A New Civil Rights Movement gains traction in Jena, LA

Executive Director Alan Bean wrote this three-part reflection after participating in the September 20th rally for justice in Jena, Louisiana. He talks about all the amazing people he met in Jena and describes the experience of participating in a vigil of over 50,000 people in a town of 3,000. What does this massive protest mean for America? Alan concludes that a new civil rights movement was gaining traction in Jena on September 20th, 2007. But that movement will look totally different from the spectacle that America saw on CNN.

We’ve broken up this reflection on the September 20th protests into three parts:

Part 1: Premonitions of a Movement

On September 20th, the civil rights leaders of tomorrow weren’t on stage—they were watching from the crowd. They will get their chance—please, Jesus, make it soon. America is desperate for a new civil rights movement led by fresh faces.

Part 2: Sowing the Wind

I recalled that brisk January afternoon when Caseptla Bailey first led me to the tree in the square. “What do you want to see this for?” she asked me. “Caseptla,” I said, “this tree is going to be famous.” I had no idea just how famous Jena’s “white tree” would become.

Part 3: Looking to the Future

The day ended with a Hip Hop concert at the park organized by some of the family members. Artists from across Louisiana drove to Jena to show their support for the Jena 6. The NAACP of Louisiana did its level best to shut down the Hip Hop venue. They were concerned about the n-word, the f-word, and all the rest. The event received little publicity. If the Hip Hop generation is going to take the lead in this new civil rights movement, socially conscious Hip Hop music has got to be front and center.

Part 1: Premonitions of a Movement

The September 20th rally for justice in Jena was a thing of beauty. Local officials had declared a state of emergency. Businesses were instructed to close. Some buildings were boarded up. The local Methodist Church kept its doors open; the rest of the town was shut up tight. The Methodists had the right idea.

When protesters started getting off the buses in Jena, Louisiana on Thursday morning I decided to get a picture of every T-shirt I encountered. After fifty pictures I threw in the towel. Virtually every contingent from across the nation had produced its own shirt. The background was invariably black, and there was usually some depiction of a noose and a tree.

I found myself flashing back to the day in January when I first met Mychal Bell and Robert Bailey, in the lock-up on the second floor of the LaSalle Parish courthouse. The boys had only been behind bars for a month or so at the time, but they were frightened and stunned by the events unfolding around them. Their eyes were asking, “What is happening to me? Why am I here?”

I don’t see a lot of visions (it’s not a Baptist thing), but that day was an exception. As Caseptla Bailey and I emerged from the courthouse, the entire lawn was covered with people demanding justice. Then it all faded; a momentary flash—a premonition.

On September 20th, the protestors didn’t just cover the lawn in front of the courthouse; people in black T-shirts stretched for blocks. Hundreds of buses were parked throughout the town. I was too far from the makeshift stage at the courthouse to hear the speakers and, frankly, I didn’t care—the real message was being delivered by the beautiful people who came to Jena to voice their protest.

On September 20th, the civil rights leaders of tomorrow weren’t on stage—they were watching from the crowd. They will get their chance—please, Jesus, make it soon. America is desperate for a new civil rights movement led by fresh faces.

Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Michael Baisden and the rest swept into town in stretch limousines, delivered their sound bites; then retreated to the relative comfort of Alexandria. Most of the people on the street had endured a harrowing two-day ride in a bus to stand under Jena’s unforgiving sun. But when we all hit the streets, everyone knew this was an historic moment—something unprecedented and unparalleled; a resurgence of the marches on Washington in the early 1960s. I almost expected the scene to be suddenly transformed into the black and white images I remember from television.

But this was not a black and white crowd. White people did travel to Jena for the rally, but this event was over 99% African American. It takes a big fire in the belly to put a person on a bus for two days. When I asked people why they had come to Jena the answer usually started with, “I heard about this story from Michael Baisden, or Steve Harvey or on CNN.” Then came the stories. “My cousin (or my son, or my brother) is doing time back home. What happened to Mychal Bell is happening all over this country.”

Black people understand this; white folks (for the most part) don’t have a clue what is going on in the criminal justice system and don’t want to know.

 

Part 2: Sowing the Wind

After talking to several women from black churches in Dallas, I strolled up to the High School courtyard, where the three nooses had been hung. I recalled that brisk January afternoon when Caseptla Bailey first led me to the tree in the square. “What do you want to see this for?” she asked me.

“Caseptla,” I said, “this tree is going to be famous.”

I had no idea just how famous Jena’s “white tree” would become.

Thousands of protestors were milling around the schoolyard. Everyone had the same question, “Where was the tree before they cut it down?”

I pulled out a copy of the picture I had taken back in January, and led a small group of students to the spot. “It was here?” they asked skeptically. All that remained of the tree was a patch of loamy soil—even the stump had been dug up.

I suddenly became a tour guide to a crowd looking for the famous tree. “No one actually called it a “white tree” I said. “In fact, no one minded too much if a black kid wanderer onto the white side of the schoolyard so long as they wandered back to black side after a few minutes. But it was commonly understood that white students hung out on the tree-end of the courtyard while black students clustered at the opposite end. A sidewalk divided the two groups.

“It wasn’t something we talked about much,” a former Jena High student once told me. “You just hung with your own group. It was just the way things were . . . until we moved out of Jena.”

As I waxed eloquent on the subject of Jena’s regime of de facto segregation, a large crowd gathered around me. “Did the white kid get beat up for hanging the nooses?” someone asked.

The ensuing Q&A session confirmed what I had long suspected—the superficial reporting on this story has left a lot of people confused. Many protesters seemed to believe that black kids beat up white kids for hanging nooses in a tree.

In reality, three months separated the “noose incident” from the assault on Justin Barker.

“This isn’t about the kids,” I told the throng gathered around me. “This is about adults. In particular it is about two public officials: Superintendent Roy Breithaupt and District Attorney Reed Walters. These men could have transformed an ugly incident into a teaching opportunity. Reed and Roy could have said, “I don’t know what you were thinking when you hung these nooses, but to African Americans, a noose hanging from a tree is a symbol of hate and a threat of violence. Racism has no place in Jena or at this high school. There may have been a color line at Jena High School in the past, but those days are gone.”

That should have been the first step. Next, every student, every teacher and every school employee should have been exposed to a thorough history lesson coupled with a ringing reaffirmation of unity and racial equality. Expelling the noose hangers for a day, a semester, or the entire school year would have solved nothing. The student body needed facts and they needed direction.

When you have nooses hanging from a tree in a segregated school yard, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Is there a color line at Jena High? By attempting to dodge the question, Superintendent Breithaupt preserved the status quo—and in Jena, that meant reinforcing the precedent of a racially divided campus.

When Roy Breithaupt dropped the ball, DA Reed Walters had a chance to pick it up. The noose hangers were given a few days of in-school suspension because, Breithaupt explained, they were simply pulling a juvenile prank. Black football players expressed their outrage by “occupying” the now-infamous tree. Moments later, they were joined by virtually every black student at the high school. The atmosphere was tense. Shoving matches broke out. The police were called and the entire campus was placed on lock-down for the rest of the week.

District Attorney Reed Walters and every member of Jena’s all-white police force were called to a hastily called assembly in the school’s ancient auditorium. White students sat on one side of the aisle; black students on the other. “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters said as he waived his pen in the air. “Remember, with a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.”

 

Walters has since denied that these words were aimed exclusively at the black students. But white students weren’t protesting the nooses—black students were. Walters had no quarrel with the white kids; he was addressing the black side of the aisle.

The District Attorney has subsequently explained that he felt the noose issue was being blown out of proportion and that the black and white students needed to work things out for themselves.

The implication of Walters’ message was as clear as it was sinister: “The status quo at Jena High School will be maintained, and any student who can’t live with that fact will be punished severely. Nothing is going to change—not in Jena!”

Like Pandora, Reed Walters lifted the lid and released the furies. The Bible warns us that when a nation sows the wind, we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Reed Walters sowed the wind; now Walters, and everyone else in Jena, is reaping the whirlwind. The sins of the fathers are being visited upon the children.

From the time Reed Walters waved his pen, white and black students were placed on a collision course that could only end in a train wreck.

As I talked to the throng of protesters at the tree site, I pointed to my old picture. “You see the smoke damage around the windows of the school?” I asked. “That part of the school is gone—it has been demolished.”

The racial violence that flashed through Jena in the wake of the school fire would have been unthinkable without Reed Walters and his pen. In fact, I have always sensed that Jena High School would still be intact (tree and all) if Walters had denounced the nooses instead of issuing threats. The fights, the fire, and the fractured psyche of an entire community lie at the feet of DA Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt.

“But this isn’t just a story about Jena,” I told my audience; “this is a story about America. Young people, especially poor black young people, are being subjected to pressures they can neither understand nor control. They make mistakes. They lash out. And there is always a Reed Walters waiting with his pen at the ready.”

The crowd surrounding me was growing by the minute. People were asking for my card and wanting to know where to send donations to Friends of Justice. Fearing that I was turning into another Jena huckster, I shook a few hands and moved on.

Part 3: Looking to the Future

A squat young white boy with a precocious goatee was holding forth for the crowd as I left the premises. “I was still in Jr. High when this here all happened,” he was saying, “so I didn’t see it. But it’s all about this white kid named Justin. He’s a big racist; hates black people. Why, two days before he got himself beat up, he pulled a shotgun on a couple of black boys right here in Jena.”

The kid had his facts all tangled up. Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th assault, was arrested for bringing a firearm to school in his vehicle—but that was in May of 2007. A white young man did pull a shotgun on Robert Bailey and two of his friends—but it wasn’t Barker.

Justin Barker is just another victim of Reed Walters’ pen. Justin may have taunted Mychal Bell and his friends prior to being assaulted—he may even have used the n-word. But violence wasn’t the answer. Justin attended a ring ceremony later in the day; but his injuries were serious. Moreover, the emotional consequences for Justin and his family have been horrendous. They have suffered every bit as much as the black defendants and their families.

It was sad to see Justin Barker and his family line up behind Reed Walters and a clutch of police officers the day before the rally. Mr. Walters is no friend of the Barker family, and his is no friend of Jena. He is a pathetic shill for a political establishment dedicated to the maintenance of Jim Crow inequality. The final victim of Mr. Walters’ pen will be his career as a prosecutor.

I am encouraged to read that Craig Watkins, the new District Attorney of Dallas County, has expressed concern over Reed Walters professional deportment. Several men and women from the Dallas District Attorneys office made the trip to Jena as observers. We need prosecutors who are tough but fair. Watkins fits the bill; Walters does not.

Rumors spread like a prairie fire when little towns like Jena find themselves under the media microscope. Everyone was convinced that the KKK were going to march on September 20th. Later in the day, a rumor swept through town that Mychal Bell had been released from prison. Fortunately, the KKK waited for the crowds to leave. Unfortunately, Mychal Bell is still incarcerated.

The day ended with a Hip Hop concert at the park organized by some of the family members. Artists from across Louisiana drove to Jena to show their support for the Jena 6. The NAACP of Louisiana did its level best to shut down the Hip Hop venue. They were concerned about the n-word, the f-word, and all the rest. The event received little publicity. If the Hip Hop generation is going to take the lead in this new civil rights movement, socially conscious Hip Hop music has got to be front and center.

An event this peaceful, positive, and exuberant was bound to inspire backlash from some of our sick white brothers and sisters. Trucks were driving around Alexandria (about 45 minutes down the road from Jena) sporting nooses. The intent was to spark violence. It didn’t work. Anyone disciplined enough to make it to Jena was too savvy to fall for an ignorant provocation like that.

Later, things grew more sinister. A white supremacy web site has published the addresses and phone numbers of the defendants, their families, attorneys and supporters. David Duke has come out in support of Justin Barker—another friend the family doesn’t need. Since almost 70% of LaSalle Parish voters supported Duke’s run for Governor back in the day, David felt it was his duty to ride to their defense.

Mr. Walters; when David Duke and the Klan are your best friends, you have a PR problem.

Please continue to pray for the Jena 6 and their families. Also pray for Justin Barker and his family. And pray for the people of Jena—white and black. When the celebrities leave and the reporters pack up their cameras, these folks have got to find a way to live together. Let’s keep our protest focused, fact-based, and objective. Jena is America. America is broken and badly needs fixing. So does Jena. The New Jim Crow is the sickness; justice is the cure.

 

6 thoughts on “A New Civil Rights Movement gains traction in Jena, LA

  1. You know, no matter what you folks believe. No matter if these 6 Negro boys were provoked. No matter if, in fact, all the DA’s in the county are racially prejudiced. No matter of all that. 6 boys tried to extinguish the life of another. If they had not been restrained from doing so, Justin Barker would be another statistic of Black-on-White homicide. That y’all, so-called friends of justice, are supporting these boys who have hate in their heart, leads me to believe that the name of your organisation ought to be changed to “”Friends of Murderers””.
    If you have a logo, it ought to include a well-known murderer and one of your faces shoved up his butt. Someone like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. This has become surreal. Otherwise decent folks supporting boys who attempted to snuff out the life of another boy? AND Y’ALL KNOW GOOD AND WELL IF THE RACES OF THESE BOYS WERE REVERSED, THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL THAT Y’ALL WOULD SUPPORT THE WHITE BOYS. I DARE THIS ORGANISATION TO CHALLENGE ME ON THIS POINT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Dear Jimmy,
    Friends of Justice would protest loudly if a black DA prosecuted 6 white boys for attempted murder of a black boy after prosecuting another attack with the races reversed as simple battery. Friends of Justice would not be in Jena except for the DA’s blatant attempt to enforce Jim Crow racism. This fight is not against Jena and is not for the socalled “Jena 6:. Instead the struggle is for equal justice in American under the law without regard to status in the community.
    For Justice and Mercy, Nancy

  3. My experience in Jena was uplifting, motivating, inspiring and full of pride. In my 51 years if living, it had been an awful long time since I’d seen that many Black people together in one place, unified in “quiet riot” about such an egregious wrong that needed to be righted – equal treatment under the law is also OUR constitutional right. I met some wonderfully, friendly people from a lot of different places and as it most often is with Black people, it was like we’d known each other all our lives – because we have. Our cultural identities as Black Americans are so intertwined that it really doesn’t matter where you’re from, no one of us is a stranger to the other. From the staff at the Holiday Inn Express, to the cop who escorted me from the hotel to the Convention Center to buy my bus ticket to Jena so I wouldn’t get lost, the people of Alexandria were very gracious.

    As I was driving home to S. Florida on the 22nd with many miles to go before I slept, I heard Mr. Baisden announce on the radio, that Mychal Bell would not be released on bail as we all thought. I wasn’t surprised. As a matter of fact, I expected it. Having been born and raised in the Deep South (SC) and having gone to college in the Deep South (AL) before I headed north to live, I’m more than familiar with how the white judicial (and I use that word loosely because there’s rarely any justice involved) system operates, particularly when Blacks forget their place by actually standing up for themselves. But it was alright, because in the last 24 hours, I’d just spent THE MOST overwhelmingly fulfilling time with my people and I was convinced we’d just begun. Then, I hear Mr. Baisden say, “For people to say this is about race, it’s so stupid!” Alright went right out the window in that instant and I got off at the next exit because A.) I needed gas and B.) I needed to process what the hell he’d just said!

    Before any of you get your underwear in a bunch, let me just say this. I applaud and respect Mr. Baisden’s concerted and successful efforts to mobilize the over 50,000+ people who answered the call and marched peacefully on Jena. He was phenomenal in that quest. That being said though, if he thinks it’s “so stupid” for people to say what happened in Jena is about race then go ahead and call me stupid because that is EXACTLY what it’s about. I understand he may not want to offend whites, Latinos or Asians who showed up to support the Jena 6 or maybe he believes he needs to be a consensus builder because we need them to make this work or maybe he believes Jena’s merely about right and wrong. He has a right to his opinion, as do I – “You cannot change what you don’t acknowledge.”

    Don’t get it twisted. I know there are people of other races who are family. As a matter of fact, I’ve had white family for the past 27 years I’ve been married. And while I’d hoped in the beginning that it didn’t matter that I was Black, it did and still does to some of them. Whether it matters or not, I talk about that big, pink elephant of race in the corner rather than skirting the issue with “we are all family” talk that doesn’t address how people are really feeling. I’d rather live in the light uncomfortably at times than spend my time in the dark pretending a problem doesn’t exist when it does. Through talking about it, some of them have acknowledged their own inherent racism as I have acknowledged my own prejudices (there is a difference between the two). From there, some of us were willing to go forward and some were not. And that’s okay too because I don’t have to live with them. But they know where I stand and I know with whom I’m dealing.

    To take racism out of the Jena discussion is to marginalize the pain it has inflicted and continues to inflict on Blacks in America. What’s happening in the courts and in that town is institutional racism so deeply embedded in the psyche of its people it caused them to close all their stores (with them inside!) and lock up their parking lots with shiny new locks and chains on rusty gates when we all descended on Jena. It may not be all whites, but it’s enough of them that the Jena 6 stand accused and Mychal Bell sits in jail though the adult charges have been vacated and no juvenile charges have been filed. They think what they’re doing is right, we think what they’re doing is wrong and because of racism, there will be no meeting somewhere in the middle – not without legal intervention brought about by the passion and conviction I saw on that absolutely beautiful September day in Jena.

  4. Thank God for his mercy! Thank God for all decent folks,regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation, and whatever your status in life is. Anyone who does not see the blantant disregard for one life over another is truly blind on purpose or just blind. I was at the march on Sept. 20, 2007 and was extremely proud of the few white supporters who forged ahead inspite of all of the negative propaganda that was used to frighten people off—both white and black.
    we were human beings coming together for the common cause of justice. The energy was so thick that it played a song. The song was a constant, vibrating, low melody that was unheard but felt in the pit of my stomach, the nape of my neck, and the hairs on my arms. I shall never be able to hear that song but it plays continuously in my heart, mind and gut. WE WERE ONE on September 20, 2007 and no matter how much the televised media minimizes the effects, outcome, or significants of what took place in Jena, La those of us who were there—know what really went down. AND IT HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN. Next time, GOD will be our leader and man will follow His instructions. GOD BLESS ALL OF OUR IMPRESSIONABLE CHILDREN.

  5. Case in point: Children fight in school all the time. That is a given. It is not fair that these boys have to endure punishment for doing nothing wrong. They were protecting their right as CITIZENS of this country to sit under a TREE. Of all things, the one freedom EVERYONE has is the right to this EARTH. The person who hung those nooses from that tree was wrong for claiming ownership over something God himself intended for EVERYONE. The racism in this world needs to stop and if those boys go to jail and stay there there is no hope for humanity, the world or it’s future.

  6. Pingback: Link Love: Jena Six Edition « Donna Darko

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