Jim Crow’s Children

Did you hear the good news on “The Jena 6”? The adult conviction and potential 22 year sentence of Mychal Bell has been overturned. This comes less than one week before widespread protests scheduled for this Thursday in Jena, Louisiana. Since this case and the fate of the other five boys are a looooong way from being resolved mass protests will continue as planned.

The development of Jena story is only part of a much larger “Cyber Rights Movement” that has been gaining greater ground in America in 2007. Let’s call it “BLOG POWER”! It goes a little something like this: yet another African-American teenager falls victim to Jim Crow-like criminal injustice; the injustice is covered in some local newspaper; national mainstream media completely ignores story; story spreads like wildfire across hundreds of predominantly African-American blogs; national media still ignores it; bloggers still blog; national media keeps ignoring; bloggers keep blogging on irresponsible national media; one national mainstream outlet might pick up story; bloggers keep blogging; other embarrassed national outlets might pick up story; bloggers keep blogging; finally, previously voiceless activists start to receive national media attention; bloggers keep blogging; more well-known activists such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are part of planned widespread national march; bloggers keep blogging; just days prior to the scheduled protest the charges against the young teenager have been reduced or thrown out. While there exist many examples of BLOG POWER, perhaps the greatest two in 2007 involve “The Jena 6” and Shaquanda Cotton. But before we examine what they represent, some context might be necessary.


More than 40 years ago it took an unrelenting civil rights campaign and appalling television images of government abuse to wake up the wider and whiter nation from its slumber about the terrorism of the Jim Crow South. But something not-so-funny happened on the way to the freedom march. Jim Crow never really went away ­ like Madonna, he only reinvented himself. While Jim Crow has produced various offspring (see separate schools, health care, and employment access), Mr. Crow’s two most successful children are America’s criminal justice and juvenile justice systems. As the 1960s came to an end, a whole new set of laws were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when the term “gangsta rap” didn’t even exist as a political scapegoat. As politicians became savvier, and policies became slicker, the signs of Jim Crow became subtler. Gone were the likes of George Wallace who proudly and unapologetically defended “the good ole days”, and in came the likes of Trent Lott who only publicly reminisced about it at birthday parties. Political slogans such as “segregation forever” were buried forever as new mantras like “tough on crime” came into vogue. Brand new mandatory minimum sentencing laws for NON-VIOLENT drug offenders hand-cuffed judges and turned prisons from places that housed violent criminals into places that CREATED them. With the proliferation of private prisons in the 1970s, the term “non-violence” went from a protest strategy built on gaining rights, to a prison-building buzzword built on denying them. By the 1980s separate water fountains were officially replaced with drastic disparities in punishment between crack and cocaine. By the 1990’s mayors in every depressed rural area in America were begging for a new prison as their economic-development strategy. When the 21st century came around, a nation that was once outraged at images of young children being hosed by water and bitten by dogs became fully comfortable with the more tastefully oppressive-images of kids walking right out of performance-reducing schools and right into profit-producing prisons.

As a result, America’s prisons have grown SIX-FOLD in a 30 year span after relative stability the PREVIOUS 50 YEARS. Of course, this completely dwarfs all other industrialized countries in the world. This statistic, in and of itself, would be cause for national crisis and wholesale prison reform in any other country. But the majority of new prisoners are not just non-violent, they are non-white. And if there is one subject that white Americans have collectively and historically been in denial about: it is about its own institutional racism (for more see The Absurdity and Consistency of White Denial by Tim Wise). Whether in 1776, 1896, the 1960s, or 2007. But while Jim Crow at least had the decency to put his race cards on the table, his children have not been so kind. Politicians want no part of prison reform for fear of being accused of “coddling criminals”, and most white Americans have little outrage because it hasn’t been their children being locked up. Even the best of anti-racist movements have failed in fighting the terror that is our criminal and juvenile justice systems. There are perfect foils or evil faces attached to Jim Crow’s offspring. Martin Luther King had Bull Conner, FDR had Adolf, and George Bush didn’t even need the right “evil guy” to garner public support. But when it comes to prison reform the collective white non-response for the last 30 years has essentially been “Data schmata. I’ll believe in institutional racism when you show me some actual lynchings!”


Jena Six in Context: No actual lynchings occurred, but just about everything else ­ rope included. Discussing the Jena Six is an exercise in determining just where to start: subjects like “the white tree”; tree permission slips; hanging nooses; school boards wrist-slaps; DA threats; “deadly” tennis shoes; and outrageous sentences are all worthy of outrage in their isolation. Taken together, they form a coordinated web of systemic Jim Crow terrorism that even the likes of Rush Limbaugh can understand. It must be noted that “The Jena 6” is also happening in a town that needed a federal emergency court order back in 2000 to stop the abuse of children at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center, a facility where local Judge Mark Doherty told NPR “treats juveniles as if they walked on all fours.”; and a facility, not surprisingly, that is owned by one of America’s largest and often scandal-plagued private prison industries, Wackenhut Corrections (since renamed The GEO Group). And, of course, Jena is located in Louisiana: the state whose majority white population voted for David Duke for Governor back in 1991; the state where a town’s very first African-American mayor was executed (immediately ruled a “suicide” of course) just two days before he was set to take office way back in 1957 2007; and a state that is essentially the prison-building capital of a country that is the incarceration capital of the world.


Mainstream Media Coverage

This CounterPunch article reports early local grassroots resistance and how the Lafayette public access TV show, “Community Defender,” was the first media outlet from outside Jena’s immediate area to give coverage of the case right after the arrests last December. For the next few months the story was kept alive largely by the efforts of non-corporate alternative media and, mostly, a vast network of predominantly African-American bloggers (called “the Afrosphere” amongst other names). By May you were still more likely to learn about “The Jena Six” living in England than in America. While the BBC posted an article on May 24th and aired a documentary on the case, it wasn’t until July 1 that CNN investigated the story. And it wasn’t until September where most mainstream outlets were domestically and internationally shamed into covering it. In this July 11 post, dna from Too Sense, one of hundreds of bloggers on the case, critiques the initial CNN coverage and the mainstream media’s (non)coverage prior to July.

“the mainstream media has felt absolutely no obligation to cover the story with appropriate depth. The New York Times has not covered it at all. Neither has the Washington Post, whose vast website carry a single AP article on the subject. MSNBC has twice the AP articles on the subject the post does, which brings the grand total to two, with no original coverage on their website. Fox seems to have found one more AP article than MSNBC, with the extra one titled “White Students Removed Over Nooses,” the poor dears.”



Cotton in Context: If the Jena Six represent Jim Crow’s son that is our criminal injustice system, Shaquanda Cotton from Paris, Texas is the daughter that representing our juvenile injustice. Unlike then-16 year old Mychal Bell, Cotton could not be tried as an adult as she was only 14 when she shoved that fragile school hall monitor. Instead she was merely sentenced to up to 7 years. The same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for burning down her family’s house. With absolutely no assistance from mainstream media and an avalanche of BLOG POWER, Shaquanda Cotton was freed on the significant date April 1st. This day kicks off “April Fool’s Month” a time that 30 years from now will a subject for some “Race and Media” college course’s attempt to grasp American culture in 2007. You may recall April as the month that our national media dissected the grave racial injustices such as the job status of Don Imus, the trials and tribulations of the Duke boys [1], and those oppressive hip-hop double standards. While white rage seethed over issues like “why can’t we all use the ‘N-word’ while that darn Snoop Dogg gets to run amok”, you may have missed some other April news like:

DNA evidence exonerated James Giles after serving 25 years;

Jerry Miller was also exonerated after serving only 24 years (Miller marked the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence) [2];

and Billie Ray Johnson won his civil trial after being racially mocked, knocked unconscious, and left for dead by four white men none of whom received more than 60 days of jail time.

And for those wondering, yes, it was over 50 years ago that Ralph Ellison authored “The Invisible Man”.

Cotton Media Coverage

The story — first exposed March 12 by Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune (note: Witt was also reported “Jena 6” in May)– led to an unprecedented blogging blitz. In a follow-up article, Letter from Cyberspace, Witt explains:

“every once in a blue moon, you write something that literally explodes across the Internet in ways no one could predict. That has now happened with a story I wrote nearly two weeks ago If you had Googled Shaquanda Cotton, the day before the story was published, you would have gotten zero results. On Friday afternoon, there were more than 21,000 hits. The story has been picked up on more than 200 blogs around the country, many of them concerned with African-American affairs. It has generated thousands of postings to Internet message boards And now the story has jumped across the ethernet into the physical world: Dozens of talk-radio stations across the nation were buzzing about Shaquanda last week, protests on her behalf were held in Paris, a petition- and letter-drive aimed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the judge in the case, Chuck Superville, is underway, and civil rights leaders from the NAACP and the ACLU to the Rev. Al Sharpton are weighing whether to get involved. I’ve written thousands of stories for the Tribune over the last 25 years, from around the nation and across the world, and I’ve never seen a reaction like this before.”

Perhaps, Mr. Witt has never seen such a reaction in part because of the relative newness of BLOG POWER. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Cotton story was the virtual shut-out by the national mainstream media [3]. If you were to do another google search today, Ms. Cotton would receive more than 50,000 entries — almost exclusively from alternative media and bloggers. However, a CNN website search only reveals quality links on cotton bedding. Want a good deal on “400 Thread Count All Cotton Sateen Sheet Sets”? Our national media will be there for you. Want to expose institutional racism within our juvenile justice system? BLOG POWER! In his Cyberspace article Witt would go on to write:

“But what’s particularly interesting to me has been the vehemence, and what it may tell us about the powerful new Internet communications tools we all now have at our fingertips but don’t yet fully comprehend. I had no idea, for example, of the extent of the African-American blogging world out there and its collective powers of dissemination. But now, after reading thousands of anguished, thoughtful comments posted on these blogs reflecting on issues of persistent racial discrimination in the nation’s schools and courtrooms, what’s clear to me is that there’s a new, “virtual” civil rights movement out there on the Internet that can reach more people in a few hours than all the protest marches, sit-ins and boycotts of the 1950s and 60s put together.”

This powerful observation is one that hundreds of other bloggers have also already made. In this context, it should be noted that reminiscent of this week’s dismissal of Mychal Bell’s charge, Cotton was released exactly one day before Sharpton and others had planned a widespread protest. This suggests that protest marches ain’t dead yet, but have just been heavily augmented as part of a multi-pronged strategy toward achieving justice. A collaboration between new school blogging and old-school marching will allow thousands to “get on the bus” and get over to Jena, Louisiana this Thursday.


One must wonder if without the aid of the internet: would “The Jena 6” ever made national mainstream news?; would Shaquanda Cotton still be locked up?; or even, would we have experienced the meteoric increase in profit-inducing prisoners over the last 30 years? And what about all the other Bell’s and Cotton’s who never received a protest march in their name. Is it because we simply don’t know their stories? Witt reports that thousands of juvenile cases in Texas are currently being reviewed “as part of a sweeping overhaul of the scandal-plagued system”. While this is encouraging news, what will happen in Louisiana and the other 48 states? In 1964, grotesque television images helped coalesce just barely enough national support to get President Johnson to sign a new “Civil Rights Act” in the face of vitriolic segregationists. Is it possible for BLOG POWER to wake up America to deal with Jim Crow’s children and get a “Criminal Justice Reform Act” signed at a juncture in American history that boasts a rise in hate groups?

While such a suggestion may only be a pipe dream, BLOG POWER is not quietly hoping for Senators, governors, and other elected officials to do their job, nor is it patiently waiting for Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, or Joe Scarbarough to determine what is newsworthy. BLOG POWER is a place that demands an end to mainstream media’s insidious practice of “racism-by-omission”. It is a “cyber rights movement” that won’t stop until widespread white denial is widely denied. It is a new virtual democracy at work and a voice for the voiceless. But perhaps the greatest contribution that a handful of committed local journalists and thousands of committed bloggers can make is not its ability to show that Jim Crow has returned, but only to demonstrate that he has never really left.

CHARLES MODIANO writes for the new sports media watch website COSELLOUT” and can be reached at: modi@cosellout.com.


[1] Of course, what happened to the Duke Lacrosse players is an injustice. However, it is important to note that case was NOT symbolic of racial and economic discrimination in our justice system. In and of itself and given the case’s sensational backdrop, there is nothing wrong with the media coverage of their tribulations, but such coverage COUPLED with the virtual absence of any real mainstream coverage of exponentially worse AND symbolic criminal justice travesties detailed in point is a complete slap in the face to the suffering of Shaquanda Cotton, James Giles, Jerry Miller, and Billie Ray Johnson. Perhaps the worst effect of “racism-by-omission” in media coverage is it completely distorts the viewers understanding of racism embedded in the criminal justice system. Ironically, one of the few people to get it right was lacrosse player Reade Seligman when he stated: “This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they’d do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. … all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it.” Good luck to Mr. Seligman who started his first semester at Brown last week to become criminal lawyer.

[2] One may ask the legitimate question if these African-American DNA exoneree examples of racial bias or just criminal justice failures as we can all point to individual white defendants who have been wronged. A look at The Innocence Projects Report “200 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted” will answer this question and show that black defendant are much more statistically likely (proportionate to racial incarceration rates) to be the victims of such system failures.

[3] Cotton received a couple of token website articles and TV segments on the day that she was RELEASED.