Portraits of a Problem: the Jena 6 and Mass Incarceration

Robert Bailey working out with friends

Thanks to their participation in the nationally televised Bayou Classic, Mychal Bell and Robert Bailey Jr. have now been recognized for something unrelated to the Jena 6 phenomenon.  When their names were called, it was because they had made a contribution on the field.

But there is far more at stake here than simple athletic success.  Mychal and Robert are making a positive contribution to their teams under the tutelage of seasoned football men who care about their players’ moral and educational advancement more than they care about winning.  Mychal and Robert are getting a second chance.

That’s a big deal when you consider that, in the natural order of things, Mychal and Robert would now be institutionalized felons rotting away in obscure Louisiana prisons.  By the time the prison doors swung open, the road to higher education would be blocked by dozens of petty regulations designed to keep offenders from reintegrating into society.  

When I saw Mychal and Robert in the LaSalle Parish Jail in December of 2006, I could feel the bleak future awaiting them if no one stepped in and stepped up.

The Jena 6 phenomenon, from start to finish, was about confronting mass incarceration.  In the eyes of the people who rode the buses to Jena, this wasn’t about the relative demerits of noose hanging and school yard beat-downs; this was about the young black males locked up in staggering numbers from sea to shining sea.

No one knows how many people journeyed to Jena for the massive rally on September 20, 2007.  Local officials put the count at 20,000 but the actual number was likely twice that high.  So many people showed up in the isolated Louisiana town that cell phones were useless.  Instead of feeding background information to journalists, I spent the day talking to the college students and church people who comprised 90% of the crowd.  I had one question for the dozens of people I talked to: what brought you to Jena today.  Inevitably, the answer came in the shape of a name; some young black kid like Mychal Bell or Robert Bailey Jr. who was doing serious time for marijuana possession, a school fight, petty theft or something of the sort. 

Some of the people I talked to were convinced their loved one was innocent; others freely admitted that the young man who brought them to Jena had issues.  The Jena march was about troubled young men who would never get a chance to contribute to society because the drug war, draconian sentences and felon disenfranchisement are designed to mark them forever as aliens and outcasts.  Whether behind bars or on the street, hundreds of thousands of young men will never be truly free again, and the people who rode the buses knew it. 

The Jena 6 inspired a groundswell of popular support in black America because they personified a terrifying national tragedy that the preachers and politicians refuse to acknowledge.  Jena was about the realities behind the personalities. 

Most of the people I spoke to didn’t really know what had happened in Jena.  They knew a high school noose hanging had been dismissed as a juvenile stunt, and they knew six young black men had been charged with attempted murder. 

But this juxtaposition of leniency and severity would never have galvanized black America were it not for the bizarre numbers of young black males currently in prison, on probation or on parole.   Entire neighborhoods have been impacted by mass incarceration.  Young women can’t find potential marriage partners; babies are growing up without daddies; men and women in their 70s and 80s are being pressed into service as surrogate parents.

If this stuff is happening to someone else’s family it’s easy to be cynical.  “Do the crime, do the time,” we say with a pious shrug.  “I taught my kids better than that.  They went to college, got married, and are holding down good jobs.  If we make excuses for these thugs, we’re just encouraging them.  People didn’t face the dogs and fire hoses during the civil rights struggle just so their grandchildren could run wild on the street.”

Too often, that’s how things look from the choir loft or to the folks climbing out of the minivan in black suburbia.  But when it’s your child (or grandchild, or brother, or nephew or boyfriend) doing twenty years for a petty drug charge, you understand that no one does the time alone.  For every young man locked up on the inside, there are a dozen people on the outside whose lives will never be the same. 

Sure, we have to lock up the folks who pose an imminent danger to the community; public safety is a legitimate concern.  But most of these kids just need to have their chains yanked.  Like Mychal Bell and Robert Bailey Jr, they need some tough love from trusted authority figures who have their best interests at heart. 

When we mess up somebody needs to get our attention.  Somebody needs to interpret the situation for us, inspire some genuine remores, point us in a better direction. 

But mass incarceration isn’t about public safety, and it isn’t about consequences, rehabilitation or accountability.  Mass incarceration is about social control, incapacitation, political sloganeering and . . . shudder . . .  job creation.  Prison isn’t about yanking chains, remedial education or turning lives around; prison, probation and parole have become a form of permanent exile from the rights of citizenship.  

The folks who rode the buses to Jena had experienced these things first hand.  They were angry.  They didn’t know if the Jena 6 were guilty as charged or not.  (There has never been any empirical way of knowing.)  They just didn’t want to see six young lives destroyed. 

Consequences?  Yes. 

Restitution?  Certainly. 

Justice?  Of course.  

Six lives destroyed by eternal exile?  Hell no! 

That’s what brought a thousand buses to Jena, Louisiana.

Few white people, even progressive white people, understood what Jena was all about.  A lot of black folks didn’t get it either.  Wasn’t this just a glorification of violence?  Sure, racism is an abiding reality; but is this where we want to make our stand?

For the people who sacrificed sleep and regular meals to get from Philadelphia and Atlanta and Dallas and New York to a little central Louisiana town, Jena was precisely the place to make a stand.  For these folks, it was never about the Jena 6 as individuals; it was about the systematic destruction of vulnerable black communities.   It wasn’t about simple guilt and innocence; it was about the philosophy driving the criminal justice system.

The folks on the platform had a hard time putting all of this into words.  Too often they talked as if nothing has changed in America, especially in little southern towns like Jena. 

In reality, everything has changed; but not always for the better. 

Economic and educational opportunities for students of color aren’t what they ought to be, but they’re a whole lot better than they used to be. 

On the other hand, if you’re black, the chances of having your life destroyed by a harsh and counter-productive criminal justice system have risen enormously.  According to Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough, the odds of a young Texas black male born in 1950 doing jail time was about 3%.  By 2009, 29% of young black males born in the Lone Star State will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.

Is this just because black kids in 1950 were making better life decisions, or are we dealing with a radical shift in public policy?

All of this was on my mind as I watched Mychal Bell emerge out of nowhere to tackle a Grambling running back or as I caught a brief glimpse of Robert Bailey Jr streaking toward the man with the football.  Mychal and Robert are getting a second chance and making the most of it.  They are no longer defined by a ten-second interlude in the early afternoon of December 4, 2006.

The Jena 6 provide a portrait of a problem.  We want them all to flourish; but their success doesn’t end mass incarceration. 

The human mind is wired for narrative.  We love the ebb and flow of human experience.  We identify with well-rendered characters, even if they are deeply flawed.  We identify, we empathize.  Their quest becomes ours.  Give an issue a human face and people begin to pay attention.

But do we ever really engage the realities behind the personalities?  When we chant, “Free the Jena 6,” and the Jena 6 actually walk free, is the fight over? 

Not at all.  This fight wasn’t just about getting some justice for six young men in a small southern town; it was about viewing America through a human lens and seeing things we had never seen before.  If our vicarious advocacy for the Jena 6 doesn’t impact the reality of mass incarceration we have accomplished nothing. 

America needs a dramatic shift from retribution to restoration; from incapacitation to rehabilitation.  Not every life can be restored and rehabilitated.  Not every wanna-be thug can be transformed into a hardworking father who stays home at night to read his kid a bedtime story.  But most lives can be salvaged . . . if that is our goal.  And most lives will be destroyed if that is our intention.

To change public policy we need a new social consensus; to build a new consensus we need a movement; to build a movement we must understand the realities behind the personalities.  The Jena 6 and Troy Davis and the Scott Sisters can help us down that road; but only if we see them as compelling portraits of a larger problem.

One thought on “Portraits of a Problem: the Jena 6 and Mass Incarceration

  1. Superb post. You nailed it. What does this all say? That too many people are too tired or ignorant or unconcerned or scared or racist to worry about justice. That in a nation of 300 million, most of us are still essentially tribal creatures who can only feel real empathy for at most a few hundred other familiar people. That reporters are encouraged to report about only what those tired/ignorant/unconcerned/scared/racist people want to hear or see, not what would educate them. Possibly the only encouraging thing to say about it is that none of this is really new. Keep up the good work.

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