This past Thursday, we may have witnessed the face of the contemporary civil rights movement. Reacting to what they perceived as unduly harsh and discriminatory charging decisions by a local district attorney in the beating of a white student by six black students (the “Jena Six”), thousands of protesters descended on the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana. The controversy in Jena actually originated with the hanging of nooses by white students from the tree pictured at right, which was near a high school (it has since been torn down). White students had apparently long insisted that only whites were permitted to sit under the tree. The students who hung the nooses were suspended for a few days. Months passed, but racial tensions did not recede. Ultimately, there was an altercation that resulted in the charges noted above.
Some of the reporting on the “Jena Six” protest expressly invoked the 1960s civil rights movement. Some have even suggested that the “Jena Six” protest may mark the dawn of a new civil rights consciousness or movement. Several notable aspects of this recent protest suggest both similarities to earlier civil rights episodes and some important differences. As for similarities, the protesters clearly thought it important that they assemble and express their frustration in the town itself. As noted below, there was a substantial amount of online networking. But in the end, there was a felt need to assemble and speak in a physical place where protest was likely to be noticed (by the media, of course, but also by members of the Jena community). By their presence, the protesters sought to make Jena a symbol of the unfairness of the criminal justice system, just as Selma has come to symbolize inequality in the franchise and Little Rock the stigma of segregated education. When they descended on the town, protesters instinctively used specific places within the town — the courthouse where one of the “Jena Six” was thought to be held and the tree — to amplify their message. They appear not to have sought permission, by permit or otherwise, to assemble and speak. In that sense, at least, the protest was defiant. In these respects, the Jena protest looked on the surface much like street protests of the 1960s.
Despite these similarities, there were some substantial differences between the Jena protest and earlier civil rights protests. Unlike protests of the 1960s, the reaction time from event to assembly was remarkably short. Indeed, the protest in Jena was organized and effectuated almost overnight. Protest spontaneity was facilitated to a large degree by new technologies and media. Word of the “Jena Six” spread rapidly on the Web. At least since the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, activists have been relying upon new technologies to organize public demonstrations, document events on the ground, and in some cases counter police tactics. During the Jena protest, civil rights activists embraced these methods. News and protest plans were disseminated on blogs administered, and heavily trafficked by, African-Americans. African-American talk radio also played a critical role in bringing protesters together. This access to media was important in both organizational and expressive terms. In previous eras, protesters had to rely upon media like television to convey their message. With mobile, hand-held technologies protesters were able to document the events themselves, from their own perspectives, allowing them to bypass media filters to some extent. Further, unlike previous civil rights protests — but like most Web-originated swarms — the “Jena Six” protest initially lacked a traditional organizational structure or distinct leadership hierarchy. Indeed, civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were apparently caught somewhat off guard by the reaction to events in Jena (Rev. Sharpton said he learned of the controversy on the Web). The Jena protest, unlike prior civil rights displays, was not part of a more sustained campaign; once it was over protesters quickly left the area. Finally, and fortunately, this time there was no violent reaction — by either police, who mostly stayed in the background, or citizens (who mostly stayed home). (There were, however, some menacing statements regarding the “Jena Six” on the Web.) There were no hoses, no dogs, and no physical altercations between protesters and police. The marches and demonstrations appeared peaceful and generally well-organized. By most accounts, the mood of the protesters could be described as concerned, but generally relaxed and even at times festive.
What, if anything, might these similarities and differences indicate regarding the future of the civil rights movement?