"Jena is America," says Alan Bean, speaking of the Louisiana town where six black students are looking at decades in jail for a schoolyard brawl while white kids are facing nothing for hanging up nooses. Jena is America in the sense that the unequal justice there is not unique. There are "Jena Sixes" behind bars in every state. But it isn't America in the sense that the country as a whole has had no trouble at all ignoring Jena.
Bean is a Baptist minister from Texas who formed Friends of Justice in response to the now infamous Tulia drug sting of 1999 in which over half of Tulia's black males were convicted on the uncorroborated word of a corrupt and racist undercover cop. He was instrumental in getting that story out. In January he got busy in Jena. By that time, a young white man had already been beaten up and six young black students had been indicted, originally on attempted murder charges. One of the six, Mychal Bell, was legally still a juvenile when he was convicted of attempted second-degree murder with a deadly shoe. While five of the six were have been bailed out, Bell's been incarcerated ever since.
"If the media wasn't watching what was going on then every last one of those kids would be in jail," one of the Jena mothers, Tina Jones, told the Nation's Gary Younge.
Jones is generous. The truth is, "the media" haven't been watching. Black radio has been listening, and the black blogosphere's been buzzing, but the white "mainstream" and the white liberal media woke up to this story about a minute ago.
August 2006: that's when the story began, when a black high school student requested permission to sit under a whites-only schoolyard tree. The next day, three nooses showed up hanging there. The following week, black students staged a protest and Jena district attorney Reed Walters, warned them at a school assembly: "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen." That was after that same DA and school officials dismissed the noose incident as a "prank." The December schoolyard fight took place after months of incidents in which the whites involved were charged with misdemeanors or not at all while the blacks drew various felony charges.
Bean says he started feeding stories to the Chicago Tribune, the BBC and the blogosphere back in April. "Some stories ran in May, but they didn't catch. No magazines picked up. No nightly news. The New York Times studiously ignored it," he says. With the notable exception of Jordan Flaherty at Left Turn Magazine, lawyer Bill Quigley and a few others the so-called "progressive" white press was just as AWOL as the "mainstream." No turning point came until protests swelled in July. Democracy Now and ran special reports after Bell was convicted (a conviction that has since been overturned although he remains in jail.) The Nation first mentioned Jena in its pages in the October 8 issue, which hit the stands after a 20,000 strong national protest march. (A couple of mentions appeared online in September.)
By every account I've heard, the people who had sufficient fire in their belly to wake up before dawn and bus their way into Jena September 20 were African American -- around 90 percent. Probably close to that same percentage had a story to tell about a family member or neighbor who's been touched by the criminal injustice system. "White liberals care, but they just don't feel it in anything like the same way," says Bean. "There's a massive experience gap."
James Rucker of the action-alert network, Color of Change, sent out an email alert July 17 after hearing about the story from Bean and his online subscribers. On the media front, he thinks there's good news and bad: "We've seen the power of black radio and the black netroots who really came into their own on this story, but it hasn't captured the imagination of the left media in the way that I would have hoped." (Subscribe to ColorofChange.org.)
We are, after all, talking about Louisiana. On August, 31, when the two hangman's nooses were found hanging in the tree, journalists were all over the Gulf Coast marking the one-year anniversary of Katrina. In the following weeks, when residents started holding lonely rallies, regional papers in Alexandria, Shreveport and Baton Rouge carried word, as did Jena's own Jena Times.
Is it too much to expect that following the burst of attention to institutional racism that accompanied the broken levee disaster and Katrina, white America's sensors might have been unusually attuned to the sort of injustice revealed at Jena? Or even, to expect that journalists might have been on the look out?
The thing is, media, and the movement pressure it could have built, could have made a difference. If Jena High School and the Jena DA had felt pushed to take on the noose-hangers a year ago, one white student, Justin Barker, might never have been beaten by anyone and six young black men (and one boy) might be heading to college today, not to courtrooms. The whole Jena story could have been different if one District Attorney, not to mention the US justice Department had felt the push to do what would have been right -- and kick Jim Crow out of the 21st Century.
It's late but it's not too late, for all of America to act. In fact, truly massive public attention is needed right now as a white backlash builds in Louisiana. While Air America and National Public Radio move on, David Duke on his radio listeners are all over the Jena story. Last week, the former Ku Klux Klan leader announced his support for Jena's white residents (who voted overwhelmingly for him when he ran for Louisiana governor in 1991.) Since the civil rights demonstrators left, Jena familes are alone against the white supremacists who have started appearing. Over the weekend, a neo-Nazi Web site posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of some of the six black teenagers and their families and urged followers to find them and "drag them out of the house." A white driver was arrested in a nearby town, driving a pick up with nooses tied to the back fender. White extremist web sites and blogs are exploding and it's not just Klansmen and neo-Nazis posting hateful things.
It's late but it's not too late to answer: Is Jena America?
Laura Flanders is the host of RadioNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians, out now from The Penguin Press.