Nearly a year after six African American high school students in Jena, La. were charged with attempted second-degree murder for a school-yard fight with a White student, college students more than 2,500 miles away are still talking.
In the University of Washington's Ethnic Cultural Theater on last week, students gathered to dialogue about the events surrounding the controversial Jena 6 case. Organized by the University's Black Student Union and a community organization called "Soul Food," the night featured artistic expressions and group discussions about whether the events in Jena were over-exaggerated or symptoms of systemic injustice.
The night's co-facilitators, Yasmin Ravard-Andresen of Soul Food and BSU member Tajiana Ellis, recounted what happened in Jena, La. They explained the series of events that increased tension between Black and White students at Jena High School, resulting in several cases of off-campus violence and threats. They discussed how six teens were charged with second-degree attempted murder after beating up a White classmate. Finally, they told how the case has brought international attention to our justice system.
Ravard-Andresen sang Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit" a chilling choice that alluded to nooses hung on a tree at Jena High School, which may have catalyzed the series of events. Four other students performed spoken word poetry and rap, all of which made light of the events in Jena.
Tony Nabors, one of the night's performers and a Soul Food member, reminded everyone that racism in the United States is nothing new.
"Even though this is something that happens to us every day," Nabors said, "it took something of Jena 6 magnitude to bring it to people's attention."
Some students knew nothing about the case before attending the meeting. "I'm blown away," one UW student remarked in a small group discussion. "This is the first time I have heard about the Jena 6; I never heard anything about it in the media."
Other students echoed this sentiment of feeling in the dark when it came to issues affecting communities of color. "I feel like it was underrepresented," one student said. "Jena 6 was covered for a week, and then it was back to Britney Spears."
At the end of the evening, the group agreed that the Jena 6 case is about much more than high school students in Louisiana.
"We can talk about the Jena 6," said Shay Allen, a junior at UW and a member of the Black Student Union, "but it's more important to talk about the systematic oppression affecting each and every one of us."