Friday, September 21, 2007

What happened in Jena

-- by Dave

I'll be the first to admit that I, like a lot of other journalists, really fell down on the story of what was going on in Jena, Louisiana. Fortunately, it didn't matter one bit.

I was alerted to the story a few weeks ago by readers who asked me to look into it -- and unfortunately, my deeply bred caution about stories like this kept me from delving into it more deeply. I've dealt with enough crime-based civil-rights stories over the years to know that the truth is not always something you can obtain from just a cursory look at the publicly reported facts; after going through what was reported in the press, my initial impulse was to want to see the court records and charging documents and wait to see what came out in the trials.

Since it was taking place in Louisiana and I'm up here at the other end of the country, and I haven't any good sources in that neck of the woods, I decided to watch and wait and hope more came out. Boy, did it.

The march yesterday was remarkable not just for the size of the turnout, but for the passion for the cause of black Americans' civil rights that it seemed to reawaken. The presence of all those mostly silent faces demanding justice for a group of young black men was a truly awe-inspiring sight, far more so than any words spoken from the civil-rights spokesmen who leapt onto the stage the march provided.
One year ago, after a black student asked an administrator's permission to sit under the tree—and was told he could sit wherever he liked—three white students hung nooses from the tree's branches the following day. The local school superintendent dismissed the incident as a youthful prank and refused to expel the white students involved, outraging blacks who were offended by the potent lynching imagery. Months of racial unrest followed in the town, culminating in the December beating.

School officials cut down the infamous tree in July, hoping to eliminate it as a focus of protests. But the demonstrators were undeterred, chanting and marching 12 abreast in a mile-long procession through the streets from the courthouse to the high school courtyard, where they ringed the spot where the tree used to stand.

Conversely, you had to take not of the white residents' reaction, which Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt, in his audio report, described them as standing "with their arms folded, glaring at them."
"They have the freedom to march and freedom of speech, but our town is not racist like this is being depicted," said a white resident who would identify himself only as Jay. "The nooses were just a joke."

No officials of the town, which is 85 percent white, offered any comments about Thursday's march. In the past, they have angrily insisted that Jena suffers from no racial tensions.

But some of the demonstrators, eyeing the wall of portable toilets and the town's failure to set out any trash receptacles to accommodate the crowds, sharply disagreed.

"They want to see a mess left so they can complain how we trashed the place," said Earnestine Hodnett, 58, of Virginia Beach, Va., "They want this demonstration to fail."

Note the excuse given in press accounts by the prosecutor for his questionable actions leading up to the march:
District Attorney Reed Walters, who is prosecuting the case, said Wednesday that race had nothing to do with the charges.

He said he didn’t charge the white students accused of hanging the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. In the beating case, he said, four of the defendants were of adult age under Louisiana law and the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.

“It is not and never has been about race,” Walters said. “It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”

Actually, of course, the young white men who hung the noose could be charged with a number of crimes under Lousiana statute, particularly criminal intimidation and threatening with a bias motive, i.e., a hate crime. But like a lot of white prosecutors, it's easier to see such behavior as "boys will be boys" when the perps are white than when they're black.

Perhaps even more importantly, it's worth celebrating the fact that the march was an awesome demonstration of the power of blogs to bring people together and to do it quickly:
Yet this will be a civil rights protest literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace, of a type that has never happened before in America--a collective national mass action grown from a grassroots word-of-mouth movement spread via Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio.

Jackson, Sharpton and other big-name civil rights figures, far from leading this movement, have had to scramble to catch up. So, too, has the national media, which has only recently noticed a story that has been agitating many black Americans for months.

As formidable as it is amorphous, this new African-American blogosphere, which scarcely even existed a year ago, now comprises hundreds of interlinked blogs and tens of the thousands of followers who within a matter of a few weeks collected 220,000 petition signatures--and more than $130,000 in donations for legal fees--in support of six black Jena teenagers who are being prosecuted on felony battery charges for beating a white student.

"Ten years ago this couldn't have happened," said Sharpton, who said he first heard about the Jena case on the Internet. "You didn't have the Internet and you didn't have black blogs and you didn't have national radio shows. Now we can talk to all of black America every day. We've been able to form our own underground railroad of information, and when everybody else looks up, it's already done."

.... But many black bloggers say the Jena demonstration is really more about a new generation of civil rights activists who learned about the Jena case not from Operation Push but from hip-hop music blogs that featured the story or popular black entertainers such as Mos Def who have turned it into a crusade.

"In traditional civil rights groups, there's a pattern--you call a meeting, you see when everybody can get together, you have to decide where to meet," said Shawn Williams, 33, a pharmaceutical salesman and former college NAACP leader who runs the popular Dallas South Blog.

"All that takes time," Williams added. "When you look at how this civil rights movement is working, once something gets out there, the action is immediate--here's what we're going to write about, here's the petition, here's the protest. It takes place within minutes, hours and days, not weeks or months."

This new, "viral" civil rights movement now taking shape still benefits from the participation of well-known leaders like Jackson or Sharpton--it just doesn't depend on them, bloggers say.

It was black bloggers, for example, who first picked up the story of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl from the east Texas town of Paris who was sentenced to up to 7 years in youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. The judge who heard her case had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl charged with the more serious crime of arson.

After the bloggers and their readers bombarded the Texas governor with protest letters and petitions, Texas authorities freed Cotton--days before Sharpton had scheduled a rally on her behalf.

"When Rev. Jackson or Rev. Sharpton or other recognized leaders get involved, that's helpful, and it helps them--they can see where momentum is building around an issue," said James Rucker, the 38-year-old founder of Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group that has more than 280,000 subscribers. "You can argue they came late to Jena, but they are here now, which is good."

The blogs also serve as watchdogs over more traditional civil rights groups. When the NAACP first began featuring the Jena case on its Web site and claimed to be soliciting contributions for the teens' legal defense, it was a black blogger who quickly pointed out that the donation link directed visitors to the generic NAACP fundraising page, with no way for donors to direct their funds to the Jena defendants.

Within days, the link was redirected to a bona fide Jena 6 fundraising site.

None of the top-tier liberal bloggers paid the Jena situation much attention in the weeks leading up to the march, and those of us on the left dedicated to civil-rights and race issues -- like myself -- tended to let it slide. The bloggers who made this happen were all "bloggers of color" whose own burgeoning network turned out to be truly potent.

Fortunately, their energies made the difference in Jena, and now the whole world is watching and paying attention. That includes those of us who should have been doing so in the first place.

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