The Rally in Jena, Louisiana, September 20, 2007.
(This piece is cross-posted in the blog CenLamar.wordpress.com.)
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.)