Thursday, September 20, 2007

News of Jena finds us, and the news media, asleep


It seems we still live in two Americas.

This week, one is cracking jokes about “don’t taser me bro,” after a Florida incident in which overzealous campus police did just that, and again seems riveted by wall-to-wall cable coverage of “all OJ, all the time, the Las Vegas Sequel.

I suspect much of this America long ago lost interest in the daily carnage in Iraq and lost touch with the daily inequities that are just part of life in this land of much-touted opportunity.

And the other America? It made its voice heard today when tens of thousands of mostly black Americans marched on tiny Jena, La., outraged by a town and story barely breaking into the consciousness of white America, but long on the radar, the websites and radio stations, of black-owned media.

Jena, news reports recount, is a place where three white boys were suspended from school for three days last fall after hanging nooses off a tree where typically only whites congregated – until a black kid had the temerity to sit there.

Jena, too, is a place where six black boys initially were charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder after beating up a white kid in what news accounts describe as a racially motivated fight in December. One of the six was convicted of a lesser charge – and faced up to 15 years in prison -- until a judge ruled that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult. He’s already spent a year behind bars.

The news accounts I’ve found leave murky whether there was any direct relationship between the two incidents. And at least some of the Jena 6, as they’ve come to be called, had been in trouble before.

But please: Three days suspension from school vs. 15 years, or one, in prison? Is that equitable justice in America, 2007? And why is this story only now breaking into my consciousness? Is it less important than “don’t taser me bro?” Is it less important than all OJ, all the time? I don’t think so. I don’t think those marchers coming to Jena today from all over the country think so either.

For whatever the reason, however, the gatekeepers of this country’s top news organizations messed up. They badly misjudged or just plain missed this important story. Writes The Washington Post, “The prosecutions in Jena … and the racial clashes that preceded them received scant news coverage.” A quick comparison of stories devoted to OJ, or even the tasering incident vs. Jena shows no contest: Jena comes in a distant third.

Which leads me back to those two Americas.

I don’t believe race is the only determinant of which America each of us lives in today. Nor do I believe any but the slimmest minority of those riveted on OJ but oblivious to Jena would advocate, tolerate or in any way accept those who sling nooses over tree limbs. But as a society, we, and in this case particularly white America, at times seem just oblivious, numbed by a popular culture and, increasingly, a news culture that feeds us a steady diet of entertainment and information that too often diverts our attention from, rather than focusing it on, what really matters.

That’s true when it comes to our long, grinding and, in the view of many, unwinnable war in Iraq. And its true when it comes to domestic issues, issues of justice and civil rights and immigration. Except for those who can’t simply walk away, can’t change the color of their skin or the status of their papers, too often we, and the news media charged with informing us, have checked out.

Just as many of us – for and against the war in Iraq – consider it someone else’s fight (the soldiers, the military’s, the politicians), many of us believe the struggle for Civil Rights belonged to another generation, in another time. No problem here. No problem now. Case closed.

Well, in Jena, La., today people are marching – by the tens of thousands. Most, though not all, will be black. To them Jena is just one more reminder, one more indignity nearly 150 years after the end of slavery, that justice is not color blind in America, that justice is still not equal in America, that not everyone has the luxury of shopping in malls in oblivion or sitting in Starbucks over a non-fat latte. That if we want a democracy, that if we want liberty, that if we want freedom, we have to fight for it, to sacrifice for it, to stand together for it, to get off our duffs and do something about it. We always will.

Whatever the nuances of the Jena case, whatever its ultimate resolution, to
the protesters for their actions, I say, thank goodness.


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