(This is a follow-up to this post)
I went there to ask an important question. The question of voter disenfranchisement in America cuts to the heart of our democracy, and my failure to act calmly resulted in this important town forum ending without the discourse intended. For that, I am truly sorry.
The comments represent most of the various reactions left or liberal types will have about this turnaround, briefly: a) it’s a conspiracy b) he got scared c) angrily repeat what was said last time about police brutality and free speech d) ask where are the protests. I prefer c), if only because I know there were protests, but no one paid much attention to them at the time and now they are over, too. I think it illustrates a valuable point about how to deal with student protests: bear with them until the end of the semester, and eventually the institutional mechanisms of final exams and papers will take over. The really depressing line in that last piece I linked to is the closer, which she probably got from reading the “baffled and impressed” Thomas Friedman:
Gwen Kaster, a UF religion junior, said she’s not surprised the protests have died down.
“Our generation joins Facebook groups instead,” Kaster said.
A good antidote by and for the kids to that boomer-sponsored upchuck is this:
Many of us have protested, but we — by and large — felt like we were imitating an earlier generation, playing dress-up in our parents’ old hippie clothes. I marched against the war and my president called it a focus group. The worst part was that I did feel inert while doing it. In the 21st century, a bunch of people marching down the street, complimenting one another on their original slogans and pretty protest signs, feels like self-flagellation, not real and true social change.
When Friedman was young and people were taking to the streets, there were a handful of issues to focus on and a few solid sources of news to pay attention to. Now there is a staggering amount of both. If I read the news today with my heart wide open and my mind engaged, I will be crushed. Do I address the injustices in Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, the Bronx? Do I call an official, write a letter, respond to a MoveOn.org request? None of it promises to be effective, and it certainly won’t pacify my outrage.
We can’t be you, because we don’t live in your time. We don’t have the benefit of focus, the cushion of cheap rent, the luxury of not knowing just how complicated the world really is. Instead we have corporate conglomerates, private military contracts, the WTO and the IMF, school debt, and no health insurance. We are savvy and we are saturated and we are scared.
Not to whine or anything, but I think she’s right, at least about her demographic. The world has always been complicated, but now it’s even easier for it to be confusing, debilitatingly so. It is harder to justify being particular, and impossible to even pretend to be comprehensive. Older forms of action aren’t as helpful. As with language, action too can ossify into cliche through ineffective repetition. But also like language, forms of political action decay at different rates, depending on the (historical, cultural, economic, technological) situation. The only real constant seems to be the importance of organizing. No form in which this tries to happen can be automatically discounted with the word ‘outdated,’ just like it can’t automatically be privileged with the words ‘cutting-edge.’
Which brings me to other old news. Events in Jena have not ended, but have been advancing, slowly and quietly (here is the Jena Times chronology to get caught up).
On eye-witness accounts of the beating, posted earlier last month:
I knew that there was no way that six athletes beating an unconscious victim would have done so little damage. And I was right; it wasn’t a 6 on 1 beating. Here are the two most pertinent witness statements – by friends of Justin Barker who took part in the fight:
JH – Jena 6 Incident 05
“Justin and KR was walking out of the gym when I saw a black boy heard a black boy say something to Justin I turned my head and I saw somebody hit Justin. He fell in between the gym door and the concrete barrier. I saw Robert Bailey kneel down and punch Justin in the head. ES pushed Robert Bailey and he fell. Then Carwin Jones kicked him in the head. Eric pushed Carwin back. I ran over there and Theo Shaw tried to kick him and I pushed Theo Shaw down. I also saw Mychal Bell standing over him. Then somebody yelled teacher and they all ran away. The last person I saw was RB
(Bug) standing over him, but I’m not sure if he kicked him or not. Then I saw Coach Lewis kneel down on the ground beside Justin, but I never saw him during the fight.”
Okay, let’s review that –
- Sombody hit Barker
- Barker goes down
- Robert Bailey gets down on the ground and begins to punch the unconscious Barker in the head
- ES quickly joins the fray and knocks Bailey down
- Carwin Jones joins and kicked Barker in the head
- ES pushes Jones back
- Our witness, JH, jumps in and stops Theo Shaw from kicking Barker
That statement from, I must emphasize again, A FRIEND OF BARKER’S WHO HAS NO REASON WHATSOEVER TO DEFEND THE JENA 6, describes a 5 on 2 brawl. And not just any witness from the crowd. A person who was close enough to see what happened and who participated.
Now, the other person who participated was ES.
ES – Jena 6 Incident 01
“Me and JH and Justin and KR were walking out of the gym. Me and JH were in front of them. It was a lot of black people standing in front of the gym and me and JH walked out by them. When I heard one of them black boys say that there’s that white mother f***er that was running his mouth. Then I turned around and I seen somebody hit him but I don’t know who hit him. Then he fell in between the concrete barrier by the gym door. And I seen Carwin Jones and Robert Bailey hitting him and kicking him. It was so many black boys standing around him I really couldn’t tell who else was hitting him. All I knew was that all of us …… before they hurt him worse. I know I got Carwin Jones and Robert off because I knocked them two off and I landed on them two. And when them two ran off, another black boy name RB stepped across him and stepped on his face and he smarted off something. And I pushed him away and then some boy grabbed me and then all the coaches were there. And we went to the office.”
Let’s review that statement:
- Somebody hits Barker
- Carwin Jones and Robert Bailey hit and kicked him.
- ES got Jones and Bailey off of him.
- Another boy, RB, who was not charged at all, “stepped on his face.”
Again, this is from a friend of Barker’s, who certainly would not take the side of the Jena 6 in any way. He was literally the first one to jump to Barker’s defense. These two statements are consistent both with each other and with Barker’s injuries. They describe a brawl. It was certainly not brutal beating people think of, nor was it 6 on 1. Reed Walters reported this complaint by a Jena 6 defender:
Their anger at me was summed up by a woman who said, “If you can figure out how to make a schoolyard fight into an attempted murder charge, I’m sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime.”
Go over the testimonies yourself here.
Remembering the importance of technical definitions — that this incident was a beating, not murder, not aggravated second-degree battery, not a felony committed by adults — is important, because like a novel or a film, the Jena 6 story appeals in part for its many possible (and highly charged) interpretations. Like a TV show, new ones keep popping up. Like, say, this one. Photos from Robert Bailey’s (now-deleted) MySpace page ‘thuggin’ with hundred dollar bills in his mouth, and photos of Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis ‘thuggin’ at the BET awards show, have been cut into a snarky YouTube video and distributed around the Internets. The obvious suggestion is that Bailey has been spending the money people have donated for his defense fund on bling, and that Jones and Purvis have been made into celebrities by the hip-hop community for beating whitey.
If anything this demonstrates that celebrity politics — or basing a political movement around an individual — is a form of communication where that individual must become the message, and so must be carefully controlled, managed, etc. Presidential elections are an example of how difficult this is, and how easily an image can be tarnished. It requires a special sort of training and/or talent to be an effective celebrity, and small-town Southern black kids with criminal records don’t cut it, regardless of the racism and legal oversight that led up to the beating, and regardless of the systematic injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system. They are targets for the other side.
Lest this become yet another rant about how we need to stay focused on systematic problems and leave aside the sensationalized scandals that bring these problems to public attention, here is an interesting bit from Alan Bean, head of Friends of Justice. He does a very charitable fisking of a piece that attacks the media sensationalism from the opposite ideological side, by Craig Franklin of The Jena Times (Bean’s comments are in italics):
Myth 12: Two Levels of Justice. Outside protesters were convinced that the prosecution of the Jena 6 was proof of a racially biased system of justice. But the US Justice Department’s investigation found no evidence to support such a claim. In fact, the percentage of blacks and whites prosecuted matches the parish’s population statistics.
It must be remembered that the US Justice Department is part of the American criminal justice system. Donald Washington was right: most of what happened in Jena was legal. That is because we have decided to gift prosecutors and judges with great discretion. Mr. Walters’ threat to black students, the prejudicial announcement he published in the Jena Times in mid-December, 2006, and a number of his recent comments are clearly grounds for recusal. Ethical standards have been violated. But were these acts illegal? We’ll see–the ethical bar for prosecutors is set very low.
Friends of Justice decided to bring this case to the attention of the nation because it illustrates what is happening, albeit in less spectacular fashion, across the nation. We aren’t trying to get the Jena 6 off; we’ve been trying to get them some justice. The next few stages in the legal process will demonstrate whether we have succeeded. I suspect we have. There will be no repeat of the fiasco that was the Mychal Bell trial.
Regrettably, however, the mainstream media has rarely asked what the Jena story says about the fairness of the American criminal justice system. “Objective” journalists aren’t supposed to even address that question–they can only repeat the critique advanced by their sources. And thus far, sources like Al Sharpton haven’t settled on a consistent message. One moment, Jena is a throwback to Jim Crow justice; the next moment, Jena is about contemporary America. Al Sharpton et al, need to clarify their message.
The media has created the illusion that Jena is a uniquely racist community by asking Jena residents the wrong question: “Do you think this is a racist town?”
Black residents, with few exceptions, do see Jena as a racist community; white folks disagree. Conflicting quotations give the appearance of a town divided along racial lines. Tulia, Texas received the same treatment, with similar results.
Journalists should be asking if the Jena 6 can get a semblance of Justice in LaSalle Parish. They should be asking if the plight of the Jena 6 suggests unresolved issues within the American criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn’t like that question because they fear that Middle America doesn’t like it.
Notice inseparable importance of both message (spin) and the underlying structural factors that allowed the scandal to erupt. As I argued last time, the lasting benefit of scandals like Jena 6 and Don’t Tase Me Bro are the opportunities they present for organizing and strengthening already existing organizations. It is less important if the movement ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ (in this case frees the Jena 6) as it is that the movement make possible future movements. The learning of new techniques, making new connections between organizations, etc. Getting the six boys well-funded, adequate defense is about the most anyone outside of the legal system can expect to do. In the context of the image war, repetition of the core message and damage control seem like the most vital tasks, with the focus shifted as much as possible away from the individual (win/loss, hero/criminal) and toward the system. Jena 6 is a platform on which to stand and say and build other things, before it eventually dissolves. The sheer level of attention the scandal got was already a major victory. The chief concern is to make sure it doesn’t backfire.
Maybe the most interesting thing I found while writing this post is the following interview with Alan Bean, where he describes how Friends of Justice started and how it works:
WHAT IS Friends of Justice all about and how did it start?
FRIENDS OF Justice was formed in response to the infamous Tulia drug sting in 1999. It took us four years to win justice for the victims of a corrupt undercover operation. By the time the fight was done we realized that what had transpired in our little town was simply an egregious example of business as usual.
In the Tulia fight, we created a scandal by bringing together a coalition of civil rights groups, framing the case for the media, and organizing the affected community in Tulia. We learned how to change the narrative, how to humanize defendants, how to “sell” a story to the media, and how to try a case before the court of public opinion. The common wisdom was that what happened in Tulia was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. But Friends of Justice didn’t see any reason why the recipe that worked so well in Tulia couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.
You can’t do our kind of work unless you are willing to cross racial, religious, and cultural barriers at every turn. Charles and Patricia Kiker, my parents-in-law, had worked hard to integrate a traditionally white congregation in Kansas City before retiring to Tulia. This experience proved invaluable. Gary Gardner, a rotund farmer from a little town northeast of Tulia, called himself a racist redneck—and his racial vocabulary backed up the assertion. But Gary was a brilliant strategist who believed in equal justice under the law. I owe him an enormous debt.
But the key to our success is a fundamental willingness to listen to the victims of injustice. We let them teach us the basic elements of the story; then we reassemble the parts into a compelling whole. The life experience of the affected community blends with the verbal skills of a preacher to produce a crackerjack story. But it all begins with listening. People rarely listen to poor people, but I have learned amazing things from folks like Freddie Brookins in Tulia, Ann Colomb in Church Point, Louisiana, and Caseptla Bailey in Jena.
Of course, we have to begin with a particularly horrendous set of facts; a gross injustice where the unfairness and racism of the system is patently obvious and undeniable. But stories like Tulia and Jena rarely surface on their own. These scandals must be created.
First and foremost, you need a group of motivated and articulate defendants or family members. One or two good spokespersons will generally suffice—but these folks can’t always be found. The Jena story has become a national nightmare because of the passion and conviction of the affected community.
Friends of Justice was the first organization to respond to the call for help in Jena. Other civil rights groups had been monitoring the situation since the noose incident surfaced in the autumn of 2006, but nobody had an intervention strategy. As a matter of stated policy, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center don’t do criminal law. For a long list of good reasons, they prefer to file civil suits on behalf of the victims of injustice and overt racism. Thank God for that. The downside is that when poor people of color are awaiting trial their appeals for help generally go unheeded. It’s not because people in the civil rights community don’t care; it’s because the prevailing wisdom holds that civil rights lawsuits have far more impact than criminal cases.
Friends of Justice came to Jena intent on recreating the game plan that worked so well in Tulia. We recruited Tory Pegram of the Louisiana ACLU. We helped the community organize a chapter of the NAACP (getting 100 members out of a Black community of 350 was an amazing feat). We started asking prominent members of the civil rights community to throw their weight and prestige behind the Jena Six. As the story spread by word of mouth, talented people (most of them under thirty) started showing up in Jena to shoot documentaries and write stories for prominent blogs.
Most importantly, I spent dozens of hours doing interviews in the Black and white communities in Jena, poring over old copies of the local newspaper in the library, and rummaging through legal documents at the courthouse. When I felt I had a firm grasp of the essential facts, I wove them into a chronological, this-led-to-that narrative. When I was finished, a story about a roaming gang of Black thugs had been transformed into a story about how a blatantly racist reaction to a principled protest ended in tragedy. I argued that the perpetrator of the real crime in Jena was now prosecuting these cases. I gave the media the facts and the framework they were looking for.
Friends of Justice can’t do all of this ourselves, of course. Our job is to provide a compelling narrative and an overall strategy, then we put out the call for assistance. It’s sort of an “if we build it, they will come,” approach to activism. If the facts are sufficiently horrifying, a few sticks of kindling quickly become the kind of roaring conflagration you see in Jena.
More recently, we have been working behind the scenes to draft top-flight attorneys into the legal fight. At the same time, we continue to lure the major media closer to the fire we have built. Beyond a certain point, the process is self-sustaining.
I do most of the on-the-ground activism and my daughter, Lydia, a PhD student at Harvard, handles the lion’s share of the development and outreach. She runs our Web site, writes grants, and reaches out to potential funders and potential allies. During the past year, Lydia has played a large role in formulating and articulating our strategy. Our work calls for exceptionally innovative thinking—and that’s Lydia’s strength.
There’s a lot here, but the main things I want to emphasize are the importance he puts on developing the organization and the narrative from the bottom up, the flexibility required to navigate between different, potentially antagonistic cultural groups (presumably without trying to change anyone’s mind or get in arguments), and the lack of importance he puts on public opinion. In this model, the narrative is written for the media, with nothing more specific than attention as its goal. Once it’s blown up, money and fundraising is targeted at groups and individuals who are already sympathetic to the cause. “If we build it, they will come.” Show business philosophy, fit for a preacher (or ex-preacher in the case of Bean), but it is within the facade, not through it, that foundations are being laid.