Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Jena Six opens window for protest, Whitties apathetic

When my protest literature professor Nadine Knight walked into the classroom on Friday, Sept. 21, she had just one question:

“How many of you wore black yesterday?”

Not a hand went up.

“Okay… How many of you know why college students across the country wore black yesterday?” she asked.

Blank stares.

“Has anyone been reading the news recently?”

Maybe three timid students muttered something about the Jena Six. The rest just sort of shuffled their feet and looked down at their desks in embarrassment.

For those who haven’t been keeping track, here’s the story of the Jena Six:
Last year, a Black student in Jena, La. (which was once stomping grounds for the KKK) allegedly asked his school principal if he could sit underneath what was dubbed “the white tree.” The principal of course said the student could sit wherever he wanted. The next day there were three nooses hanging from the boughs of the tree (the entire tree has since been cut down, by the way): and the white students responsible were given only three days suspension.

Racial tensions mounted after that, all culminating in an after-school brawl between white and black students, which ultimately resulted in a white student being knocked briefly unconscious.

This would all have been well and good: just your standard, everyday racial tensions in an archaic Southern town.

Until the six black students involved in the fight were charged by the district attorney with attempted murder in the second degree (he absurdly cited the boys’ shoes as the deadly weapon). One student: Mychall Bell, 17: was convicted and found guilty by an all-white jury in July.

And then all hell broke loose.

Last week more than 10,000 people descended on Jena (population 2,971), demanding that the state “Free the Jena Six.” The protests stretched for miles: Photographs depict mostly college-aged students flaunting posters depicting Martin Luther King, Jr. and slogans from the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. The Rev. Al Sharpton proudly called the protests the beginning of the 21st Century civil rights movement, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (in true MLK form) exclaimed, “We will not stop marching until justice runs down like waters.”

There was also a campaign nationwide for students on college campuses to wear black in support of the Jena Six. Apparently, Whitman missed the memo.

To be fair, I feel kind of bad for Jena. Everyone’s trying to get the story straight: Some say that there were really two nooses (not three); others argue that the students responsible for the nooses were not just suspended for three days but actually sent to an alternative school for a month or so. When a story blows up like this one has, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s been made up for the sake of the show.

Now, obviously it’s ridiculous to convict a student of attempted murder if he’s armed with a shoe, and Jena is unfortunately not unique. If it takes an incident like this one to make the country wake up and realize that racism has become an institution here, then so be it.
But we should all be warned: This is not your mother’s civil rights struggle, and racism in America is no longer a black-and-white issue. It is less obvious today than it was 40 years ago; our government prefers to sweep racism under the rug and pretend like it doesn’t exist (but it does: just look at the prison system, drug convictions, bank loans, medicinal care and any number of other American foundations). Perhaps for this reason alone the protests in Jena were unfocused and sometimes messy.

But they were protests, nevertheless, and for the first time since gay marriage was a major headliner four years ago, civil rights made the front page of the New York Times. That, certainly, amounts to something.

So I am disappointed in Whitman.

Sure, once the Jena Six became a hot topic last weekend there was a little discussion about the incident among students. Maybe a few dozen even joined the Free The Jena Six! Facebook group. But that was it. No discussion panel, no protest marches, no big banners sent to Louisiana with Whitman student signatures. All in all, we were pathetic.

We were especially pathetic because last year Whitman canceled classes for an entire day just to talk about this very subject. We talked about it and talked about it and talked about it until we felt like it was done with; until we all felt better about ourselves. So many students left the Race Symposium last year feeling “enlightened.”

And then we went back to writing Core papers and playing beer pong.

We don’t get a gold star for being able to effectively postulate and theorize about race in America. These issues won’t be on the GREs or your senior written exams. Some of us may feel like we don’t have opportunities to be a part of proactive change in our communities. That’s a frustrating feeling. We’re stressed out, we’re busy, we don’t know what we can do that will really do anything.

That’s why when a chance like this one comes along, we must leap at it, regardless of its
flaws. And anyway, I sincerely doubt that Whitman students failed to participate in the Jena Six protests because we collectively found the oversimplification of the issue problematic.
In the aftermath of last week’s protests, there is a window of opportunity. It is abundantly clear that Americans are not completely ignorant to the blatant assaults on civil rights in this country, and we are not going to take it anymore. Fixing a system that is corrupt at its very groundwork will be difficult, yes, but it’s been a long time coming. It is time for a revolution.
And we at Whitman cannot sit on the sidelines. We must be always alert, always adept, and always questioning. We must read the news, talk to everyone we know, look for sources beyond The Daily Show for information.

The next time, we’ll be ready. One of these days, we’ll be flooding the streets; we’ll finally be a part of the change.

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