Eliza Krigman

October 11, 2007

On Monday, October 1, Mos Def, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and six other social justice groups organized a national student walkout in solidarity with the Jena Six. Although the exact number of students who participated is unknown, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that student activists staged walkouts at more than 100 schools around the country. The protest was aimed to show support for the six black Jena, Lousiana, high school students charged with second-degree attempted murder for beating up a white student in December 2006. The assailants didn’t have weapons, and the white student was released from the hospital after three hours. Civil rights advocates point to the incident as an example of the courts’ tendency to come down harder on young black men than on people of other backgrounds.

The Jena conflict began in August 2006, when a black student–who had asked for and received the principal’s permission–sat under a campus tree whose shade was usually populated by white students. The next day, three white students hung nooses from the tree. Several fights, presumably racially motivated, broke out between black and white students in the months following the noose incident. The county sheriff requested the district attorney speak to the students to smooth racial tensions at the school, but the DA merely threatened the students with legal prosecution. So when the six black students were charged over the December beating, many activists felt that the punishment far outweighed the crime.

Mychal Bell, the accused instigator of the fight, spent 10 months in jail and was released on Sept. 27 on $45,000 bail (originally set at $90,000). “This could have been my brother,” said Amira Rahim, who helped to organize the October 1 walkout at the University of Pittsburgh. Amira said about 300 people participated at Pittsburgh.

The Jena situation gave a face to modern racial injustice in America. It struck a chord with Rahim and others as an all too familiar reminder that the legal system treats blacks and whites differently. Deshaun Davis, a student at NYU and a member of MXMG who helped to organize the walkout on his campus, said Bell’s situation could have been that of many people he knows. The slogan walkout activists used says it all: “We all live in Jena.”

The battle to reduce Bell’s bail and release him from prison inspired young people across the country to get involved. Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity at the University of Missouri-Columbia, sold tee-shirts with an image of the nooses and the slogan “Enough is Enough.” Branden Gregory, president of the fraternity and a senior majoring in business management, told Campus Progress, “We aren’t going to reimburse ourselves for the cost of the T-shirts; we want the money to go to support Jena.” Recently, a student in a suburban Nashville school sued her school district because the assistant principal wouldn’t allow her to wear a t-shirt that said, “Free the Jena Six.” The Associated Press reported that school officials worried the Danielle Super’s shirt “could ‘cause a problem.'”

Perry Green, a senior at the University of Louisville and a member of the Campus Progress Student Advisory Board, attended the Sept. 20 rally in Jena, where approximately 10,000 people joined in a protest led by former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The event was promoted and organized by radio personalities such as Michael Baisden and bloggers, including Shawn Williams of Dallas South. “One of the things about it that inspired me and a lot of other students was the online activism component,” Green said, including email, blogs, Facebook, and MySpace.

Activists are also taking steps to raise awareness not only of the disproportionate effect of harsh punishments on young black men, but also of the racial tensions that many schools and communities, just like Jena, try to gloss over. “Overwhelmingly this was an issue of justice and race in America in a way that my generation and our generation can’t comprehend. It’s out of the old south almost,” Green said. “Young black men everywhere are experiencing the criminal justice system in ways that other people can’t imagine.” Activists say that racism is taught, and little is being done in schools to adequately address racial divides.

According to local paper the Jena Times, Jena High School formed a committee to investigate the noose incident and interviewed the students who hung the nooses. Roy Breithaupt, the district’s superintendent, said, “The results of those interviews showed that the students were not motivated by hate and that there was no indication from any of the students that they had any inclination to do any violence.” The committee concluded that the students’ “true motivation had nothing to do with racial hate.” Ultimately, the committee reduced the punishment for the white students from expulsion to suspension.

What inspired college students like Rahim, Davis, and Gregory to become activists? And why now, more than four decades after the civil rights movement? Sociology professor Assata Richards of the University of Pittsburgh identified Hurricane Katrina as an event that exposed the nation’s continuing racial divide, creating a momentum that Jena Six activists tapped into. “Katrina made black people realize that we are second class citizens in this country. It gave eyes to the suffering that black people endure. When their shelters and livelihoods were taken away, they were called looters and left to die. Hearing Kanye West say that Bush [doesn’t care about] black people woke a lot of people up to their status in our country,” Richards said.

The Jena Six story, as much as the media have focused on Mychal Bell and the five other young black high school students, is also about Branden Gregory and Danielle Super, who are wearing T-shirts that push the public discourse on race; it’s about University of Louisville’s Perry Green and other students who marched in Jena; and it’s about Amira Rahim and Deshaun Davis, students who organized walkouts on their college campuses. These activists are reawakening a protest spirit many people think died with the civil rights era. When it comes to racial disparities in the American criminal justice system, some young activists are finally saying that enough is enough.

Eliza Krigman graduated from UW Madison in 2005. She currently works at the Brookings Institution as a staff and research assistant in the economic studies program.