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September 27, 2007 - Truthout (US)

Perspective: The Jena Six And US History

By Paul Ortiz

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I was in the middle of an extended research trip in the South when news of the march and rally to free the Jena Six began flowing through the blogosphere. What has transpired in Jena in support of six young black men is an important new chapter in the black freedom struggle.

The Jena Six are six black teens from Jena, Louisiana, who were accused of fighting and beating up a fellow high school student last December. The student who was beaten up was white. While the victim in question suffered no severe injuries, the six black youths were initially charged by the local district attorney with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The murder weapons, according to the DA, were the perpetrators' tennis shoes. This is how much progress we've made in the United States: what used to be seen as a schoolyard brawl punishable by suspension or community service has become a crime punishable by life in prison. After a wave of publicity, the charges were reduced in most of the cases to battery and conspiracy which may still result in over two decades of prison time for these kids. One of the defendants remains in jail after being unable to post $90,000 bail.

According to the local authorities in Jena, we are supposed to believe that race has nothing to do with the charges levied against the high school students.

Earlier incidents of violence and intimidation directed against black students at Jena were ignored by local law enforcement officials. In one incident, a white man pulled a shotgun on a black teen, and on another occasion white youths smashed a black youth over the head with a beer bottle. Black residents also reported that whites were spewing racist epithets at them in public. All of these incidents were reported to authorities, and the police did absolutely nothing in the months leading up to the beating.

Local authorities also claim that three nooses hung on a tree at the high school three months before the fight had nothing to do with race. African-Americans in Jena report that the nooses were hung up after black students sat under a tree that some white students felt was reserved for them. While this version of the story has been disputed by school officials, according to the district attorney, it doesn't matter anyway. The DA claims that young people are so ignorant about their histories that they wouldn't know what the nooses were supposed to represent! The US attorney for western Louisiana concluded that there couldn't be any possible linkage between the nooses and the subsequent school fight. It was reported that one of the witnesses for the youth who was beaten was also one of the students connected to the noose hanging.

In Jena, as throughout the rest of the US, we are supposed to believe that "race is no longer an issue" and that justice is colorblind. California fits the pattern perfectly. Out here, Martin Luther King Jr. commemorations have become exercises in remembering how bad racism used to be [in the South] but thank God almighty we are free at last! I am really, really glad that tens of thousands of demonstrators who descended on Jena on behalf of the six young black men ignored what has embarrassingly become the "common sense" position on race relations in this nation.

Many progressives today would like to de-emphasize or even separate the struggle against racism from efforts to end war and bring economic justice to the Americas. Their rationale is that white folks get upset when you talk too much about racial inequality and that the only way to draw the white working class to the movement is to keep quiet about race. This viewpoint is insulting to white people and it ignores the history of social change in this country. The nonracial proletarian revolution has never occurred in this country, and it never will. White people could not make the revolution by themselves in 1776, and they certainly cannot do it now. Furthermore, you cannot erase five hundred years of slavery, segregation, the Mexican-American War, the Sand Creek Massacre, Bracero programs, etc., etc. Tell the parents of the Jena Six or the survivors of Hurricane Katrina that we are all equally oppressed by capitalism. Race and class are forever linked in this nation.

Furthermore, one should be ashamed to discuss globalization in the western hemisphere without examining the transatlantic slave trade, racial colonialism and continuing racial disparities in countries like Brazil, Honduras and the United States. To ignore the centrality of race in the western hemisphere is to replicate the thoughts of a local educator in Jena who sincerely believes what she told Amy Goodman about the nooses hung at her school: "The nooses? I don't even know why they were there, what they were supposed to mean."

According to a black teacher in Jena, the DA told an assembly of students, "I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen." He's right. Thanks to the so-called War on Drugs, our prisons are overwhelmingly composed of African-Americans and Latinos. Never mind that neither African-Americans nor Latinos engage in more drug activity than their white peers; the latter just don't get busted nearly as often. In the town of Santa Cruz, California, where I live, it is an open secret that white kids routinely get away with public drug usage while Latino kids in particular are routinely harassed by law enforcement authorities for wearing bandanas and blue shirts. Oh, I forgot: since Santa Cruz is progressive, we don't do racial profiling; we are beyond race. Just like Jena. Hmm, perhaps there is a pattern here.

To understand what is happening in Jena, it is necessary to know something about black history as well as the history of race relations in the US. African-Americans have always been at the forefront of the struggle to expand democracy in the Americas. They have rarely been able to count on sustained outside support in their efforts to end slavery, segregation and other forms of oppression. Yes, there have been heroic, anti-racist white folks like José Martí, John Brown, Anne Braden, Eduardo Galeano and the white SNCC and CORE volunteers of the 1960s civil rights movement. Unfortunately, however, these organizations and individuals like them represent exceptions in the history of this hemisphere. The usual story involves African-descent peoples fighting their battles alone -- to paraphrase Walter Mosley, "always outnumbered, always outgunned." Jena may signal a modern turning point in this crisis. If non-black people began to understand that they have a stake in fighting racial oppression in their own backyards, then we've just exponentially increased the size of the movement.

Here are a few of the stories on the black freedom struggle that I have been researching this summer:

In 1895, a white mob gathered in Guilford County, North Carolina, to lynch a black man by the name of Arthur Tuttle, who was being held at the county courthouse. As the men approached the courthouse, however, they discovered that scores of black citizens were waiting for them at the building's steps. As one of Tuttle's African-American defenders informed Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell Jr.: "But being on to violators of law and order, we had our Winchesters and revolvers in readiness and took our station near the jail house awaiting, but the lynchers did not come Monday night."

In 1918, the white school superintendent of Wilson, North Carolina, slapped a black teacher by the name of Mary Euell for questioning his authority. When queried by the media, the superintendent replied: "I slapped Mary Euell for gross discourtesy to me in my office. I am sure that there is no white man in Wilson who would have acted otherwise under the circumstance.... I slapped her face and made her hush up."

When Ms. Euell told her colleagues at Wilson Colored Graded School what had transpired, the black female teachers resigned en masse and drafted a protest statement calling their community to action. African-Americans pulled their children out of Wilson Graded and created the Independent School. Future Broadway star Georgia Burke organized a whirlwind of dramatic theater fundraisers starring primary-aged schoolchildren that dazzled audiences throughout eastern North Carolina. The Independent School educated hundreds of children during its nine-year existence. Otha R. Davis, a graduate of the school -- and one of Ms. Burke's young thespians -- credited the school with much of his success in life. He had fond memories of the teachers and the curriculum. Mr. Davis was 95 years old when I interviewed him this summer.

In 1919, African-Americans in Florida organized a statewide civil rights movement in the most brutal state of the South, a place that had the highest lynching rate during segregation. Florida's governor frequently bragged about "killing a nigger" to his audiences. Black workers initiated the movement by going out on strike and demanding economic justice. Tens of thousands of African-Americans paid their poll taxes, registered to vote and tried to vote on Election Day, 1920. Many were gunned down, beaten or forced to flee the state. The progressive left, including the Socialists, the Anarchists, the white students and the labor movement, did nothing to help black Floridians that year.

In researching these events and in thinking of the struggle to free the Jena Six, I have often wondered: what if a small handful of whites had joined hands with their black counterparts in Guilford to stop the lynching of Arthur Tuttle? What if two or three white teachers in Wilson had joined in solidarity with their black sisters? What if someone in the progressive left had stood up after the election of 1920 to demand an investigation in Florida? Perhaps history would not have turned out differently, but on the other hand, what if Margaret Mead was right when she said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

One of the lessons that we can learn from the Jena Six case is the perseverance of black people in the struggle for equal justice in this country. One of the failures of the contemporary left is its inability to learn more from African-American political movements. This too often leads to a kind of progressive condescension towards black southerners, especially, that is embarrassing and anti-democratic.

It is inspiring to see how many books and articles have been written about Seattle 1999, Chiapas or global justice insurgencies. However, the best case study that we have for broad-based social change is still by far the black-led civil rights movement, and we need to learn more from it. Works like Charles Payne's "I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle" and Barbara Ransby's "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" show how ordinary people with little or no resources take on vastly richer, heavily armed tyrants and sometimes win.

After the publicity in Jena wanes, what is left? Guardian columnist Gary Younge urges us to not lose momentum after last week's rallies and marches. Younge advises that we must continue to give the Jena Six our attention and support.

But Younge goes further to state: "And last but by no means least the activists must leverage the attention that has been given to the Jena Six to raise the broader issues of social justice and racism in the penal and judicial systems in the US."

This means that activists who missed the marches last week (such as myself) have some concrete things to do back home. Let's make a point about talking and working for racial justice in our own communities. If you are white, talk to your white friends about racism. Do not allow casual remarks about the "minorities running everything" or racial epithets go unchallenged. And, let's not make the mistake of assuming that Jena, Louisiana, is some kind of backwards, isolated place. Jena, Louisiana, is America, and it is no more or less racist these days than any other part of the United States. Even as marchers assembled in Jena, police in Oakland, California, shot a black man, Gary King Jr., in the back and killed him. Eyewitnesses allege that King was unarmed and running in fear from the police.

Finally, I'd like to see more Latino/Latinas and Latino organizations getting involved in the struggle to free the Jena Six. We have been subjected to many of the same prejudices -- albeit less intensively in many cases -- as African-Americans have. It makes no sense to complain about the lack of black presence at our immigration or union rallies if we sit out Jena as well as other critical struggles involving our African-American brothers and sisters.

Paul Ortiz teaches in the Department of Community Studies at UC-Santa Cruz. He is co-editor of the book "Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South" and writer of the book "Emancipation Betrayed."

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