Skip to content
Blogs help drive Jena protest
There is no single leader. There is no agreed schedule. Organizers aren't even certain where everyone is supposed to gather, let alone use the restroom. The only thing that is known for sure is that thousands of protesters are boarding buses at churches, colleges and community centers across the country this week, headed for this tiny dot on the map of central Louisiana.
What could turn out to be one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in years is set to take place here Thursday, when Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, popular black radio talk show hosts and other celebrities converge in Jena to protest what they regard as unequal treatment of African-Americans in this racially fractured Deep South town.
Yet this will be a civil rights protest literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace, of a type that has never happened before in America—a collective national mass action grown from a grassroots word-of-mouth movement spread via Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio.
Jackson, Sharpton and other big-name civil rights figures, far from leading this movement, have had to scramble to catch up. So, too, has the national media, which has only recently noticed a story that has been agitating many black Americans for months.
As formidable as it is amorphous, this new African-American blogosphere, which scarcely even existed a year ago, now comprises hundreds of interlinked blogs and tens of the thousands of followers who within a matter of a few weeks collected 220,000 petition signatures—and more than $130,000 in donations for legal fees—in support of six black Jena teenagers who are being prosecuted on felony battery charges for beating a white student.
"Ten years ago this couldn't have happened," said Sharpton, who said he first heard about the Jena case on the Internet. "You didn't have the Internet and you didn't have black blogs and you didn't have national radio shows. Now we can talk to all of black America every day. We've been able to form our own underground railroad of information, and when everybody else looks up, it's already done."
Hotels are booked up for miles around Jena, the Louisiana State Police are drawing officers from across the state to help control the crowds and schools and many businesses in the town of 3,000 will close Thursday in anticipation of 10,000 or more demonstrators who are expected, organizers predicted.
The momentum for the protest did not slow even when the original reason for the event—the scheduled sentencing of Mychal Bell, 17, the first of the "Jena 6" defendants to be tried and convicted of aggravated second-degree battery—evaporated.
Last week, a state appellate court abruptly vacated Bell's June 28 conviction, ruling that he had been improperly tried as an adult rather than a juvenile. The local district attorney, Reed Walters, has vowed to challenge that decision, and Bell remains jailed in lieu of $90,000 bond.
What's animating the protesters is not merely Bell's legal predicament but the larger perception that blacks in Jena, who make up 12 percent of the population, are still subjected to the kind of persistent racial inequality that once predominated across the Old South.
In a town where whites voted overwhelmingly for former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke when he ran for Louisiana governor in 1991, one local barber shop still refuses to cut black men's hair.
And the trouble in Jena (pronounced Jee-na) started a year ago with a resonant symbol from the Jim Crow past: After black students asked administrators at the local high school for permission to sit beneath a shade tree traditionally used only by whites, white students hung three nooses from the tree. The incident outraged black students and their parents, but was dismissed by the school superintendent as a youthful prank; he punished the white students with three-day suspensions.
A series of fights between whites and blacks ensued, both on and off the campus. Whites implicated in the fights were charged with misdemeanors or not at all, while the blacks were charged with felonies.
In November, someone burned down the central wing of the high school—an arson for which no one has been arrested.
And then in early December, Bell and five other black students at the high school were charged after a white student was jumped and beaten while he lay unconscious.
Although the white student was treated and released at a local hospital, Walters initially charged the six black youths with attempted murder—charges that he later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery after black bloggers and civil rights leaders from across the country raised complaints that the charges were excessive.
Besides Sharpton, King and Jackson, the NAACP and the ACLU will have contingents here Thursday, as will the Millions More Movement led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
But many black bloggers say the Jena demonstration is really more about a new generation of civil rights activists who learned about the Jena case not from Operation Push but from hip-hop music blogs that featured the story or popular black entertainers such as Mos Def who have turned it into a crusade.
"In traditional civil rights groups, there's a pattern—you call a meeting, you see when everybody can get together, you have to decide where to meet," said Shawn Williams, 33, a pharmaceutical salesman and former college NAACP leader who runs the popular Dallas South Blog.
"All that takes time," Williams added. "When you look at how this civil rights movement is working, once something gets out there, the action is immediate—here's what we're going to write about, here's the petition, here's the protest. It takes place within minutes, hours and days, not weeks or months."
This new, "viral" civil rights movement now taking shape still benefits from the participation of well-known leaders like Jackson or Sharpton—it just doesn't depend on them, bloggers say.
It was black bloggers, for example, who first picked up the story of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl from the east Texas town of Paris who was sentenced to up to 7 years in youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. The judge who heard her case had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl charged with the more serious crime of arson.
After the bloggers and their readers bombarded the Texas governor with protest letters and petitions, Texas authorities freed Cotton—days before Sharpton had scheduled a rally on her behalf.
"When Rev. Jackson or Rev. Sharpton or other recognized leaders get involved, that's helpful, and it helps them—they can see where momentum is building around an issue," said James Rucker, the 38-year-old founder of Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group that has more than 280,000 subscribers. "You can argue they came late to Jena, but they are here now, which is good."
The blogs also serve as watchdogs over more traditional civil rights groups. When the NAACP first began featuring the Jena case on its Web site and claimed to be soliciting contributions for the teens' legal defense, it was a black blogger who quickly pointed out that the donation link directed visitors to the generic NAACP fundraising page, with no way for donors to direct their funds to the Jena defendants.
Within days, the link was redirected to a bona fide Jena 6 fundraising site.