Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Jena 6 Rally - 5 Years Later

5 years is a long time. But the pride I feel is still strong. (Photo by Evan Barnes)
Five years ago, tens of thousands of people walked the streets of tiny Jena, Louisiana. They not only protested the Jena 6 - six Black boys accused of beating up a White classmate and initially facing attempted murder charges - but the one of the 6 still incarcerated. They were high school and college students, workers from every sector, activists, reporters. All in Black shirts in 90 degree September heat.

14 months removed from college, I was there too, reporting on one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in recent memory. I covered it for the LA Sentinel and not only did I win my first national award for it, it gave me a chance to learn a lot about the world and how issues are raised.

I remember back then being angry that Michael Vick's dogfighting trial was getting more coverage than the Jena 6. The more I looked that case up, the less I cared about Vick. He was going down for being a fool, bankrolling a federal crime and participating in it but meanwhile, we had 6 boys about to be railroaded by Southern justice and people didn't care as much. 

I asked my editor to write the first story in our September 6th issue. That story became one of my favorite issues because I also had a feature story on USC running back Stafon Johnson and a picture on then HS phenom Renardo Sidney. That led to me following up with it right up to the trip.

My story from the LA Sentinel, September 6, 2007 issue (Photo by Evan Barnes)

In honor of the anniversary, I'll give you some tidbits from behind the scenes. I wrote nearly 2,000 more words on getting there but there's still more to say. I also did this look back in 2009.

- 1st of all, I didn't know I was going until the Monday before. I had to call out of work at my tutoring center and I found out Monday that I had the day off. So instead of celebrating my 23rd birthday that night (we celebrated that weekend), I spent that night packing my duffle bag to leave in the morning.

- I still had to write my sports stories and front page story before I left. We left at 1 p.m. and I had finished my story around 12:30. One of those stories? A feature on Dorsey HS running back Johnathan Franklin, currently a Heisman trophy candidate at UCLA.

- James Baldwin's biography was my reading guide that week. That shaped my eye for being a witness for the first time. Write what you see and be truthful.

- My favorite moment of the whole trip was the morning before we drove into Louisiana. All the buses pulled into this lot and we started meeting people from all over the country. It hit me how powerful that march was going to be and what brought us all there. It was dark but I felt united with everybody just hearing their stories. My thought was just go all around and just talk. People were friendly and that bonded us even more.

- I took a lot of notes watching CNN reporter Eliott McLaughlin, who was embedded with us on the final hour or so. He did a lot of reporting with his handheld camera and just listening/talking to folks on my bus. 

- We were super close to walking the last hour of the trip. They wouldn't let the buses into the city so we got out on the street and were debating walking the rest of the way. Some folks compared it to walking from Selma to Montgomery in the 60's. At the last minute before we left the buses, they gave us the OK and we drove through.

- Being in Jena, I saw the best of activism. We stood at the courthouse like a dark sea united for justice. I saw documentarians ask great questions. I also saw the worst with people sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, being rude with people we were questioning and yelling for no reason. I realized that I'm tired of people making big speeches and rah-rah moments because after a while, I'm not just here to listen.

It was sad when we were making our way back to the buses, I still saw people standing up calling people to repeat chants and throw up the fist. Probably why I'm jaded on that kind of activism in this era.

- Did I feel weird going around the town? Yes. I felt like we were intruders despite being noble in our intentions. Most of the folks either locked their doors, put things around their property or watched from the window.

- That march was a big moment for Michael Baisden's radio career. At the time, Baisden was all over Black radio stations with his talk show in national markets besides the South. His show introduced a lot of people to the case and I interviewed folks who gave him credit for that exposure. But I soured on him afterwards for trying to slander for misappropriating funds, to which CoC posted pictures of their checks while he didn't.

- I also respected Rev. Al Sharpton a bit more. He stayed more in the background and let Baisden take the lead. He spoke at times but he was more playing a side role. I liked that.

- In addition to writing the stories, I also did a live blog about the trip. That was tough because 1) I had no internet access to do it often and 2) I had to text/phone updates to our web guy. It still worked and that was the first blog in the newspaper's history. That was around the time newspapers were starting to embrace that type of medium.

Shouts to Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Bun B being a few of the hip hop artists who attended the rally.
 - I do regret not taking more pictures of myself down there. 

- My least favorite moment? Easily the bus ride back. While in Arizona, a woman who clearly wasn't in her right mind started accusing someone of sexual harassment I think? We had to leave her behind until her husband could drive down and get her but it took 30 mins of tense negotiations, people arguing with folks on the bus and just the general angst of being cooped up for 4 days.

Basic lesson I learned? Don't ride a bus with that many people for that long.

- A month later, I was invited to speak about my experience back at my alma mater. It was pretty cool considering I was still a recent graduate. It's probably my proudest moment as an alumnus. It was a small event in our coffee shop but still a cool way to give back, especially since I told several teachers about the case in the weeks prior.

I was BSU co-president for two years so to speak as an alumnus on the Jena 6 in 2007 was pretty cool. (Photo used with permission from Black Student Union of University of San Diego)
Looking back at that whole experience, it was just powerful. A chance to be a part of history and feel like we were on the verge of change. We wanted to come back and be more involved in matters. I still believe the energy from that movement transitioned into helping Barack Obama become President, esp. with young people. Yet we also wondered if our movement had been in vain directly because Mychal Bell was still in jail for a while longer and the Jena powers that be rode out our noise til we left.

It's important to remember this fact. Most of us weren't saying that there wasn't a beating and that those boys shouldn't be punished. It's that 1) we didn't have proof that all of the 6 were involved, 2) they got heavy punishments while the incidents leading up to it saw no punishment. It's a reminder that too often justice is heavy handed towards people of color and injustice doesn't mean the people worth defending are saints, but their rights are in jeopardy.

5 years later, I just remember a positive experience that sparked a consciousness in me and so many others. It's probably one of the 1st social media campaigns sparked by Facebook and alternative websites raising noise when the mainstream media didn't. I'm proud to have been a part of it and share my thoughts for future folks to see.

Also I'm proud that a 16-year-old who went on the trip with me is still a conscious brother who's making great music and has traveled abroad in his career. Hugh Augustine's a dope MC out of Los Angeles but I still know him as a smart brother raised in a good family who's very aware of his world.

The Jena 6 then.

Jena 6 Update
- Mychal Bell is a starting senior defensive back at Southern University.
- Theo Shaw attended University of Louisiana-Monroe and double majored in political science/history. He's now in law school.
- Bryant Purvis, who had been arrested in 2008 for assault, played basketball at Southeastern Louisiana and Grambling, where he was a junior last season.
- Robert Bailey is currently a junior wide receiver at Grambling and an ROTC member
- Jesse Beard, the youngest of the 6, currently attends Hofstra and has dreams of becoming a sports agent
- Carwin Jones' whereabouts and actions are unknown publicly. His last recorded action was being arrested in 2011 in a bar fight.
- The beating victim, Justin Barker, is still in Jena as of August 2011. After successfully suing for medical damages, he has tried to repair his life. He still deals with lockjaw. I think most of us probably were too unsympathetic to him when we heard the nature of his injuries.
- District Attorney Reed Walters, who famously threatened to sign the Jena 6's life away with a stroke of his pen, is still the DA in the LaSalle Parish.

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