On Tuesday, more than 300 people from across the country descended on the small town of Jena, Louisiana to protest the racially tinged prosecution of the "Jena Six" -- six black students who are facing attempted murder charges for their alleged roles in a schoolyard fight. The first has already been convicted and faces up to 22 years in prison. The marchers rallied at the Jena courthouse and delivered more than 43,000 signatures collected by ColorOfChange.org demanding that District Attorney Reed Walters drop the charges against the six students.
The story of the Jena 6 reads like one from the Jim Crow era where powerful whites use brazenly oppressive and discriminatory action to keep black people "in their place" -- but it's happening today. The DA and other officials in Jena thought that their actions would go unchallenged. Indeed, until last week the story has received only a trickle of mainstream press, and the most prominent stories have been marred by serious distortions or omissions. What town officials didn't count on was the surge of online activism and reports from online and alternative media outlets such as Left Turn, truthout, Democracy Now, and BlackAmericaWeb, and creative pieces like this pilot episode of Radar (an internet news broadcast from GNN.tv focused on underreported stories and uncovered angles) that have shined a light on the injustice taking place in Jena:
Ever since December, families of the Jena 6 have been fighting to overcome the Jim Crow "justice" being applied to their sons. With the help of folks like Alan Bean from Friends of Justice (Alan helped lay the groundwork that exposed the infamous Tulia drug sting), they have protested, organized, and asked for outside help to show the town's white power structure that they will not sit idly by as their loved ones are railroaded into a life behind bars.
What we saw on Tuesday is that their efforts are beginning to pay off. Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena 6 to be tried, was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. Bell was originally scheduled to be sentenced on July 31st, the day of the march, but the sentencing was postponed until September 20th. Local organizers are convinced that officials got nervous about holding the sentencing on a day when much so attention would be focused on Jena.
This small victory didn't come because the Governor or the Justice Department stepped in, and it wasn't because of a hard-hitting expose by a major news organization (all of which would be welcome developments). It was because a relatively small number of concerned citizens -- informed by reports in alternative media and spurred to action by grassroots and online organizing -- stood behind the Jena 6, their families, and dozens of other Jena residents who are courageously resisting injustice.
The delay in Mychal Bell's sentencing hearing is a sign that the authorities in Jena are feeling the pressure. But there's still much to be done. The outrage over Jena has yet to reach the decibel level necessary to see justice served. If you want to support the Jena 6, please sign theColorOfChange.org petition calling on the local DA to drop all charges and calling on Governor Kathleen Blanco to intervene. You can also make a donation to support the legal defense of the Jena 6. The official Jena 6 website, which will be updated regularly with resources and information about the case, is at FreetheJena6.org.