Jena: Baby Steps Toward a New Mass Movement
Jena: Baby Steps Toward a New Mass Movement
Nearly three weeks after the mobilization of more than 50,000 African Americans from around the nation at
The answers to all these questions matter because despite what self-congratulating pastors, pundits, politicians and the rest of Black America's "leadership class" would have us believe, progressive changes come not through them, but through progressive mass movements. To get at the beginnings of a useful answer, we can note some of the key characteristics of progressive mass movements, and ask whether or to what extent these are or were visible around the
What was accomplished?
Mychal Bell is free after 11 months in custody, his conviction in adult court overturned, and all the
The transparently unfair and disproportionate criminal prosecution of Black youth as contrasted with the wink, nod, catch-and-release treatment administered to white participants in Jena's racial disturbances spoke directly to the experience of the current generation of Black youth, who are targeted by an unspoken national policy of racially selective policing, prosecution and imprisonment. It is in fact, the experience of criminalization and prison, according to LoÃ¯c Wacquant, that increasingly defines what it is to be young, poor and Black in today's
"...(T)he prison and the criminal justice system... contribute to the ongoing reconstruction of the 'imagined community' of Americans around the polar opposition between praiseworthy 'working families'—implicitly white, suburban, and deserving—and the despicable 'underclass' of criminals, loafers, and leeches... personified by the dissolute teenage 'welfare mother' on the female side and the dangerous street 'gang banger' on the male side—by definition dark-skinned, urban and undeserving. The former are exalted as the living incarnation of genuine American values, self-control, deferred gratification, subservience of life to labour; the latter is vituperated as the loathsome embodiment of their abject desecration, the 'dark side' of the 'American dream' of affluence and opportunity for all... And the line that divides them is increasingly being drawn, materially and symbolically, by the prison."
Both the emergence of of prisons as society's number one institution for dealing with African Americans, and the sheer size of
The refusal of our Black leadership class to craft a political challenge to the legitimacy of
For a good while, the internet was the only place you could find any information about the
So did all this qualify
"What is a mass movement?
"Mass movements are creations of the political moment, rooted in the shared values of their core constituencies, nurtured by dense communications networks among a supportive population. They are sustained by aggressive leadership, and youthful enthusiasm. Mass movements inevitably employ civil disobedience, and the civilly disobedient components of mass movements must be carefully calculated in such a way as to maintain support from broad sectors of the population it aims to mobilize, and to increase support if they are violently repressed.
"To enumerate some of the typical qualities of mass movements:
"Mass movements have political demands anchored in the deeply shared values of their core constituencies.
"Mass movements look to themselves and their shared values for legitimacy, not to courts, laws or elected officials. A mass movement consciously aims to lead politicians, not to be led by them.
"Mass movements are civilly disobedient, and continually maintain the credible threat of civil disobedience.
"Mass movements are supported by lots of vertical and horizontal communication which reinforces the core values of the constituency and emboldens large numbers of ordinarily nonpolitical souls to engage in personally risky behavior in support of the movement's political demands.
"Mass movements capture the energy, enthusiasm and risk taking spirit of youth. Nobody ever heard of a mass movement of old or even middle aged people.
"In the absence of any of these characteristics, no mass movement can be said to exist."
Certainly, all of these circumstances did not and do not exist in, around or in the wake of
Those who were galvanized into action did not wait for established Black "leaders" to legitimize them. They utilized horizontal communications networks like FaceBook and MySpace along with independent, non-corporate media to appeal to shared values and experiences nearly universal in Black America. They were overwhelmingly young. The political demands around the Jena mobilization, apart from stopping the unfair and unwarranted prosecution, were not clear, in part because of the many different voices who came to the fore, and also because corporate media coverage focused almost exclusively on the presence and pronouncements of established Black "leaders" and elected officials who were clearly following and not "leading" that day. Some of the marches and meetings may have taken place without permits, but aside from this, there is no evidence of civil disobedience.
These are undeniably steps in the direction of a new Black mass movement, but as yet they are only baby steps.
And finally, the Jena case and the mobilization around it clearly shows that the next Black mass movement, when it gets underway, will focus on the policies of racially selective policing, racially selective prosecution, and racially selective mass imprisonment of African Americans, a set of issues that our established class of Black elected misleaders have chosen to ignore. But the fact of
Bruce Dixon is Managing Editor of Black Agenda Report