Friday, September 28, 2007

My Experience at the Rally in Jena

The Rally in Jena, Louisiana, September 20, 2007.

(This piece is cross-posted in the blog

Over the past few weeks, the story of the “Jena Six” has exploded into the mainstream media and has rekindled conversations about the quality of our justice system. Justice no longer seems so blind in America. Although unequal treatment under the law has been removed from the books, inequality remains institutionalized in practice. Since Hurricane Katrina, national attention on the State of Louisiana has provoked a lot of difficult questioning about race and class, reminding many Americans about realities they would much rather leave forgotten.

My name is Michael D. Smith. I am a native of the city of Alexandria, Louisiana, and I am white. Alexandria is the only city in Central Louisiana, with its own Metropolitan Statistical Area, and is rather progressive, especially when compared with surrounding parishes. My parents abhor racist sentiments and brought me up accordingly. Unfortunately, not all families in our community have such an open heart to all people.

I am writing this because I have been asked by a few people to put down my own experience of attending the massive September 20th Civil Rights Rally in Jena, Louisiana. Two Hispanic friends of mine from New Orleans and I drove up to Alexandria the previous night to go to the rally the following day, in order to show solidarity with everyone who is dealt injustice. Although some reports have given numbers of up to 60,000 persons participating in the movement in Central Louisiana that day, I would say that, by the time we showed up, there were up to 20,000 people marching in the streets of Jena last Thursday, a great number indeed.

It was a mostly out of town scene. I met people from all over the country and talked to people from Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, the East Coast and Southern Louisiana, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The racial makeup of those attending was about 95% Black, and 5% White, though over half of the white folks that came down to Jena were media persons. Although there were some people from Alexandria, it seemed that the majority of the locals had left town. There were hardly any cars in the garages, or white people on the roads. No businesses were open.

Although DA Reed Walters has stated that it was only by the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ in Jena last Thursday that there was no disaster, I think it had more to do with the attitude of those who came down to protest injustice. It was, by nature, a non-violent rally. Almost everyone there was from places outside of Central Louisiana, and most people wore smiles as they walked around introducing themselves to each other, finding out where they were from and if they represented an organization or came as individuals. Most people drove or came in buses, although some flew down and rented cars to get into the small town, and were happy to socialize and shout for a good cause. No one seemed like they came down for a fight, even the Black Panthers, new or old.

Besides the park in Jena and the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, Jena High School became filled with people, assembled out front or in the lawn where the infamous tree (where the nooses were hung) used to stand. Many gave speeches, others just networked in the crowd. I was impressed to see many people collecting dirt or roots from where the tree was, just as pious pilgrims in Tibet or India take bits of sand from holy places in order to enshrine back at home. There must be some universal human impulse to possess a physical piece of the mythology that informs our deepest experiences, and carry it home next to our hearts. After all, the rally in Jena is the most significant event for some civil rights activists in decades.

Some people commented to me about the quality of Jena High School. They seemed amazed by how poorly maintained it seemed, remarking to me about the tin roofs, poor paint job, lack of adjoining facilities and small area that makes up the school. Although a wing of the school had been burned down last year, the existing facilities still seemed in disrepair. When asked about it, I replied that it resembled most other rural Louisiana schools I’ve seen. These people, even ones from other states in the South, don’t realize the pitiful state of public education in Louisiana.

In my opinion, the people involved in the injustice dealt towards the Jena Six are all victims as well: victims of poor education and the poverty of an isolated community.

There were members of dozens of different social justice and civil rights organizations present at the rally, including the New Black Panther Party. Some of these younger Black Panthers made racially divisive statements in heated speeches at Jena High or in front of the courthouse, but many people in the crowd expressed their disgust at those sentiments. It was a day about unity, with each other and with the imprisoned teenagers. However, it didn’t seem like it was a day about unity with the locals, as I heard a lot of negativity about the residents of Jena. I was encouraged by a number of individuals to not buy anything in Jena, in order to not support local business. There seemed to be little interest in bringing small out of touch rural communities, where racism and intolerance thrive, into the dialogue.

Unfortunately, it is this very distance between the mainstream developments of the country and rural towns like Jena, Louisiana, that perpetuate the antiquated and ignorant worldviews that are the very root causes of prejudice. They have been left behind socially and economically, and only by investing more resources in these communities, namely through education and digital infrastructure, can we begin to address the deeper issues of socio-economic inequality in America.

(Photo credit: Eric Martinez, New Orleans, Louisiana.)

Back in America

I must apologize for letting a few weeks go by without a post on this blog. I returned to the United States about two weeks ago, and have been spending most of my time with family and friends, catching up. It has been a nice transition. Everyone is very supportive. I have been impressed by the amount of work that has been done in New Orleans since I left, although the Hurricane recovery has taken a lot longer than most people would like. There are millions of relief dollars that remain hung up in bureaucratic red tape.

This is an exciting time to be back in Louisiana. In three weeks the people of Louisiana vote for a new governor. Central Louisiana has been thrown into the international media's scrutiny because of the injustice dealt to the "Jena Six."

Also, the weather in October here is amazing.

My heart, as always, is still half in the marshland of Louisiana and half in the ridges and valleys of the Himalaya...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Five Weeks in India

I had the invaluable opportunity to accompany an undergraduate study/travel group from Loyola University and another from the Graduate School of Social Work Tulane University (both located in New Orleans, Louisiana) on their adventures of discovery in northern India the past five weeks. I was able to assist in a number of ways, and look forward to continuing to work with them, and the community social work organization that arranged their tours (the Louisiana Himalayan Association).

This is a shot of Rewalsar Lake (known to the Tibetans as Tso Pema, the Lotus Lake), a holy site for Hindus, Himalayan Buddhists and Sikhs. It is one of the most important holy places associated with Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. He was burned at the stake here for seven days after being caught doing secret esoteric Buddhist rituals with the King of Mandi's daughter in a cave at this location. He was unharmed, however, and after seven days remained above a lake on a lotus. Everyone was pretty shocked, and immediately converted to Buddhism. This was in the eighth century; nowadays the locals are Hindu, mostly practicing devotion to the Mother Goddess in her various forms.

I took this picture of Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche (author of Tantric Practice in Nyingma and a seven volume work on Tibetan Buddhist History in Tibetan) at his monastery in Sudarijal in the hills northeast of Kathmandu. I first met him when he came to Houston to lecture at Rice University and to teach and give empowerments at Dawn Mountain Dharma Center in Houston. He is one of the sweetest people I've ever met, and basically spends his days praying and relaxing in the natural state, as he's getting kinda old now.

This is a view from a car on the road out to his monastery. As I flew into Kathmandu from Delhi on some clouds, I was struck by how green and clear the landscape is at the end of the monsoon. A truly beautiful sight. There have been a good amount of forest in my life this past month.

Here Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god that protects Lord Rama, is hanging out in the forest in Himachal Pradesh, in the hills above Tso Pema.

While in McLeod Ganj (upper Dharamsala), where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides with about 10,000 exile Tibetans live, I had a good bit of free time. A friend graciously let me stay in his house in the forest behind the Dalai Lama's temple, and I used that time to do a little retreat. On the last day of the retreat, the sunset was amazing, so I took a break to enjoy that. The sunset was also beautiful last night as was leaving Dharamsala on the bus for Delhi. I take it as an auspicious sign if there is a really fantastic colored light show in the sky as I complete something.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tragic Day in Kathmandu

I am both angry and sad right now, as I have just read some terrible news. Today four bombs went off simultaneously inside the city of Kathmandu, killing two (a woman and a highschool girl), and injuring over two dozen. This is the first attack in the capital since the signing of the peace agreement between the Maoists insurgents and the government last summer. The Maoists definately did not do this, it was most likely one of the extremist groups agitating within the southern part of Nepal, known as the Terai. You can read about this at the best site for Nepali news, This is truly a great tragedy for a peaceful people far too accustomed to turmoil.

On a brighter note, I will be attending teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj India, over the next three days. He is giving an explanation to a text by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, the Commentary on the Awakening Mind (byang chub sems 'bral). I am attending with a student group I have been assisting in Northern India, from the Tulane School of Social Work (New Orleans).

I have also been volunteering with LHA, a community social work organization that works with Tibetan refugees. I like the organization a lot, and will continue to work with them in the future.

May you be having peace and experiencing harmony today.