By Bill Templer
University of Malaya
Political Media Review
“The DA’s pen has replaced the lynching noose”Mumia Abu Jamal
Barely noticed In the midst of the hullabaloo and media hype over the death of Michael Jackson, a notorious case of racial injustice against six working-class African-American youths came to a quiet conclusion in the LaSalle Parish courthouse on June 25, 2009, in the parish (county) seat of Jena, state of Louisiana.
Five of the six teenagers, originally charged by LaSalle Parish DA Reed Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy against a white fellow student, agreed to plead ‘no contest’ to a greatly reduced minimal charge of misdemeanor simple battery. That plea does not admit guilt (1). The sixth, Mychal Bell, was convicted on a charge of second-degree battery and served 18 months in juvenile detention, nearly killing himself in despair last December. Mychal is now free and planning to go on to college this fall. One defendant, Bryant Purvis, is already in college, and the four others have similar plans.
Public pressure and the biggest civil rights demonstration the South has seen in 50 years served to save these high school kids from a massive miscarriage of justice and long-term incarceration in the American Prison-Industrial Complex.
The PIC now has 2.3 million behind bars, nearly half African-American. In the process, supporters managed to raise $275,000 to hire a strong defense team for the six. Hundreds of thousands of others are not so lucky (2). Their sentence when originally accused in late 2006 was a potential 100 years, and in the process of struggle was reduced to seven days on probation — quite a victory.
This DVD is powerfully narrated by long-incarcerated African-American radio journalist Mumia Abu Jamal (a trailer here: http://www.bignoisefilms.com/films/tactical-media/99-jena). It recaps the case from its inception, with two nooses found hanging from a high school tree in August 2006 after Black students attempt to integrate the schoolyard. In the aftermath, Reed Walters told a school assembly, his eye reportedly on the Black students: “I can destroy your life with the stroke of a pen.”
In retrospect, that racist statement was the spark. Racial tensions under Jena’s crust flared at the high school. The school was mysteriously set ablaze in November. A fight at the reopened school on December 4, 2006 left a white youth, Justin Barker, with an injured eye and a concussion — although that same evening, Justin attended a major school event. Soon after, six of his fellow African-American classmates were charged by DA Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy, and Walters promised to seek the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Shocked, the families decided to fight this injustice. On September 20, 2007, the movement built by their initiative peaked in the largest civil rights protest North America had seen for five decades. The film chronicles this in 18 short chapters.
But the film does not deal with later developments, which ultimately led to the incarceration of Mychal Bell in December 2007, his attempted suicide a year later, and recent release. So coverage is in fact partial. One critic feels the docu-film is poorly structured, far too brief for the complexity of its topic, “while interviews with several closed-minded locals establish quick hero-villain roles early on” (3).
Yet I think it captures well the political core of the Jena events. As Mumia sums it up: “North and South, we all live in Jena. And despite our denials, some of Jena lives in us.”
The Jena 6 brings the case home in numerous interviews, strong visuals and Abu Jamal’s riveting commentary. The film is a compelling chronicle
- of how working African-American parents can be politicized, self-empowered by circumstance to struggle against injustice, exemplified especially in the person of Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey’s mom. Marcus Jones, father of Mychal, ends the film stressing that “the day he sets foot out of jail, I’m gonna tell him, I’m gonna tell him again: you know what it is to be black now. Here, here it is.”
- of how to forge bonds of solidarity, local and beyond, as people come out of the silos of their isolation and oppression.
- of concrete class struggle, as poor Black families, literally ‘from the other side of the tracks,’ living in a ghetto outside Jena’s municipal perimeter, fight to oppose bogus charges against their kids and the bourgeois power establishment in LaSalle Parish. It’s about racial justice, but at the core of that is class justice, the poor versus the privileged. Much has been written about this case, but not about the wealthy elite that actually runs the parish and much of central Louisiana.
The DVD is also a window onto how working-class white folks in Jena, themselves victims and products of that same System, are blind to its gross inequities. Racist policies are spread and reproduced by exploiting racial divisions and the various economic, cultural and political anxieties and biases of whites, especially in the working-class. “This is part of the familiar divide and conquer strategy which pits poor whites against people of color for the sake of profit and power” (4).
And in a new turn of the old racist screw, Jena’s mayor Murphy McMillan has been busy this past year promoting the opening of the LaSalle Detention Center in town, a newly refurbished facility for incarcerating ‘illegal aliens’ dedicated a year ago. This is to be Jena’s new involvement in the booming ‘detention industry’ under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (5). That center is probably seen as a plum by the parish moneyed elite whom the mayor represents.
This is a film for consciousness-raising and critical pedagogy. It can be
- used in examining the PIC and criminal justice system in the U.S. and elsewhere. It can be combined with the DVD film The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation, recently reviewed in PMR.
- viewed and discussed in labor organizing, showing how solidarity among working families can be catalyzed and built.
- incorporated into classrooms by social justice educators, like Linda Christensen, who reminds us: “I try to find fiction and nonfiction about people who disrupt the script society set for them. I want students to see that history is not inevitable, that there are spaces where it can bend, change, become more just” (6)
It’s a war on the workers waged in part through the justice system, and the work of resistance must and will go on. Organizations like the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland, a prison abolitionist collective, can forge paths forward (7). Mumia, long on death row, has to be acquitted and freed (8). Leonard Peltier has to be finally set free, his case up for a parole hearing in late July 2009 (9). Countless others, of all hues of the rainbow, have to be released from the grip of the PIC.
As John Mellencamp’s song “Jena” reflects: “Some day some way sanity will prevail / But who knows when that day might come / A shot in the dark, well it just might find its way / To the hearts of those that hold the keys to kingdom come” (10) And throughout this tale of a nooses hung on a schoolyard tree, the lyrics echo of Abel Meeropol’s and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (11).
1. See http://news.aol.com/article/jena-six-case/542897 ; see also http://tinyurl.com/23lkqm ; for a more bourgeois liberal view of the case and its complexities, see Amy Waldman’s article: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200801/jena6
2. See also in PMR: http://www.politicalmediareview.org/2009/06/1617/#more-1617
3. See http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/33737/jena-6-the/
4. See http://illvox.org/2008/06/jena’s-divide-and-conquer-politics/
5. See http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/newsreleases/articles/080610jena.htm
6. See http://rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_04/joy234.shtml
7. See http://www.prisonactivist.org/
8. See http://tinyurl.com/nqht6p
9. See http://www.prisonactivist.org/node/522
10. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU-TqXNEucw&feature=related
11. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isU_OjY94NY