At the start of school last year, a black freshman at Jena High School in Louisiana asked his principal if he could sit beneath a tree, which was reserved by tradition for white students only. The administrator told the student he could sit where he pleased, and the freshman and his friends ate their lunch in the shade. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree, and ever since, the small town in LaSalle Parish has been ripped apart.
Things came to a head when six black teenagers were arrested and charged with assault and then attempted murder after a fight with a white student. Last week in Jena, more than 10,000 people, some of whom drove throughout the night, showed up to protest the arrests.
You’ve probably heard about Jena by now. But when the story first broke, there was little or no mention of it in the major precincts of the progressive blogosphere (including, just to be clear about it, this one). At Facing South (the blog for the Institute for Southern Studies), Chris Kromm did a post last Thursday, the day of the Jena march, that notes the lack of comment. His quick survey looked like this:
* DailyKos features a handful of posts about injustice in Iraq today — but not a single entry on its main page, or even its user-generated “diaries,” about this important case.
* TalkingPointsMemo, a favorite of the DC wonk set, is similarly incensed about foreign policy, but apparently not about racial justice in the South — nothing there either.
* Long-time progressive blogger Atrios doesn’t have a lot of posts up, but found time to touch on Paul Krugman, Iraq and the state of the Euro — but not this major issue.
* Surely TalkLeft — which has positioned itself as the leading progressive blog about criminal justice issues — would have something? Think again — not a single mention, not even in the quick news briefs!
* What about another progressive favorite, FireDogLake? A rant about Republicans being “little bitches,” but nothing on the Jena 6.
When the Jena 6 does make an appearance on progressive blogs today, it’s little more than a passing nod. Huffington Post has a blog post buried below the fold; ThinkProgress gives it a two-sentence news brief.
Now, in the wake of the protests, the bloggers are a bit more talkative about Jena, and Ezra Klein is one of those who commented on the late-developing coverage, saying: “[The silence] is telling as to the tenuous relationship between the online left and what’s more traditionally been the left.”
But outside the major blogs, the Internet hasn’t been silent on this issue. On Facebook, there are more than 500 groups, with thousands of members, which reference Jena. On YouTube, there are more than 1,600 videos that mention the town, including this one — which has been seen more than 1 million times. A Google Blog Search today yielded nearly 40,000 results. The Wikipedia entry is 2 months old, 3,000 words long, and contains 39 footnotes. In the progressive Christian community, the blogs are all over this. Obviously, Jena has been a lead topic on the African-American blogosphere (on sites that cover everything from politics to hip-hop) for months.
So why did the big progressive sites take so long to focus on Jena? Ezra’s take that this was an “issue of the traditional left” is off-target. The big-name civil rights figures had to scramble to catch up with Jena. There wasn’t a central planning committee directing yesterday’s protests — the organization came together from the bottom up. The protests in Jena were the result of conversation and debate on the social networks, in blogs, over message boards, through email, and on African-American radio shows. It looked like a true, decentralized, “people-powered” movement.
The big progressive blogs missed the story initially for a variety of reasons, including their and their readership’s demographics, but also because of their focus on developments in Washington and in electoral politics. As the Jena story reached a critical point last week, most blogs were overwhelmingly focused on the Kabuki theater of the Senate debate on Iraq and MoveOn.
Ten thousand people marching on Jena is pretty substantive proof that the online left is bigger and more diverse than readers of Daily Kos. In fact, it extends beyond blogs altogether, as illustrated by the role of social networks in creating and channeling energy towards the Jena protests. The Rev. Al Sharpton said that the protests marked the start of a 21st century civil rights movement. Jena might also mark the start of a new phase in online progressive politics as well.