The Stroke of the Pen: the Jena 6, internet activism, and the problem of information

expect-alteration-copy[reprinted from The Public Humanist, 2007] | Heather Brandon recently had a nice post here at The Public Humanist, about journalism and blogging, and also the place of the local online. Her post reminded me of this moment earlier this year, when one of my students blogged about a local billboard, the one you see on rt. 9 as you come east across the bridge into Hadley. This particular ad was for Budweiser, with its tagline “Expect Everything” graffitied into “Expect Misogyny.” Her blog was initially for a class I teach on critical theory and popular culture. Every student in the class was responsible for creating his or her own site, and this was one of the student’s first posts. Almost immediately, the class learned several things about the blogosphere, namely that more people are interested in “the local” than one might realize; that matters one assumes are mainly local have all kinds of appeal beyond their imagined proximity; that people want to be in conversation; and that yes, someone might actually care about what “you” have to say.

In retrospect, it would be easier to say that we knew these things when we began our project, but I remember being absolutely surprised at how the various sites, authored by more than thirty students each writing from a unique and specific angle, all found their own individual, committed, audiences. In its elevation (for better or for worse) of the personal as an object of public discourse, one of the primary transformations effected by the new blogging revolution is the normalization of the personal as political.

Some of this, of course, could likely and simply be chalked up to the entertainment value of online reading; it’s one more thing to do. Much of this can also be ascribed, however, to how blogging has quite suddenly come to occupy its own place in civic discourse, creating a multitude of spaces where people can congregate and discuss, caucus and fight. (On its underside, by the way, I can’t help but also glimpse something more troubling, something related to rise of the pundit in American culture. But maybe that is for a different post.)

For now, let’s just take a second to consider the rise of blogs and social networking, a rise so completely of the moment in their emergence out of two unexpectedly complementary movements— the expansion of social networking as a practice and as a logic, and the sudden cachet attached to all things local and micro. The Oxford dictionary word of the year? Locavore.

Back in September, Howard Witt, who’s on the Southwest bureau for the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article titled “Blogs help drive Jena protest.” The article highlights the role of blogs and social networking sites in fueling activism and protest for a group of Louisiana teenagers who had by then come to be known as “The Jena 6.” I am sure you have heard all about the Jena, Louisiana case and its vicissitudes: about the tree, about the haunting legacies of slavery and segregation, about the re-ignition of American youth activism, and also about the resurgence of the noose as a symbol of hate.

In this particular article, Witt takes the Jena 6 case as an example of a new kind of civil rights model. “Viral” civil rights is what he calls it, which meant the protests in Jena would be:

“a civil rights protest literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace, of a type that has never happened before in America—a collective national mass action grown from a grassroots word-of-mouth movement spread via Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio.”

judge greg mathis community centerOr as Judge Greg Mathis has described it,
“Whatever the reasons, the demonstration in Jena shows us that a new day is dawning. Young black people played a key role in promoting the march and rally on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. They sent emails and text messages to their friends, clueing them in on every development in the case. Their organizing style may not look like that of years past, but it is real, and it is effective. Let’s hope itcontinues.”

Internet activism encourages the lateral dissemination of information, which enables people to organize themselves without a central location and without a centralized power structure. There is enormous potential here for what my fellow TPH blogger Kristin Bumiller has in a different context referred to as effecting change while being” neither leaders nor heroes.” As someone committed to education and who wants to see the “youth” contributing their considerable energy to changing the world (really!), I am excited by the ways the new technologies have enabled communities for change.

Much as with television’s role in broadening the audience for the Civil Rights movement, in the case of Internet activism messages hit home with people who might otherwise not have exposure to certain issues, issues that might otherwise remain isolated in their own localities. Viral: infectious, reproductive; a sense of something that arrives to one from elsewhere but makes its home as part of the self, becomes identified with the self. As with the Jena case, the local becomes national, and, if grassroots organizations truly take their calls to action, the national becomes local again. And to be honest, I see in this an important role for bloggers, scholar-activists, and other kinds of watchers and seekers. The “new” civil rights movement might indeed become more lateral, but we also need people to facilitate movements between the local and national, to make the connections.

It is important to note, however, that the viral model is also hugely haunted by its own origin. There are real limits on our ability to protect ourselves from viruses, and there is always the risk of the more serious, unexpected, or deadly thing any virus might become. For every experience one has of feeling enriched or supported by an information community, one can also agree there are plenty experiences of hate and pain.

Further, if we follow the viral model to its origin as an Internet phenomenon, we must remember that it is first and foremost a marketing strategy. And even though the agendas of civil rights organizations, for instance, might be better communicated using the market’s tools, I can’t help but feel there is a little bit more at stake when grassroots movements rely on generating identification to spread their messages. The locavore is, at heart, just another kind of consumer, at risk for perpetuating the same old problems of consumption, desire, and exploitation.

Last month, as grassroots groups were organizing local protests for the Jena 6, which on the national level has come also to be about the incarceration of minority youth and disproportionate sentencing, I got an email with the subject line, “We all live in Jena.” I remember being bothered. And it wasn’t because I was not into this particular call to action, or because I somehow think that Jena in fact has nothing to do with me. I get it. But there was a slippery potential in the “we,” in its appropriation of the particularity of Jena, LA as meaning before it came onto “our” radar, and that must persist in the wake of its new status as media event, and also in the way the “we” potentially flattens-out the importance of one community, the Valley, might support another, Jena– beyond a sense of simply being the same.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.