.org that secured their release.
Color of Change deserves the accolade. Under the leadership of James Rucker, COC collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for a Jena petition and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the legal fight (every penny of which landed in the right hands).
Unfortunately, no one has won the release of the Jena 6; Mychal Bell is serving the last few months of his sentence and the other five defendants still face trial.
Moreover, the “local branch of the NAACP” was formed a year ago through the efforts of Friends of Justice, Tory Pegram, then of the La. ACLU, and Jena 6 families led by Caseptla Bailey and Catrina Wallace.
In late January of 2007, ten Jena 6 family members and Alan Bean of Friends of Justice drove to Baton Rouge, La. to meet with NAACP leaders. After waiting for three hours, we finally got five minutes with president Ernest Johnson. His message was simple: create an NAACP branch with 100 dues-paying members and we’ll be there for ya’ll.
We held up our end. The state NAACP waited for the story to go viral on the internet and become a staple item in the mainstream media–then they took an interest.
Darryl Fears is right about the endgame–Color of Change and radio personality Michael Baisden had far more to do with bringing 30,000 people to Jena than old-guard icons like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
But how did James Rucker of COC and Michael Baisden hear about Jena in the first place? Rucker was invited to participate by Tory Pegram (now a Friends of Justice board member). Pegram remembered the great work Color of Change had performed in the wake of Katrina and made the critical call.
Dallas-based Michael Baisden learned about Jena from reading the paper, watching television and surfing the net.
I have no problem with high-profile, high-capacity folks riding to the aid of the grassroots folks who do the heavy lefting early on. But I do have a problem with the self-promoting arrogance media celebrities commonly demonstrated in Jena.
James Rucker is a blessed exception. He came to town and worked with the grassroots people while the story was still catching fire.
Michael Baisden and Al Sharpton rolled into Jena in flashy limousines, grabbed a few soundbites from a compliant media, then headed off to Alexandria for a fundraiser. The next day, when concerned citizens from across the nation flocked to Jena, the big boys bickered backstage about who should command the premier venue.
Catrina Wallace, the brother of Jena 6 defendant Robert Bailey, had organized a Hip-Hop concert for local youth. The La. NAACP, afraid that the rappers might go to cussin’, bumped Catrina’s concert to the sidelines. Finally, the NAACP was dissed and dismissed by Baisden and Sharpton. In the end, there were two rallies: one featuring Baisden, Sharpton and friends; the other highlighting Jesse Jackson and the La. NAACP.
The folks who endured two nights on a bus to get to Jena found themselves wandering from one venue to the other, wondering what was going on. In the end, it didn’t matter. Few were aware of the internecine squabbling and a good time was had by all.
It was all good; but it could have been so much better.
Now, folks are wondering what happened to the Jena movement. We all gathered for a big rally; the House Judiciary Committee held a highly-publicized hearing into the matter; then interest dropped like a rock. What was that all about?
Any “movement” that owes its existence to the undeniable power of celebrity will eventually be done-in by celebrity’s impotent downside.
Michael Baisden was flying by the seat of his pants. He didn’t understand what Jena was all about and he never bothered to talk to those of us who had been living the story for half a year. The story got under The Bad Boy’s skin. He was outraged, and his passion translated powerfully to millions of listeners. Baisden called his “family” to join him in Jena for a big rally. The logistical ramifications were enormous. No one had time to ask what came next.
So nothing came next.
Al Sharpton doesn’t investigate civil rights abuses; he waits for other people to get the story to the media, then he swoops in wagging his finger at the evil doers. But Sharpton never knew what Jena was all about. Everything was reduced to his stock storyline: unequal justice for black folks.
Sharpton concluded that the criminal justice system should either try to noose boys as hate criminals or turn the Jena 6 loose. Like any good controversialist, Al doesn’t do nuance.
Because Sharpton is a media celebrity, his take on Jena became the last word.
Make no mistake; Jena is a story about unequal justice. But what lies at the root of this inequality?
Jena is a story about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Jena is about racial insensitivity translating into bizarre public policy. Superintendent Roy Breithaupt should have known that nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree were a sign of fear and deep loathing. Relations between the noose boys and certain black football players were bad and steadily worsening. Everybody knew it. The issues needed to be addressed.
Trying the noose boys as hate criminals would have missed the point. These were kids, after all. They needed to be dealt with firmly, fairly and compassionately. They were not responsible for the legacy of Jim Crow racism, but their minds and hearts had certainly been twisted by it. Nothing short of a full program of education addressing all the historical, ethical, and relational issues the Jim Crow South has left in its weary wake would have been sufficient.
But Mr. Breithaupt wasn’t ready to confront Jena’s history, so he tossed his town’s dirty linen into the clothes hamper and hoped it would disappear.
When the noose incident was dismissed as a childish prank, the black community was outraged and the school was placed on lockdown. Reed Walters was called to an emergency assembly. This was another teachable moment, a second chance for someone in authority to address the key issue. Like the superintendent, Mr. Walters dropped the ball.
In a June hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse, Walters was asked if he had waved his pen in the air and told the students that he could make their lives disappear with a stroke of his pen. Walters owned up to the remark without hesitation. He thought the black students were overreacting to the handling of the noose incident and he wanted to give them a reality check. Black and white students, Walters told the court, needed to “work things out by themselves.”
This is America’s problem–we are leaving the children to work things out for themselves. When adolescent males are left to their own devices bones are broken and the blood flows freely. Thus it has every been; thus it will ever be. It’s the male code, and it will be followed with tragic inevitability unless the adults in the room step in and do some teaching.
That, Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Baisden, is what Jena is all about.
The real Jena story could have sparked a productive national debate. In fact, despite all the misplaced emphasis and the hollow theatrics, the real story has been told. It could have been told better, no mistake. But Jena has sparked a boistrous and sustained conversation about how we can break the chain of violence that eventually engulfed Justin Barker and Robert Bailey in Jena.
The most articulate response thus far has come from Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that’s asking the right questions and providing sane and workable answers.
So what’s next for Jena?
It all depends. If Reed Walters takes even one of these cases to trial, Jena will be back in the news. It might not make the front page, but the fires of controversy will be rekindled.
If Reed Walters agrees to a universal settlement involving no additional prison time, there will be a few passing references in the media and the story will quickly fade from view.
Frankly, I’m praying for the second solution because it is in the best interest of the Jena 6, the Barker family and the good people of Jena.
What’s it to be, Mr. Walters? The next move is yours.
But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What’s next for Jena?”, we should be asking what’s next for the criminal justice movement. Jena’s name is legion.
Friends of Justice continues to monitor the situation in Jena, but we have moved on. We’re working in Bunkie, Lousiana. We’re playing a bit part in a large coalition working for justice for the Angola 3. And we’re currently researching a case in Little Rock, Arkansas that cuts to the heart of America’s prison problem.
Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentleman, we’re in for a bumpy ride!
Friends of Justice