The Jena Six: Of nooses, fights, narratives, and movement building

NOTE: Since writing this blog I have gained more information and have written a longer paper with more details that gives a somewhat different slant on some events. I will link to that paper when I’ve finished revising it.

There was a huge wave of Black protests in the wake of what came to be called the Jena Six case. Somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 people from around the country went to the small town in Louisiana to protest on September 20, 2007, and tens of thousands more participated in events around the country on that day or in the days before or after.  As the mobilization built, a wide spectrum of Black leaders including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III as well as groups including the SCLC, the NAACP, Sharpton’s National Action Network, the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panther Party, student groups, labor unions, fraternities and sororities, and churches sent people to Jena or organized local events. A few articles mentioned the Millions More Movement as active.

By  October of 2007, the movement was no longer about the case of the Jena Six but about the broader questions of fairness in the criminal legal system and punishing hate crimes. An unusually high number of noose hangings and other symbolic hate crimes occurred in the fall of 2007 and a key demand was increased criminal penalties for noose hangings. Several other cases of hate crimes or unfair justice or police violence were folded into the discourse. As the momentum built, news accounts described the rejuvenation of the Black movement itself as a new generation and new tools were brought into the struggle. Some accounts used the phrase “new civil rights movement”  or “modern-day civil rights movement.”

The Jena Six were Black teens who were charged with attempted murder after the beating of a fellow student at Jena High School in Louisiana. There are at least two interesting narratives to trace in the case. One is what happened at Jena High School and what causal attributions were made about the relation between events. A number of writers have worked to disentangle what “really happened” from the narratives about the nooses and the fights, and contemporaneous local newspaper coverage makes it possible to reconstruct a basic timeline of events, although not to resolve all disputes about what happened.

The other story is about how the movement grew. The dominant narrative about the movement is about how bloggers and social media and talk radio hosts brought attention to an issue being ignored by traditional civil rights groups. But the narrative about the Jena Six was intentionally constructed by local activists seeking outside support for an instance of what they saw as racially motivated overcharging of Black youths by linking it to a broader story that involved the nooses. The elements of the narrative are in a document prepared by Alan Bean of the small Southern NGO Friends of Justice in early 2007.[1] He and other local and regional activists were intentionally working to get outside support. These local and regional activists themselves were rarely discussed in in the dominant narratives of how the movement grew, and few writers seemed interested in discussing how those local activists managed to capture outside attention or how the bloggers and radio hosts initially learned about the case, or about how the existing “on the ground” organizations interacted with outsiders including blogger to generate actions. or bloggers or talk radio hosts are often credited with creating the movement, and they surely played a role in building the mobilization. But before the Jena Six, ColorOfChange was featuring support for Genarlow Wilson, a teen who had been imprisoned for having consensual oral sex with his younger girlfriend, and this case (which continued to be referenced in post-Jena protests) did not become the basis for a mass mobilization. Cases of overcharging of Black  youths were ubiquitous. The Jena Six mobilization swelled because it linked the unfair charges to the powerful symbol of noose-hanging as racial intimidation. And it was local activists who created that link.

What happened in Jena?

The Nooses and Protests

The Jena High School story usually invokes two anchor events: (1) On September 1, 2006, two nooses were hung on a tree at Jena High School after a Black student asked whether it was OK for Black students to sit there. The principal said they could sit anywhere they wanted. Although the principal recommended expulsion for the three students who hung the nooses, the school superintendent overruled him, saying the incident was just a prank, and the punishment was a few days of suspension. (2) On December 4, 2006, one or more Black students attacked or fought with White student Justin Baker, who was knocked unconscious and was injured but not badly enough to require overnight hospitalization. Six Black students were charged with felonious assault and attempted murder.

Were the September noose-hanging and the December fight connected? And, if so, how?  And what is the central injustice in the case? The failure to punish the noose-hangers or the attempted murder charge?

Hundreds of news articles and other texts constructed the meaning and connection of these events in different ways. Some narratives in news accounts erase the three month gap between the nooses and the fight and simply assert that the fight happened shortly after and because of the nooses. Some narratives connect the events with the assertion that there were escalating tensions or ongoing fights. Other narratives connect them with the disparity in punishment: essentially no punishment for hanging a noose but a serious felony charge and threat of decades in prison for the fight. Still other narratives treat the noose incident as evidence of a racist background context for disparate treatment and gross overcharging by the prosecutor.

The more immediate potential precipitants of the December 4 incident were fights involving some of the same people that occurred on December 1 and 2. In the police and prosecutor versions, the December 1 and 2 events involved Black student aggression, while in the Black movement version they involved White aggression and disparate treatment.If they are included, the December 1 and 2 fights are treated as part of either the escalating tensions or disparate treatment narratives.

Searches of news archives provide a few more anchors. Although there are references in some accounts to what the local Jena newspaper said, it does not appear to be archived. However, archives of the Town Talk, published in Alexandria, a small city 38 miles away that includes a branch campus of LSU, provide contemporaneous coverage of some key events. A September 6 article with the headline “Jena High noose incident triggers parental protests” reports on a meeting of Black parents on Tuesday September 5 at L&A Missionary Baptist Church to discuss what to do. This article says a key speaker was lawyer Krystal Todd and  that parent Renea Ogletree “has contacted representatives with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s national action network about the incident.”[2] It describes the nooses as reportedly following a question and answer session at an assembly about whether Black students could sit next to White students under the tree.

A September 8 Town Talk article with headline “3 Jena students face possible expulsion” says there has been  at least one incident involving pushing and shoving at the school and quotes a student as saying there has been multiple fights along racial lines. It also says a school assembly was called on Wednesday (September 6) where “officials including District Attorney Reed Walters stressed the importance of remaining calm.” It says the principal has recommended expulsion and a hearing will be held about the punishment.

The district attorney later admitted under oath that at the assembly he said  “I can ruin your lives with a stroke of this pen.” This threat was widely interpreted as being aimed at Black students and evidence of his racial animus in the later overcharging of the Jena Six, although the district attorney said the threat was aimed at all students.

The Associated Press put out a version of the story on September 7 that was reprinted by multiple newspapers around the world. This story says two nooses were hung after Black students asked about sitting under the tree, and describes the authorities’ process of deciding the appropriate punishment, and says there has been at least one fight at the schools. It makes no mention of parents’ protests. On September 9, the AP reported that the students would be suspended but not expelled. None of the contemporaneous reports mention a rarely-mentioned detail that was important in the White counter-narrative, that the nooses were in the school colors and were left over from a pep rally the previous week.

The Town Talk published two more articles on September 12 and 19 that described parents concerned about the nooses seeking unsuccessfully to be heard at a school board meeting on September 11 and then being allowed to speak for five minutes on September 18, with nothing being done afterwards. The September 12 article says the NAACP has become involved and the FBI has interviewed at least one student. The September 19 article says the parents have not given up trying to get the issue addressed. These local protests were not covered by the AP.

None of the common narratives in the flurry of 2007 news articles mention the parents’ protests that are attested in the contemporaneous record as well as in Alan Bean’s narrative. Instead, drawing on Bean’s event narrative constructed in early 2007,[3] some accounts say a peaceful Black student protest under the tree on September 6 precipitated the assembly and the District Attorney’s threat. In a July 2007 forum, US Attorney Donald Washington said he could find no evidence that there had been a protest at the school that day.[4] However, it is not implausible that Black students may have staged some sort of small informal protest the day after their parents met.

News coverage in the Town Talk picks up again on November 30 when the main school building of Jena High School was destroyed in a fire that was immediately determined to be arson. The arson story was covered by AP. No one knew for months who had set the fire, although it was later determined to be no one who had anything to do with either the nooses or the crucial fights. A few sources say that at the time, it was viewed by most as part of a violent escalation, with each race blaming the other for the fire. This was a traumatic event for the entire Jena community. There were a number of follow up stories in the Town Talk about recovering from the arson. Some accounts stress the arson as the immediate precipitant of the fights beginning December 1, and other narratives fold the arson into a general narrative about escalating tensions.

The Fights

On December 1 and 2 there were fights involving some of the people later involved in the crucial December 4 fight. These fights occurred after the main building of Jena High School was burned down on November 30 in what was obviously arson. Some sources say that Black and White students blamed each other for the fire. The police and district attorney narratives construct these fights over the weekend as Black aggression that fed into the December 4 attack; the brief Town Talk reports sound like the police. Drawing on Bean’s document, the Black narrative constructs these as White aggression that was not punished. News sources also say that there were other fights between Black and White students or young adults on the same weekend that did not involve the students who became the Jena Six.

On Friday December 1, at least one Black student, Robert Bailey, showed up at a private White party and was beaten by a White man. Some sources say he was hit with a beer bottle and that multiple people were beating him. Justin Claon (age 22) was later charged with misdemeanor assault. Although he was beaten, the Town Talk describes Robert Bailey as “involved,” not as a victim.

Descriptions of the fight on Saturday December 2 vary. The main Black narrative drawing from Bean’s event list is that a White man pulled a shotgun on a group of Black students who wrestled the gun away from him and took it with them when they left. The White man was not charged. Black students Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, and Ryan Simmons (later part of the Jena Six) were later arrested and charged with stealing the firearm. The White person, Matt Windham, was described as the “victim” in the Town Talk stories, which give the police version in which there was a fight where Windham’s gun was stolen and the implication is that the Black students were aggressors. Some tellings have the students attacking him and stealing the gun without the gun being pulled on them, others have him going for the gun after they attacked. Some retellings omit the gun and just call this a fight or an attack on a White man by Black students. This fight occurred at a local quick market, although one account moved it to the school.

The crucial fight occurred in the school gym at noon on Monday, December 4, the first day back at school after the arson, where there were makeshift arrangements for classes and disrupted routines. Contemporaneous Town Talk accounts say that someone was injured and others arrested. Detailed conflicting claims about exactly what happened in the fight and who was really involved were all published much later. Alan Bean’s early 2007 summary says that there is evidence that at least one of the students charged was not present at all and that events happened so fast it was hard for anyone to know exactly what had happened. Some descriptions say Barker was first knocked unconscious from behind and then kicked.

The implication in most narratives that list the preceding fights is a sequence of retaliatory violence among the same groups of people. This is what the police were reported as believing in a December 7 Town Talk story. Many versions emphasize the failure to punish White aggressors in the earlier fights and the racism in treating Black victims as aggressors. One account says the December 4 fight began with the ultimate victim bragging about how White students had beaten up Robert Bailey. Some versions omit the prior fights and have a group of Black students attacking the victim without provocation. Still other versions imply that the fight was shortly after the noose incident and caused by it.

Stories vary in how they describe the victim’s injuries. He was knocked unconscious, and some accounts say he did not wake up until he was in the hospital. He was taken to the hospital and later released. Many stories stress that  he attended an awards ceremony later that day, although other stories stress that his jaw was broken and his eye was swollen shut. He said he attended the ceremony because it was important to him, but left early due to pain. Some accounts refer to the fight as a “schoolyard brawl” and omit any mention of significant injury.

Arrest and Charging

On Tuesday September 5, four students were arrested: Carwin Jones, Robert Bailey Jr, Theo Shaw and an unnamed juvenile. On Wednesday, two more juveniles were arrested. All were booked on the felony charge of aggravated second-degree battery. Bryant Purvis was later named as one of the arrestees.

The charges for four of the students were upgraded to attempted murder on Thursday December 7. The Alexandria Table Talk reported: “This comes after reports that some teachers were considering a sickout because of discipline problems at the school. LaSalle Parish School District officials said they had found no teachers considering such an action and did not know where such information came from.” Bail for the non-juveniles was set at $70,000 to $138,000. The names of the juveniles still had not been released. The same article reported that the high school principal had been replaced as the previous principal moved to central administration.

On December 15, juvenile Mychal Bell was moved into the adult system and given a $90,000 bail. He could only be charged as an adult because of the attempted murder charge; the aggravated battery charge would require that he be tried as a juvenile. This sixth student, who was 14, remained generally unnamed.

In January, three of the students, Bryan Purvis, Carwin Jones, and the juvenile were able to bond out of jail. The other three, Robert Bailey Jr, Theo Shaw, and Mychal Bell remained jailed because they could not afford bail.

The Town Talk offers no discussion of whether the attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder charges are appropriate for the facts of the case. Later discourses challenge whether even an aggravated felony battery charge was appropriate, as that charge would require a weapon and the only “weapon” alleged at the trial  was shoes because the victim was kicked..

All the Town Talk articles mention the September nooses and the November arson while saying they were unrelated to the fights.

In January, the Town Talk reported that all six young people were expelled from school pending trial. Some remained incarcerated. One was sent out of state so he could go to school. The others had no educational options.

Local and Regional Protesting Out of Sight of National Eyes

The Town Talk described two “community healing” events in Jena led by pastors, one in December and another in January; neither article made any direct mention of the racial mix of participants. We know of no contemporaneous news coverage of protests about this case before May 2007. But later news stories say that weekly protests began immediately and that the Louisiana NAACP and Alan Bean’s Friends of Justice were involved from January on. The focus of attention was the felony assault and attempted murder charges, which threatened decades-long prison sentences for the boys and destruction of their goals of going to college. All had been expelled from school. Those who were out on bail cobbled together alternate schooling. Three continued to sit in jail.

A retrospective article about the importance of bloggers written in April 2008 says “Efforts by the Louisiana NAACP and local chapters fell short when a rally they organized last March in support of the Jena Six teens drew only a few dozen people.” Although we found no contemporaneous record of a March 2007 protest, the Shreveport Times reported that King Downing, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, would be giving several talks in the state under the sponsorship of several regional ACLU and Law societies and the LaSalle Parish chapter of the NAACP. One of the talks was scheduled for Wednesday March 8 in Jena. Surely this tour was part of the attempt to draw attention to the Jena Six and it is reasonable to assume the March protest was connected to it.

That same retrospective 2008 article continues: “Though well-intended, their outcome paled in comparison to the whirlwind of support that followed as a result of Internet campaigns.” But where did those  Internet campaigns come from? What started them? The Friends of Justice website[5] says “At the request of affected families in Jena, Friends of Justice director Alan Bean conducted a thorough investigation of the case and created an aggressive justice coalition involving Friends of Justice, the Louisiana branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Soon, the case was being covered by media as diverse as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Chicago Tribune.”

All the elements (and more) of the Black narrative of events can be found in a document written by Alan Bean for circulation to the press in “early 2007”.[6]  Alan Bean’s Friends of Justice is based in Arlington, Texas (about 350 miles from Jena). It has the specific mission of developing narrative-based campaigns to create “a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment.” Bean’s list of Jena events includes nooses and the protests about them as well as fights in schools and the disparate treatment of the White aggressors in the December 1 and 2 fights. This is the source grist for most of the narratives written later.

Another local actor who was trying to get the word out is Alexandria talk radio host Tony Brown. A July 30, 2007 NPR “All Things Considered” radio show transcript says that Brown reported on the story on his show, which is broadcast throughout most of Louisiana. In a interview posted on YouTube[7], Brown says that he was aware of the noose situation from the beginning. He discusses the local events but makes no claims about his own role in publicizing the case except to say that he coined the phrase “Jena Six.” Nationally-syndicated Black talk show host Michael Baisden, who was widely credited with publicizing the protest, said he heard about the Jena situation in August, 2007 from emails and does not mention the NPR broadcast or Brown.

Early Reports

The first breakout story was published by New Orleans-based activist Jordan Flaherty on the blog “LeftTurn:Notes from the Global Intifada” on May 9, 2007. Flaherty is a writer who is affiliated with the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit civil rights legal advocacy organization devoted to fostering social justice campaigns across Louisiana. Flaherty’s article opens with Alan Bean speaking to a rally in Jena “last week” (presumably about May 2) organized by local residents that was attended by allies from other northern and central Louisiana towns and representatives from the ACLU, NAACP, and NAN. He says: “In the space of a few weeks, more than 150 of this small town’s residents have organized an inspiring grassroots struggle against injustice.” The article gives extensive attention to Alan Bean and Friends of Justice, citing its mission to focus on small Southern towns that are often neglected by outsiders. It also quotes the ACLU’s King Downing (who visited Jena in March ) as saying the case “carries the scent of injustice.” The article recounts the 2006 Jena events drawing on Bean’s narrative. This is framed as a story of the local people having agency and having regional allies who are aiding their struggle. The trial is scheduled for May 21.

The next and bigger breakout is a BBC documentary by Tom Mangold that was broadcast on May 20. Mangold’s written blog dated May 20  accompanying the documentary is pegged to the trial the next day, gives vivid descriptions of the segregated context of Jena, refers to the key fight as a “playground fight,” contains quotations from local residents, and says local people refer to the NAACP and the ACLU as “outsiders” that have “become involved” and have “begun to recruit, enthuse and empower the local black population.” It says reporters from the BBC and the New York Times have been drawn to the story. This piece was reprinted by the Tennessee Tribune, a Black newspaper, in its May 31 – June 6 issue, and in a number of international publications.

Also on May 20, Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune published an article about Jena that quoted Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU, opens with the nooses, describes escalating violence, and stresses the racism of the community. This article mentions an essay posted on the Internet by a White LaSalle County Pentacostal preacher Eddie Thompson who criticizes the racism of the community. We can find no record of this essay or whether or how it connected to a broader Internet campaign.

Notice that there is a major shift in the narrative in these early stories: From Flaherty’s description of valiant local grassroots activists seeking others to support them we shift to Mangold’s story of the outsiders building the movement to Witt’s story of a racist community that seems to have no local Black agency at all.

As the story unfolds in both the mainstream and Black press in the ensuing months, Jena’s White residents are portrayed as having racist agency, and external Black activists (including bloggers and radio hosts) have agency in promoting the movement, and there is some mention of Black high school students protesting, but Louisiana (and Texas) Black adults disappear almost entirely as people with agency who have been attempting to build support for the case. There is vague mention of them being ignored, but no mention at all of the work they did to eventually get attention.

The News Gets Out and Support Begins

The trial originally scheduled for May 21 was postponed to June 28. A few accounts assert that the jury chosen for May 21 was majority Black and assert that the district attorney “conveniently” became ill. The attempted murder charges were dropped just before Bell’s trial. The prosecutor argued that Bell’s shoes were a weapon justifying a claim of felonious assault. The jury for Mychal Bell’s June 28 trial was all White. Many accounts say that Bell’s Black court-appointed attorney wanted him to plead guilty and was angry about going to trial and failed to mount any defense. It appears from news accounts that all the witnesses were White.

The AP’s writer Mary Foster covered the trial with stories on June 26, 27 and 28. These stories do not appear to have been picked up in either mainstream or Black news sources. We can find no other news coverage of Jena events in the month of June. The first news story we can find appears in the Washington Informer with a publication date of July 12-18 that references Mychal Bell’s trial “a little over a week ago” and chides the NAACP for ignoring the Jena case. (Most Black newspapers are published weekly rather than daily and many have a lag between when the stories were written and their publication dates.) An article in the Tri-State Defender with publication date July 19, written by reporter Wiley Henry retells the story as it appeared in the May articles, cites Alan Bean as having rallied African American and white churches in Jena in pursuit of justice, and provides updates indicating that money has been raised to post bond for Robert Bailey in April and Theodore Shaw in July. An article dated July 26 in the Washington Informer reports that the NAACP passed an emergency resolution at its convention supporting the Jena 6 and saying it will provide resources; the article mentions the prior efforts of the Louisiana NAACP. More Black newspaper stories about the case appear with publication dates at the end of July and early August. These stories retell the event sequences from the May stories with updates about the trial and also what is happening now with the various youths involved.

National Public Radio’s Farai Chideya  interviewed Jordan Flaherty and others on July 5. Democracy Now broadcast a radio story about the case on July 10. NPR’s Melissa Block ran another broadcast on All Things Considered about the case on July 30.

Mychal Bell was originally scheduled to be sentenced on July 31. The AP and Black news sources reported that there was a protest in Jena on July 31 involving several hundred people from around the country. At this protest, ColorOfChange presented petitions with about 45,000 signatures. An article by Ser Seshs Ab Heter in the Washington Informer reported: “Representatives of numerous organizations such as Malcolm X Grassroots, Friends of Justice, Louisiana Families of Incarcerated Prisoners, Interfaith for Justice, Common Ground of New Orleans, Community Defenders of Lafayette, N’CORBRA, ACLU and Concordia-Catahoula and LaSalle Parishes NAACP swelled the crowd.”  This implies that ColorOfChange was involved but the in-person mobilization was still largely regional. However, the mobilization was picking up. The Washington Informer coverage of the July 31 protest notes that the sentencing was postponed to September 20. An August 15 story by Jordan Flaherty describes the July 31 protest as mostly local but including some supporters from California, Chicago and New York, saying the largest groups were Millions More Movement delegations from Houston, Monroe and Shreveport and nearly  nearly 50 members of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children from Lake Charles and New Orleans. Other delegations from across Louisiana included members of INCITE Women of Colour Against Violence, Critical Resistance, Common Ground and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

In an August 15 story[8], Jordan Flaherty says that more support for the Jena case has come in after the July 31 demonstration.

In what may count as the first “national” news coverage, an August 4 Washington Post article by Darryl Fears[9] locates the Jena case in the context of other cases of racial bias in prosecution and sentencing and provides a somewhat garbled account of the sequence of events in Jena, making no mention of any protests about the events.

Al Sharpton visited Jena on August 5 where he met with Mychal Bell and his supporters and the courthouse and attended a worship service. His visit was covered by the Alexandria Town Talk in two articles by Karina Donica and in an Associated Press newswire article by Mary Foster on August 5; a somewhat different version by Mary Foster was printed on August 9 by the Sacramento Observer. The Town Talk quotes Sharpton as saying he heard about the case “about four weeks ago” and that Sharpton also claimed that the Bell family had reached out to him; he says that Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III plan to visit soon.  The Sacramento Observer quotes Sharpton as saying he would keep coming back to the town “until justice rains down like water”; this phrasing is not in the AP version. There is no explicit mention of September 20.

An August 20 Town Talk article that mostly focuses on how residents of Jena feel about the attention they are receiving mentions that Martin Luther King III visited the town “last week.”

By the end of July and into August, Black newspapers were printing multiple stories about the Jena case. Our newswire stories don’t really pick up again until mid-September and are mostly focusing on the progress of the case, with mentions that a protest is planned for September 20. Newswire coverage becomes intense only within a few days of the protest, and for a couple of weeks afterwards.

Toward the end of August, a few news sources were reporting the information that Mychal Bell had previous juvenile convictions for assaults and was on probation for them.

Mobilizing for September 20

Most of the mobilizing for September 20 protests happened in a few weeks. We have still not determined exactly when or by whom the idea of sending busloads of people to Jena was first launched, but it was circulating by early September by many channels of communication.

An article published September 1 in the Crisis quotes Ernest Johnson of the Louisiana NAACP and Alan Bean and cites the support of national leaders for the case, and says thousands are planning to attend the protest on September 20. A story dated September 2 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  by Eugen Kane says “My e-mail inbox was filled up last week with pleas from activists across the nation to write about the Jena Six.”  It mentions the petition campaign but not the call to go to Jena on September 20. On September 6, The Los Angeles Sentinel published two stories recounting the narrative of the case and saying that events are planned for the September 20 sentencing date: “National radio personalities Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden will broadcast their shows live from the courthouse and several civil rights leaders will also be present.” A Philadelphia Tribune article dated September 11 recounts the case narrative but makes no mention of a planned protest. A September 12 Chicago Defender article reports  that Jesse Jackson was in Jena “last weekend,” reports on a Facebook group whose membership has grown to 35,000, says that some will be traveling to Jena for the sentencing and others will rally in Chicago. Two articles about the Jena mobilization were published in the Miami Times on September 12. One says “thousands of demonstrators from across the nation are planning to descend” on Jena. The other says that Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III “have marched on Jena in protest” without dating those events, describes a grassroots movement growing, cites the website as featuring the Jena 6, mentions  the Facebook page with 35,000 members as well as “Black radio, Black college campuses and Web sites form YouTube to Facebook,” and describes rallies or planned rallies at Howard University in Washington and in Chicago and Boston. This article also says “Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and Friends of Justice” plan to rally at the Jena courthouse on September 20, saying “Their web sties anticipate busloads of marchers from across the country.” On September 13, the Washington Informer called for a day of action on September 20 and described the previous protest at Howard. The Philadelphia Tribune on September 14 published an article about plans to protest in Jena, with buses leaving on the 19th. On September 19, The Los Angeles Times/Washington Post news service printed a brief report that “thousands of protesters planned to board about 100 buses and converge” on Jena, citing the Rev. Al Sharpton and radio personality Michael Baisden as some of the event organizers. On the same day the LAT/WP newswire also printed a longer recap of the narrative of the case, and said that “Bloggers and student activists” have taken up the Jena Six case, and “the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations are orchestrating a bus trip to Jena.” This article also covered White Jena residents’ perceptions of events and their fears of unrest from the protest. The Chicago Defender September 17 reported that the “newly formed chapter of the NAN has organized a bus trip to Jena, led by its president Jeri Wright, as well as planned Chicago events.  The Philadelphia Tribune on September 18 reported that the NAACP reports 60,000 are planning to go to Jena, cites Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, and Al Sharpton as involved, and quotes Sharpton as claiming that the parents of Mychal Bell reached out to him and the NAN, consistent with reports of his August 5 visit to Jena.

Around September 12-13, several Black newspapers printed an article by Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, that described the case but did not mention a protest in Jena, instead suggesting that people call the LaSalle Parish District Attorney.

As an anecdotal data point suggesting that the interest was multigenerational and that the mobilizing was done on a short timeline, sociologist Aisha Upton-Azzam said in a personal communication that she took a Chicago bus to the Jena protest after her grandmother learned about it from the Facebook page. She says she learned of the protest about two weeks in advance (i.e. early September) and that her grandmother paid her bus fare.

Internet (and radio and email) organizing

News accounts published in September often emphasized the role of bloggers or radio hosts or email blasts or Facebook as crucial.  Kvasney et al (2008) quotes a 2007 Washington Post op ed as saying: “We still might not know about what was happening in Jena if the case hadn’t been noticed by bloggers, who sounded the alarm.” They also cite Chicago Tribune reporter Witt[10] writing on September 17 as saying that the Blackosphere created a “formidable grassroots organization”  that has collected 220,000 petition signatures and $130,000 in donations in a few weeks. They say this “viral civil rights movement” was “literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace and spread via blogs, e-mail, message boards and talk radio.”

These claims seem overblown.The Louisiana NAACP was involved from the beginning, the ACLU had been involved by March, and a news story mentions NAN as involved in a May protest. The first news stories about the case were published in May. There is no evidence that bloggers played any role in these early efforts, unless Jordan Flaherty’s May 5 article is counted as a blog, and Flaherty is based in Louisiana. It is true that there was no early national corporate media coverage of the case, but it is not clear that the May 20 BBC documentary and Chicago Tribune article should be treated as non-corporate. Most likely bloggers started picking up the story after those May articles and June bloggers may have played some role in amplifying it. Even though the local NAACP was involved from the beginning, the national leadership of the NAACP did not take a stand until late June. The first protest involving any non-regional actors including was the end of July, and Al Sharpton did not get involved until August (although he said he knew about the issue four weeks earlier); and Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III followed Sharpton. It seems likely that Friends for Justice and the Louisiana NAACP would have been reaching out to ColorOfChange without bloggers, as CoC was already promoting the somewhat similar Genarlow Wilson case, but growing attention from bloggers might have influenced CoC to take on the case. Jordan Flaherty’s August 15 article says  “non-corporate and grass-roots media has been vital in spreading word of the case, beginning with blogs and YouTube videos, which then led to high-profile stories on Democracy Now and in The Final Call.” A search of the Final Call website for “Jena” did not reveal any stories published before September. The Democracy Now story was published July 10.

The biggest impact of bloggers was probably later, in August, in circulating the noose-fight narrative and promoting the idea of protesting on September 20. As noted above, talk radio host Michael Baisden specifically said he heard about the case in August from emails he received, and then decided to promote the case and help organize bus transportation. Also as noted above, reporters received masses of emails in late August. While accounts of the story were probably circulating earlier, and movement leaders started getting pulled in during July (counting CoC as a movement leader), it seems that mass email blasts and other attempts to ramp up the coverage and promote protests rather than just petitions or letters probably took off in August.

Kvasney et al. list ColorOfChange as the crucial organizer and also cite Black political blogs Oliver Willis and Pam’s House Blend as central. However they provide no date for any blog citation, and the example quotations were written on the day of the protest or otherwise have a retrospective tone. Paeyton and Kvasney (2012) report examining five Black blogs with high rankings by the 2008 Black Blog Rankings: Pam’s House Blend, Nah Right, Bossip, Concrete Loop, And Oliver Willis.They identified 38 blog posts discussing Jena. A table in the paper lists all the blog titles but not their dates or URLs. They repeat the claim that what they call the Blackosphere was responsible for early reporting on the case. They cite Willis’s post Jena:Throwback Town as an example, but the Internet Archive seems to show that was posted just a few days before the protest, on September 18. Concrete Loop has blog titles that imply prior organizing including information and petitions; an Oliver Willis post titled “Civil rights groups organize the Jena 6 rally” sounds like prior coverage. Pam’s blend has titles that refer to events that occurred around September 20, except possibly for “Black bloggers organize the Jena 6 protests”. Most of these posts do not turn up in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. It does have a Concrete Loop story dated August 15 about the protest and links to petitions. July snapshots of these blogs show no references to Jena.

An article published at the end of August 2007 titled “Bloggers put Jena Six case on blast” in the Baltimore Afro-American gives an entirely different list of blogs including quotations from what seem to be comments. Blogs listed in this article include Traycee’s World; ; something nascent21 said on ; Kevin Covin on “Facing South,” a blog published on the Institute for Southern Studies website  ; Invisible 1 from Princeton, W. Va., said on the Welch Forum at  We have not determined whether traces of these blogs can be found now.

The Movement Becomes the Story

There was a frenzy of news stories and action around the Jena case in September 2007. Black organizations and prominent Black people as well as many White politicians issued statements calling for reduced or dismissed charges for the Jena Six. The Jena Six narrative about nooses and fights was circulating with many variations as writers sought to tell the story in their own words. News reports specifically mentioned the organizing that was happening to get people to Jena and other locations for rallies on September 20, including claims that the Nation of Islam was organizing, that there was a preparatory meeting in Dallas, and that there were multiple letter writing and petition campaigns. News sources often acknowledged there was a coalition of many groups behind the organizing, and some stories noted conflicts between people or organizations or evidence of jockeying for position.

Also in September, news stories compared the Jena protests to the civil rights protests and many described this a the new or modern-day civil rights movement, emphasizing both that this was a chance for young people to join the movement and that new modes of organizing were being used, including blogs, talk radio, email blasts, and Facebook. As noted above, these accounts typically erased the regional activists who had been working on the issue for months.

Our data show September 5 rallies to build support for Jena protests in Chicago and at Howard University in Washington and general reports of many more rallies the following week. Gatherings were held in multiple cities on September 17 and even more on September 19 (declared to be a day of vigils and prayer) as people gathered to depart on buses, and more still on September 20, in solidarity with the protests in Jena. Because Jena is so small, those who went to Louisiana on buses generally gathered in Alexandria, where there were additional rallies that supplement the Jena marches. Estimates of the numbers in Jena ranged from 20,000 to 60,000, and there were probably tens of thousands at the dozens of other rallies in cities around the country, not to mention many more who wore black on September 20 as a gesture of solidarity.

The Aftermath

The excitement about Jena died down pretty quickly. Mychal Bell’s conviction in adult court for felonious assault had been overturned by an appeals court the week before the big rally, although he was still in jail. Bell was finally bailed out of jail a week after the rally by a donor who paid his bail, then was reincarcerated as being in violation of his probation from juvenile convictions. He was released again a few months later. The other five were all out on bail. The cases dragged on and were eventually all resolved by plea bargains more than a year later. Attraction to the Jena Six themselves died down quickly, with some complaints about them acting like media stars. A news story six years later found that all of them had managed to get to college and were doing more or less ok.

Al Sharpton and others  organized hearings and rallies in Washington DC that linked the Jena Six to other cases that were active at the time, and to demands to create federal criminal penalties for hanging nooses. There was a rash of hundreds of noose-hangings in the fall of 2007 and a flurry of news coverage of them. President Bush was pressured to say that he thought noose hanging should be a crime. October 22 had long been a national day of rallies against police violence and Jena was folded into the rallies held in several cities on that day. Al Sharpton organized a rally on November 16 followed by a November 17 free concert, with numerous pre-rallies in the DC area in preceding weeks to build support; estimates were that about 10,000 people showed up for these events. And then the episode was over.

What was the impact of the Jena mobilization? It is hard to tell. The next year, 2008, was the year Obama won the presidency, and most organizing attention was focused on voter registration. But the people who were in high school or college in 2007 would be ages 21-29 seven years later in 2014 when the Ferguson protests brought Black Lives Matter to public attention. We know that a great deal of organizing had been going on that built new movement organizations that undergird the new movement.[11]  


[2] The National Action Network is Al Sharpton’s organization, and it is possible the speaker was contacting both the NAACP and the NAN.


[4] Brown, Abbey. 2007. “Official Sought to Clear up ‘Jena Six’ ‘Misinformation’.” in The Town Talk. Alexandria, La.


[6]  This blog published in April 2021 says that it is a copy of a document that Bean released to news media in “early 2007” in an attempt to draw attention to the case. The document has no reference to events after the end of January 2007, although the blog includes a picture of the September Jena protest and also of the infamous tree which was later chopped down in mid-2007 but was still standing when the picture was taken.

[7] The YouTube video is a screenshot of a White man and woman interviewing Tony Brown over the phone. It appears to have been posted in September 2007. There is a URL appearing on the screen but it is pixilated:  http://www.?????.com

[8] Flaherty, Jordan. 2007. “A Matter of Colour.” Morning Star Online, August 15.

[9] Slight variants of the same story were published on August 5 in the Washington Post and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. None mentions Sharpton’s visit to Jena on August 5.

[10] Krasney et al citation: Witt, H. (2007, September 17). Blogs help drive Jena protest, Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL). Retrieved January 26, 2009 from,0,4309628.story

[11] Oliver, Pamela. 2020. “Resisting Repression: The Black Lives Movement in Context.” Pp. 63-88 in Racialized Protest and the State: Resistance and Repression in a Divided America, edited by H. Johnston and P. Oliver. Oxford UK and New York NY: Routledge. Preprint:

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