Sunday, September 20, 2009

9/20/07 - Jena 6 Two Years Later.

It was two years ago today that tens of thousands of people descended on Jena, Louisiana to ask for the release of six young Black teenagers who were once charged with attempted murder after a beating a White classmate. Mychal Bell was the only one of the six still in jail and we hoped that he would be freed.

A hot Southern day that felt less like Faulkner and more like just ugly heat.

That was the first time I ever traveled for an assignment and armed with my journal, James Baldwin and an open mind to find the story - I came back feeling like Jena was like any other small town. Of course, a very White small town. But a small town. Those stories are still among the best things I've ever written (newspaper, school paper, poem).

But 2 years later, what's happened since? Does it feel like we went down there in vain? I had thought this earlier this year when Bell tried to commit suicide, crumbling under the pressure to be a good kid. Here's a timeline of what's happened since Black Thursday.

- Mychal Bell gets released but then goes back to jail for violating parole (a trumped charge)
- Bell pleads guilty and spends the rest of time with a suspended sentence
- One of the boys poses with some of the alleged money raised for him
- Bryant Purvis and Carvin Jones go to the BET Hip-Hop Awards dressed like normal teenagers and walk the carpet and throw up the “6” like it’s a sign. They do however acknowledge their fellow brothers when they are brought on the stage (I blame BET as well as their poor judgment around these kids)
- A nasty controversy ensues over talk show host Michael Baisden accusing advocacy group of lying about their funds then forced to eat his words when they post all of their receipts and he has little evidence to support his claim.
- Purvis, after moving to Texas, gets into a fight at his school and is arrested. Sentenced to a year community service and is now attending a college on a bball scholarship
- Jones allegedly assaulted another man in a fight in response to him being harassed the next day.
- Robert Bailey is attending school in Georgia, Jesse Beard is in school in Connecticut and Theo Shaw graduated from high school – those three have had no incidents since then.

- Jesse Ray Beard, the youngest of the six, is now at a Connecticut prep school hoping to continue playing football

I dont know what to make of it now. In hindsight it was a success because all of them are free to live their lives. And combined with being inspired with Pres. Obama's campaign and election, the spirit of activism and involvement in young people is still there. It was such a powerful moment and I feel glad to be a part of it. I think many who were inspired to join Obama's movement were inspired by their role in the Jena 6 cause.

At times it felt like the moment was in vain because either the boys made bad decisions or others made bad decisions around them. But it reminded me that victims aren't saints and their cause isn't about them, but what unfairly happened to them.

If anything, I got better acquainted with James Baldwin down there. I wanted to play the role of witness down there (speaking truth to what I saw, not what I wanted to see) and I feel like I did.

But like I say. I don't do scenes, I get involved in arms races...I wanted the moment to be bigger than just coming down there. And two years later, it's a moment that I won't forget and still want to learn lessons from.

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