We ALL Live in Jena

First of all, I’d like to say that the graphic here and the title of this essay are taken from Nezua over at The Unapologetic Mexican with his permission.

After seeing his diary, I spent some time this afternoon trying to understand why I haven’t engaged more with the Jena 6 issue. While I have been aware of the situation for several months now, I haven’t really spent a lot of energy on it or gotten involved at all. Part of me thinks that’s wrong and I’m sorry.

But I just saw something on Fox News (yeah, can you believe that one!!!) that helped me understand why. In a roundtable discussion about several issues related to race that have happened this week, one of the commentators talked about a case where a white boy had been beaten up by a group of black boys, but had gotten no media attention. This is the problem with advocacy by anectdote. If we are going to rely on one case to make our point – the other side is more than capable of coming up with a case in counterpoint. But we all know what a lie that turns out to be, don’t we?

I really feel for these particular 6 young men who are being handed a complete dose of injustice based on our deep seeded racism in this country. And I do think we need to organize to fight for justice for them. But lets all remember that for every one of these boys, there are thousands of others who are being treated just as unfairly in our so-called justice system.

I just saw figures this week for the county I live in. African Americans make up 14% of the population of children in this county. And yet, they make up 45% of those in the juvenile justice system. Numbers like that make my blood boil. There is no simplistic answer to this – the causes are complex threads of historical racism coupled with our own brand of it in the present. As a result of our inattention to this, we are loosing hundreds if not thousands of lives daily to a system that eats them up and destroys their souls.

Recently I have been witness to the beginning stages of how this inequity happens. First of all, we have seen our local middle schools institute a policy where any student who displays what school staff interpret as “gang symbols” can be expelled from school. Anyone who’s paying attention to urban youth culture will know that this immediately criminalizes how kids (mostly kids of color) dress, who they associate with and how they talk. And it all stems from the (mostly white) staff who have developed a palpable fear of kids who act, dress and talk differently from them. This fear is then used to justify draconian tactics that fuel the criminalization of kids.

In another case, we have a neighborhood up in arms lately because 30-50 kids are hanging out in the library every day because the local recreation center is closed due to construction. First of all, can you imagine that people are upset because kids are going to the library!!! But if you look deeper, the library staff are all white and are scared to death of these kids, once again, because of the way they dress, act and talk. So, what is their solution…they want a full-time ARMED policeman in the library!!! If they get their wish, you can bet that many of these kids – who mostly just need someone to notice them, provide structure and hold them accountable – will wind up getting arrested for petty kinds of things (the catch-all around here these days is disorderly conduct). And research has shown that the justice system behaves mostly like quicksand; once you’re in it, you tend to sink deeper. 

So I can only hope that the Jena 6 case starts to open up that whole can of worms and goes beyond just a fight for these boys to encompass ALL of our children who are suffering because of this illness in our culture. That’s why I liked Nezua’s graphic and the title of his diary, we DO all live in Jena.


  1. and I still can’t edit my essay’s after they are posted.

    In the example of the middle school policy, students can be expelled for displaying three incidents of gang symbols.

    I think I’ll take this moment to add though, that school staff are not required to talk to the student, question them, or provide any intervention between incident one, two, and three. Its just a matter of counting.

  2. And I love the graphic.

    So ironic – there were folks who worked so hard, sometimes at great personal risk, to get this story out, finally the traditional media picked it up, and then folks really began blogging about it all over the blogsophere.

    So yes, it was important to get the news out.  But now we see the same traditional media and, sadly, many in the liberal blogosphere, distorting the story.

    One of the biggest distortions was when Reed Walters gave his little op-ed piece in the NYT – talking about this crime:

    There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon …

    The weapon he is referring to was a tennis shoe.

    From this kind of distortion to the weight folks are putting on “oh, but that boy committed a crime!  He should be punished!” without taking into context anything about the inequality of that punishment, the fact that the white kids were also guilty of crimes (pulling a gun, and when the black kids wrestled it away from him, the black kids were arrested, go figure that one out).

    It’s so easy to confuse things — much harder to keep them clear.

    And there are all too many folks who don’t want this issue to be clear.

    Yeah, we ALL live in Jena.


  3. while this would be likely to get an African American kid expelled, it was the #1 video on youtube for awhile.

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