“No justice, no peace!” a sparkling crowd of hundreds chanted in front of Morgan State University’s Soper Library last Thursday to rally support for the Jena Six. With students clad in varying temperatures of black, the scene at Morgan mirrored scores of similar events across the country including in Jena, Louisiana, where tens of thousands of people, also dressed in black, gathered to participate in the biggest civil-rights demonstration since the 1960s. In many ways, the coordinated protocol to wear black clothing symbolized not only solidarity, but a kind of funeral; one which marked the death of an apathy that had become emblematic of our generation. And with that memorial, as one student reflected, “a new movement was born.”
A young man in prison once explained to me that although there was a mattress in his cell, he didn’t sleep on it, opting instead for the cold floor. When I asked him “Why?” he explained that sleeping on the comfort of a bed would numb him to the brutal reality of where he really was. He was terrified of becoming comfortable in prison and sleeping on the floor reminded him, even amid his slumber, of where he was. This bitter and uncomfortable reminder kept his mind, as the song goes, stayed on freedom and, as he told me, “was the only way to get out and stay out.” Just as the frigid floor reminded him of where he was, the six Black teenagers sentenced to a total of more than 100 years in prison for a schoolyard fight, revealed to a new generation, where we are today.
The racially-charged events of the last few weeks—the hanging of a noose on a tree outside of the University of Maryland’s Nyumburu Cultural Center, the week-long torture, rape and assault of a 20-year-old Black West Virginia woman by six whites as well as the unfolding of events in Jena—have demonstrated to young people, if they weren’t already aware, that the racism our parents and grandparents fought against is still alive and well. Since many of our parents have long put away their marching shoes, last week’s marches, orchestrated primarily by the younger generation, represented a passing of the mantle.
This new generation of concerned citizens, made up of all races, understands that while methods and programs change with time, the objectives that the previous generation struggled to achieve—freedom, justice and equality—remain the same. While there is no doubt that last week’s rallies illustrated this generation’s commitment to social justice, a fundamental question arises: where do we go from Jena?
It is important for the new generation to understand that there is nothing inherently unique about the situation in Jena. Around the country, in each state, one can find an abundance of equally unjust cases involving young African-Americans. Jena is important, however, because young people have made it important. It is news because young people made it news. This new generation, spurred by innovative grassroots organizations like Color of Change which utilize ‘the organizing power of the internet’ to call-to-action, has shone a spotlight on Jena; one whose gleam has been effective both in raising national awareness and in amending the case itself.
Regardless of the outcome in Jena, it is imperative that we claim no easy victories. The injustice in Jena must be looked upon as a symbol of the problem, but not the problem. If this generation is to truly be successful in making America live up to its promise of freedom and equality, we cannot simply move from here to the next Jena. Instead we must use this momentum to educate each other about the systemic issues allow Jena’s to happen and then do what each generation is called to do: change the world.