Jena: Baby Steps Toward a New Mass Movement

Nearly three weeks after the mobilization of more than 50,000 African Americans from around the nation at Jena, Louisiana the question hangs:  was it the beginning of this generation’s Black mass movement, the successor to the Freedom Movement of half a century ago?  What was accomplished, what was won?  What did Jena teach us about Black America and the larger American polity?

The answers to all these questions matter because despite what self-congratulating pastors, pundits, politicians and the rest of Black America’s “leadership class” would have us believe, progressive changes come not through them, but through progressive mass movements.  To get at the beginnings of a useful answer, we can note some of the key characteristics of progressive mass movements, and ask whether or to what extent these are or were visible around the Jena mobilization or in its wake.


What was accomplished?


Mychal Bell is free after 11 months in custody, his conviction in adult court overturned, and all the Jena 6 have seen their chargers reduced.  No sane person can doubt this is wholly due to the spotlight of public interest focused upon the case, and not at all because the prosecutorial and judicial systems “worked” in any fair or positive way.  If the Jena 6 youngsters and their case had remained unknown, all would be serving long stretches in Louisiana‘s adult prisons.  The partial and incomplete measure of justice — more accurately the partial and incomplete amelioration of their unfair prosecution was the positive accomplishment of months of extralegal and extrajudicial activity around the case.


Why Jena?


The transparently unfair and disproportionate criminal prosecution of Black youth as contrasted with the wink, nod, catch-and-release treatment administered to white participants in Jena’s racial disturbances spoke directly to the experience of the current generation of Black youth, who are targeted by an unspoken national policy of racially selective policing, prosecution and imprisonment.  It is in fact, the experience of criminalization and prison, according to Loïc Wacquant, that increasingly defines what it is to be young, poor and Black in today’s America, in the same way that  slavery, of Southern terror and Jim Crow, and life in the urban ghettoes defined it for previous generations.


“…(T)he prison and the criminal justice system… contribute to the ongoing reconstruction of the ‘imagined community’ of Americans around the polar opposition between praiseworthy ‘working families’—implicitly white, suburban, and deserving—and the despicable ‘underclass’ of criminals, loafers, and leeches… personified by the dissolute teenage ‘welfare mother’ on the female side and the dangerous street ‘gang banger’ on the male side—by definition dark-skinned, urban and undeserving. The former are exalted as the living incarnation of genuine American values, self-control, deferred gratification, subservience of life to labour; the latter is vituperated as the loathsome embodiment of their abject desecration, the ‘dark side’ of the ‘American dream’ of affluence and opportunity for all…  And the line that divides them is increasingly being drawn, materially and symbolically, by the prison.”



Both the emergence of of prisons as society’s number one institution for dealing with African Americans, and the sheer size of America‘s prison apparatus are entirely new phenomena, quite unlike the problems faced by previous generations of Black America.  As late as 1960, white men still were a majority of the nation’s prisoners. 


The refusal of our Black leadership class to craft a political challenge to the legitimacy of America‘s carceral state left the field wide open to unlooked-for leaders, to grassroots student and citizen activists, to bloggers and eventually a few personalities in corporate media willing to respond to the widespread and deeply felt crises engendered by racially selective mass imprisonment.


For a good while, the internet was the only place you could find any information about the Jena 6.  It was the efforts of alternative news sources and bloggers, and the users of social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook that public awareness of the Jena 6 case grew among African Americans steadily for months.  Finally, Michael Baisden, a syndicated black talk radio host adopted the case, and it became part of the staple fare on Steve Harvey’s morning show.  Local and national NAACP officials, who otherwise might have ignored the case, were compelled not to.  In the actual convergence upon Jena last month, the impetus came from below, as local activists and pastors from scores of Black churches were urged by their peers, constituents and congregations to take part.  At least three or four separate marches and rallies took place in and around  Jena on the same day, and thousands more never made it into town, having been stopped or delayed on the road by local authorities.


So did all this qualify Jena as a mass movement?  Two years ago in “Its Time To Build a Mass Movement” we outlined some of the characteristics of these things.



“What is a mass movement?



“Mass movements are creations of the political moment, rooted in the shared values of their core constituencies, nurtured by dense communications networks among a supportive population.  They are sustained by aggressive leadership, and youthful enthusiasm.  Mass movements inevitably employ civil disobedience, and the civilly disobedient components of mass movements must be carefully calculated in such a way as to maintain support from broad sectors of the population it aims to mobilize, and to increase support if they are violently repressed.



“To enumerate some of the typical qualities of mass movements:


“Mass movements have political demands anchored in the deeply shared values of their core constituencies.


“Mass movements look to themselves and their shared values for legitimacy, not to courts, laws or elected officials.  A mass movement consciously aims to lead politicians, not to be led by them.


“Mass movements are civilly disobedient, and continually maintain the credible threat of civil disobedience.


“Mass movements are supported by lots of vertical and horizontal communication which reinforces the core values of the constituency and emboldens large numbers of ordinarily nonpolitical souls to engage in personally risky behavior in support of the movement’s political demands.


“Mass movements capture the energy, enthusiasm and risk taking spirit of youth. Nobody ever heard of a mass movement of old or even middle aged people.


“In the absence of any of these characteristics, no mass movement can be said to exist.”


Certainly, all of these circumstances did not and do not exist in, around or in the wake of Jena.  But some of those that did were not in play before Jena became a national byword for the application of grotesquely disproportionate criminal sanctions upon Black youth. 


Those who were galvanized into action did not wait for established Black “leaders” to legitimize them.  They utilized horizontal communications networks like FaceBook and MySpace along with independent, non-corporate media to appeal to shared values and experiences nearly universal in Black America.  They were overwhelmingly young.  The political demands around the Jena mobilization, apart from stopping the unfair and unwarranted prosecution, were not clear, in part because of the many different voices who came to the fore, and also because corporate media coverage focused almost exclusively on the presence and pronouncements of established Black “leaders” and elected officials who were clearly following and not “leading” that day.  Some of the marches and meetings may have taken place without permits, but aside from this, there is no evidence of civil disobedience. 


These are undeniably steps in the direction of a new Black mass movement, but as yet they are only baby steps. 


And finally, the Jena case and the mobilization around it clearly shows that the next Black mass movement, when it gets underway, will focus on the policies of racially selective policing, racially selective prosecution, and racially selective mass imprisonment of African Americans, a set of issues that our established class of Black elected misleaders have chosen to ignore.  But the fact of America‘s carceral state is one that young Blacks cannot ignore.  The sheer number of lives it touches in our communities make it the single low-hanging fruit of organizing opportunity.  Those who would grow the next Black mass movement will learn to pick it.



Bruce Dixon is Managing Editor of Black Agenda Report

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