Political Prisoners

Before and Beyond Jena

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Until several weeks ago, the name “Jena” was doubtless unfamiliar to millions of people in the U.S., until the demonstrations around the case of the Jena 6 brought attention to the small Louisiana town.

But, before the case occurred, the name became known to hundreds (if not thousands) of young Blacks, who came to know, quite intimately, that Jena was just another word for racism, rape, violence, and humiliation.

After the ravages of Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and its surrounding areas, hundreds of imprisoned people were transported to the Jena Juvenile Justice Center, in Jena, Louisiana, a place that became their nightmare. The place was so medieval and tortuous in its treatment of young people, that it was severely criticized by a federal judge as a place where people were “treated as if they walked on all fours,” before it was closed.

According to published reports put out by the groups Human Rights Watch and the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund, people arriving at JJJC were beaten, brutalized, harassed, and subjected to racist taunts by staff members there. This was after it was reopened in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

They were denied things allegedly required by the Constitution, like grievance forms, calls to family, or pen and paper.

They were treated like they were al-Qaeda, and this was Guantanamo—this, in the country, and in many cases, the state of their births.

The Human Rights Watch and NAACP-LDF have tried to interest state officials in a meaningful investigation, but this has led to little more than lip service.

Although federal officials have reportedly announced their intention to investigate, it is equally doubtful that any real, serious investigation will emerge.

As for the media (except for some segments of the Black press), Jena was little more than a 1 day, or at best, a 3-day story.

Their coverage, such as it was, was little more than a platform to allow local Jenites to exclaim how they weren’t racists, and that nooses are just “pranks’”used by “youngins” to have a little fun.

As ever, there has been little attempt to look backwards into recent history, and now that the last Jena 6 accused is out on bail, little looking to the future as well.

How is it possible in the U.S. today, for people wearing KKK robes to always intone, “I’m not a racist?”

When viewing or listening to locals there, it was almost impossible to not hear the echoes of 50 years ago, when civil rights actions began to stir the South, that “the problem” was, once again, “outside agitators”, like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They were the problem, not “our darkeys.”

Only with the not-too-subtle death threats from Klan-related groups have we seen that the nooses from the so-called “white tree,” which sparked much of the Jena phenomenon, was far more than boys being boys.

The Jena case didn’t start with 6 young schoolboys.

It won’t end with them.

The case stems from something deep and abiding in the American heart and soul.

And it lives in every state of the union—not just in Louisiana.

This shouldn’t be the end of the movement—but the spark for more.


—, September 29, 2007


(Source: “First youth, then hurricane evacuees were tortured by Jena prison guards, ”San Francisco Bay View, September 19, 2007, pp. 1,5,7,9: For more info: or