Revolution #103, October 7, 2007
Jena Journal: 48 Hours After a Great Day
In the days right after the big September 20 protests in Jena, Louisiana, it’s very intense and the town is even more polarized. Rumors are flying all over the place--some of them, it seems, designed to inflame racist reaction to the growing struggle to free the Jena 6. We’re in the McDonald’s using the wifi and an older white guy comes in and declares that three buses, when they heard about Mychal Bell not getting out of jail, turned around and were headed back for Jena. I ask him how he knows this is true. He drawls, “Can’t say but it’s from a reliable source.” I say, how do I know this isn’t just another rumor? He says, “Can’t say, but this came from someone in law enforcement.” I ask him again, “So how do you know this is true?” He just smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
For months, Black people standing up to racism and speaking out against the prosecution of the Jena 6 had faced isolating repression. Now, the day after tens of thousands had filled these streets in an historic and powerful demonstration to demand that these young men be freed, Black people in Jena are holding their heads higher, knowing that people all around the country got their back. But among white people in Jena, the most backward and racist are setting the terms of things. A lot of white people tell you the Jena 6 case is giving their town an “undeserved” bad name--which just amounts to justifying the unequal, racist and segregated status quo. The day before the protests, the Jena Times quoted city officials saying they would ensure that order is maintained. And meanwhile there was an ugly undercurrent of white people reacting like plantation owners hearing rumors of a slave revolt--leaving town and talking about how maybe they should board up their windows. Then on the day, when tens of thousands descend on Jena from all over the country to demand the Jena 6 be freed, schools are closed, almost all businesses shut down. State troopers are brought in. A state of emergency had been declared.
The morning after the protest, the courthouse is mobbed with national and international press. When the family of Mychal Bell comes out, they say nothing, even though they are being pummeled with questions. Bell was not granted bail and is being loaded on a van headed back to jail. The family members have a look of not only heartache and disappointment but building anger at this latest outrage. More than the press is gathered on the lawn in front of the courthouse--protesters from the day before have stayed around and yell out, “Stay strong!” “We're with you 100 percent, ” “We're gonna be back until this is over.”
That night we talk with some young white guys hanging out in a parking lot. They are typical of a section of white people in Jena who swear up and down to you that they aren’t racist--but in the same sentence tell you that the problem is that the press has made too big a deal out of the Jena 6 case. And none of them came out on Thursday to demonstrate. The oft repeated claim, “I’m color blind, I don’t see Black and white” amounts to nothing but a willful denial of the truthful fact that racism is a part of everyday life in Jena. One guy tells us he recently watched the DVD of the movie Jasper, Texas which tells the story of James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was dragged behind a truck and killed by a bunch of KKK racists. He also checked out the movie American History X, where Edward Norton plays a former neo-Nazi skinhead. He’s trying to connect this up with what’s happening in Jena. But he’s still unwilling to take a clear stand with the struggle to free the Jena 6.
A white woman at the Wal-Mart tells us she’s against racism and thinks all the charges should be dropped. But when we ask her where she was on Thursday, she says she had something else to do that day. She seems surprised when we don’t automatically accept her claims of being a “good white person.” We say, it don’t mean shit if you say you’re against racism and injustice but then stand on the sidelines--which isn’t really the “sidelines” at all. We challenge her, asking, what could be more important than taking a clear stand on this--and how significant would it have been if a section of white people in Jena had come out and stood with the protesters? She looks kind of sheepish and hardly convincing when she says dispassionately, “I’ll be out there next time--if I can make it.”
Jena is a very small town and on Saturday night you can sit in the McDonald’s where people are coming in and out all night and get a slice of current rumors, sentiments, and tensions. An hour long CNN special on the Jena 6 is playing on the TV, sparking debate among customers. One of the Jena 6 youth comes in and goes up to the counter to order his food. About half an hour later, a white guy comes in and asks if we are journalists and what newspaper we are with. He’s acting kind of cocky and aggressive and I ask him who he is. He says he is a family member of “the victim”--a cousin of Justin Barker, the white student who the Jena 6 are accused of beating. Justin Barker, who has just that day given an interview for an openly admitted KKK publication.
The mostly empty, small-town streets of Jena seem different now. You can’t help but look at them and remember how the huge crowds took over the downtown streets, then snaked for miles along the country roads and filled the air with angry chants. It feels good. But at the same time there is also a disquieting sense because of the immediate and ugly backlash--in the courtroom and out in the street. Even as protesters were still in Alexandria, a truck with nooses hanging from it repeatedly drove by. And then the neo-nazi websites threatened the Jena 6 and their families, posting their names and addresses in a vicious, murderous call for vigilante action. Some of the parents got death threats on the phone – which poses an urgent challenge for people to find ways to make sure no harm comes to the Jena 6, their families and supporters.
It’s late in the afternoon when we drive over to one of Jena’s Black neighborhoods. A bunch of kids are playing in their front yard, jumping up and down and laughing. Their pure exuberance and unrestrained joy is apparent even from afar and we make a u-turn and stop to watch. I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the carefree nature of these kids and the growing intensity in Jena where two sides, and really two futures are fighting it out. What is happening in this town has touched a nerve of millions of Black people around the country, and spurred tens of thousands into action, exactly because in so many ways the persecution of the Jena 6 is a concentration of the hopeless future this system has for Black youth--of low-wage jobs, unemployment, police brutality, and imprisonment. A Black youth living in a place like Jena, before you even have a chance to grow up, your options are closed off--your neighborhood, school segregated, and living on the Black side of town has deep and lasting effects.
We spend a really nice evening with Vera and James (not their real names), two people who live in this neighborhood. People are coming in and out--apparently it’s somewhat of a weekend ritual here where the word gets out that barbecue is on the table and everyone stops by. One visitor reports that the state troopers are back in town, seems they are getting ready for something, but nobody knows what. Vera talks about how her young daughter Emma (not her real name) had been really scared the last two days. Vera had never seen her act like this before, afraid to sleep by herself. She’s a spunky kid, the kind that strikes you as not afraid of anything. But she knew her parents had been to the protest on Thursday and all the talk about the KKK and the death threats to the parents of the Jena 6 has gotten her upset. She looks a bit embarrassed when her mother tells us this, but then smiles when we tell her that she should be very proud of her parents and the other people in Jena who were standing up to the nooses, standing up for what is right, that this is how history changes, when people take a stand and fight for a better world.
You learn a lot from just sitting around with people like this. They are so hospitable and friendly and always have an interesting story to tell about what it’s like to live in Jena. Vera tells us about how Emma started out playing on a sports team where there were only a couple of other Black girls. Seems like it wasn’t a very comfortable situation. Emma now plays on one of two Black girls teams that some parents started and they compete with all the other girls teams. Emma takes us into her room and shows us her trophies. There is a tall glass case where she has them displayed, there are about 20 trophies, mostly for sports, but she pulls out one to show us that is a spelling bee trophy.
We also stop in James Jr.’s room. He’s playing an intense football video game but pauses for a minute to tell us about his trophy case, which is just as big and almost as full as his sister’s. The walls of the rooms are decorated with a couple of sports jerseys and some photos of him playing ball. The wall reflects nothing but his all-the-time passion for sports, except for the latest addition. His parents hadn’t allowed him to go to the demonstration on Thursday--they were afraid something might happen to him. But they had brought him a souvenir from the day that he had already put up--an orange “Drive Out the Bush Regime” bandana.
James has lived in Jena for quite a while and is an especially good storyteller, and once we get him started he doesn’t need any further prodding. He remembers most everything about Jena in terms of the intense and violent relations between Black and white people. And especially the times that Black people have been killed by whites. So many of them have been about a Black man “looking at” or dating a white woman.
He tells us that in 1974, Billy Ray Hunter was killed at the fairgrounds by some white guys. James says Billy Ray made the “mistake” of bumping into a white woman. He apologized to her but she went and told her boyfriend and seven white guys came back and stomped Billy Ray to death. James says, “The way I remember this is because it’s a fair that comes here every September and that's something the Black kids look forward to. And my Daddy stopped us from goin' after that happened, for a long time. That's why I really remember that, because when you take something special away from a child like goin' to a fair -- that's the only thing you have to look forward to in these little country towns, you remember that stuff.”
James tells the story of another man who died because of the color of his skin. This guy Thompson, who had been a professional baseball player in the 1970s was home visiting when he got into a fight with someone and was shot. His cousin tried to rush him to the hospital but they were stopped by state troopers. When the cousin tried to argue with them, they dragged him out of the car and beat him. Meanwhile, Thompson didn’t get to the hospital and died.
The next story is about a Black man, who people say died in 1991 for dating a white woman. He was working in a plant when somehow 5,000 pounds of plywood was dropped on him, crushing him to death. The official account at the courthouse says it was a “work-related accident”--but a lot of Black people in Jena say there is more to it than that.
Then there is the horrifying story of 22-year-old Bobby Ray Smith, a Black man who was killed and mutilated by a group of white men in 1979. James tells us, “They cut off his private parts, stuffed them in his mouth and then took him out to the oil field, tied him to a chair and threw him in the oil pit.” Nobody found him for like three weeks and the only reason they could identify him was because he was wearing his dad’s military jacket from World War 2 that had his name on it.
All these stories--and many more we didn’t hear this evening--are the background to what is happening in Jena, Louisiana today. This is what runs deep when you talk to Black people in Jena about why it was so great to see tens of thousands of people from around the country come to Jena on September 20. Jasper, Texas is not that far from Jena, Louisiana. And this is what most of the white people in Jena refuse to confront--and then thoroughly denounce and struggle against.
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