The Common Good

Lessons from the Jena 6

P1291349What lessons do we take away from the Jena 6 story? Six young men won't be dragging a felony conviction into adult life. That's reason for rejoicing, but as this saga approaches its third birthday, it's fair to ask if we have learned anything.

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"Jena 6" was briefly transformed into a popular movement that brought at least 30,000 people to a small central Louisiana town in September of 2007.

Mass awareness of the Jena story was spread by the black blogosphere, radio personalities like Michael Baisden, internet-savvy organizations like Color of Change, and the brief but highly publicized involvement of civil rights celebrities like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Unfortunately, the movement that culminated with the September 20th march lacked an end game. Nobody knew what came next, so not much did.

Or so it seemed.

The huge turnout on September 20th placed enormous pressure on Jena officials, but the key to success was community organizing, savvy media outreach, and strategic legal work.

Friends of Justice started with the goal of recreating the coalition of reform organizations and legal firms that overturned a corrupt drug sting in Tulia, Texas. Long before anyone from the outside had taken an interest in the story, we were sifting through legal documents, reading local newspaper accounts, and conducting dozens of personal interviews. When the facts were clear, we circulated a six-page narrative account describing what happened, why it happened, and what justice would look like.

Our narrative called for Judge JP Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters to recuse themselves from the Jena 6 cases. We supported a change of venue, a Department of Justice investigation, and a program of diversity training in the public schools. We knew none of this could be accomplished without a huge groundswell of indignation, but our first step was to unite and organize the affected community. The families and friends of the defendants gradually learned to withstand the pressure of an outraged white community and to tell their personal stories with verve and enthusiasm.

The community organizing effort required the involvement of natural allies like Tory Pegram and King Downing of the ACLU and, further down the road, James Rucker of Color of Change, but the impetus behind the public meetings and the courthouse demonstrations came from the families and friends of the Jena 6.

Initially, the only media outlet willing to tackle the Jena story was Tony Brown's Eyes Wide Open radio program in nearby Alexandria. But the minute the local folk were ready to tell their story, Friends of Justice began shopping our narrative to journalists like Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune and Wade Goodwyn of National Public Radio who could be trusted with a highly ambiguous assortment of facts.

The families and friends of the Jena 6 had been gathering at a local black church and holding demonstrations on the steps of the LaSalle Parish courthouse long before CNN, NPR and the Chicago Tribune were on the scene.

Just as the mainstream media was picking up on Jena, independent journalists and bloggers were warming to the story. Color of Change started collecting signatures for a petition and soliciting donations to a legal defense fund. Across America young black men and women were asking how they could help the Jena 6. The student body of Howard University got into the action and the civil rights community eventually swung its weight behind the Jena justice movement.

When I talked to the folks who came to the massive rally on September 20th it was quickly apparent that the folks who rode the buses were a bit fuzzy about the most basic facts. The general impression was that some white kids had hung nooses in a tree at the high school and black kids had retaliated by beating up one of the noose hangers. There was little understanding that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th beat-down, hadn't been directly involved in the noose hanging incident or that the two episodes were separated by three months.

A scene from September 20th

Jena on September 20th

The facts in Jena were of secondary importance to the bus riders. They were drawn to Jena by personal experience. People told me they were there for a son, a boyfriend, or a nephew who had received grossly disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. These people had no trouble relating to the plight of the Jena 6.

When the crowds left Jena, the movement quickly ran out of gas. It didn't matter. By that time the five Jena defendants still awaiting adjudication were represented by some of the best legal talent in America. DA Terry McEachern had been no match for the legal "dream team" that rose to the defense of the Tulia 46, and I knew Reed Walters would fare no better against the legal firepower he was facing. The facts were all on the side of the defendants. Another trial would have established the link between the hanging of the nooses in September and the tragic events of December. Reed Walters and his supporters in Jena's white community simply couldn't allow that to happen.

[to be continued...]

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

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