Revolution #115, January 13, 2008

On the Road from Jena to New Orleans

Changing the World

Changing Ourselves

Driving through the back country we whip around curves as the roads cut through the pine forest. Two Jena residents give me a tour of the correctional facilities, juvenile and adult prisons they have lived in. Many of them have essentially grown up in these facilities. Some are only 18 and have spent up to three years there and never made it past junior high. Many of the things youth expect to enjoy in this society are like phantom memories—the life they have and floating behind it, the life they ought to have lived. Things like prom and graduation. They are on probation, some until well into their twenties, constantly watched, not allowed to leave the state, hit with fees they cannot pay. They can’t get jobs, and they sometimes don’t even want to anymore. Although they are no longer living in the custody of the state, they are still imprisoned by a system that refuses to provide meaningful education and work. Sometimes they say they wish they were back in jail, that they in certain ways prefer it. They know they won’t be on the streets getting in more trouble, getting harassed by police. In prison, they know how they’re going to eat, they play cards, and get into fights. There’s nothing else to do, and it becomes a pastime. Every morning they wake up at 3 a.m. for breakfast, and someone is getting into it before breakfast is even over, “They haven’t even brushed they teeth yet.” They tell me the stories of hundreds of youth sleeping in one room on cement floors. I’ve heard from others about the disregard for the antagonisms between them and how the authorities seem to foster that, pitting Black youth against racist whites for example.

One of these youth in particular looks at this path as all he can do in life, he feels hopeless, and for many days sharply writes off our discussions about revolution and the system. “Why you always want to talk about revolution? All that revolution talk.” I begin to ask him every time he tells a story of life as a young person in the dungeons of this system for years, of getting pulled over, arrested, harassed again and again, a childhood of abuse, a life where you don’t know how you’re gonna survive. I ask him, “And you don’t want to talk about revolution?” I ask him, “Why do you think the world is this way?” When his friends struggle with him to come talk to us, with bitter hostility he tells them, “I ain’t talkin to those revolutionaries.”

They dream of escape. A different story every day. A job, any job, just to have the feeling of getting a paycheck every week and buying tennis shoes. College, and dreams of life as an agriculturist, zoologist, or veterinarian—putting to use some of the passion and skills that they have developed growing up in the country. Or maybe at least they can work on the oil rigs, off shore, in the brutal cold water, doing backbreaking labor, 7 days on 7 days off, and at least they could get their electricity cut back on, and even someday have a small apartment of their own. They dream of a life where they aren’t dogged by the police and looked down upon, where they can get some room to breathe by defying the conditions they find themselves in. They dream of moving to the middle class white neighborhood, a big house in the suburbs, their own car, a horse, the ability to provide for the children they already have. Or maybe just—get me the fuck out of here, just drop me off in the city, get me to the town where my uncle lives, get me somewhere where I can start again, that’s not here, where the pigs won’t fuck with me, where trouble won’t follow me, where people don’t talk to me with disdain and exasperation. Get me the fuck out of here. They dream and they desire escape.

After hearing about the fight to stop the demolition of public housing in New Orleans, we talked to some youth in Jena about going down there to support the struggle and get out Revolution newspaper. People in New Orleans are fighting to keep the city from demolishing 4,000 homes in the housing projects that are home to mainly poor Black people. And we talked about how this is happening after everything that the people in New Orleans had been through with Hurricane Katrina, after all that had been done to Black people there by this system—leaving them to die, calling them looters, treating them like animals, heartlessly evacuating them and then making it impossible for most people to return. We had just heard about how people protesting the demolition of public housing at a city council meeting were tasered, maced, and arrested.

We went through all of this and then talked about how this, similar to the Jena 6 case, concentrates racism and the oppression of Black people today, and the fact that the people are standing up is very important, just like it meant something that the students at Jena High took a stand, and then tens of thousands of people came to support them, demanding “Free the Jena 6.”

One Black youth, I’ll call him Fred, listened as we told him about the situation and then right away had a question. He was unsure about how the people in New Orleans would respond to someone like him, an outsider, a Black youth, coming to support them. He had a whole negative perception of the inner city youth. Of gangs and violence, of people without hope or any concern for others.

To step back, we all read the article in Revolution, “Abandoned and Bulldozed: The System’s Plan for Public Housing in New Orleans.” We asked him what he thought. “It’s sad,” was his reply. He went out onto the porch and stood for what seemed like a long time, watching the sunset. He was quiet for a while, and then he came back in and he started telling the story of being at Jena High School when the nooses were hung, and what it was like to take a stand. He said the teachers got there way before the students and saw the nooses, they could have taken them down but they didn’t. He described what it was like; he was full of exuberance, flailing his arms in the air and almost bouncing out of his seat, telling the story in his unique style.

He didn’t say much more about going to New Orleans and we asked him to call us by the end of the night and let us know if he would like to go. It was 1 a.m. when I got the text message: “What time are you picking us up?”

Fred had gone to talk with his friend Tyrone, to struggle with him to also go to New Orleans. Fred said that at first he did not want to go, but changed his mind after talking with us and reading the article about what was going on. He said that people had come to stand with them in Jena, why shouldn’t they go and support the people in New Orleans, and stand with them in the fight. So the next day we are on the road to N.O.

The car ride is a cacophony of singing, laughter, stories, and debate. Fred and Tyrone have the carefree attitude of so many youth; steeped in music, pop culture, stories of their adventures and antics. They poke fun at one another, give us nicknames, and test our patience a fair amount with running jokes they only occasionally let us in on.

Song after song they spit words full of sexist, degrading, and objectifying shit and we have a big ongoing struggle over using the word “b*tch” and the attitude that women are sex objects—how this is no different than the attitude of a slave master towards a slave. And that if you’re going along with this, you yourself are being fooled into taking up the ideas of the same ruling class that keeps all the people down. At first they say we’re exaggerating this, or they say that women want to be sex objects, and women themselves use the word “b*tch.” These ideas are oftentimes followed by assertions taken from the Bible that women were put here to please men, and that they were created for that purpose. We get into how these ideas come from a society based on property relations, that it wasn’t always this way, and this only came about when class society began years ago, and people started to care about who their sons were so they could pass down what they owned to others, and the structure of the patriarchal family became part of society. They assert again and again that this is not how they mean it, or that this is just the way things are. It’s only much later that Fred begins to change some of his thinking about this. I think some of this struggle had a real effect on him. But what really made him think hard was learning about how young women in Thailand are forced to be sex slaves. He says, “I don’t want to treat women as property. I think about those young girls in Thailand, that’s not right, I don’t want to be part of anything like that. If that was my daughter, I would just be so mad.”

As New Orleans approaches we start to talk about our experiences there. Tyrone worked there after the hurricane rebuilding houses and worked alongside many Mexican immigrants who had come there to work. This experience had given him a sense of unity and comradeship with immigrants. Whenever Fred or any of his other friends say derogatory things about taunting immigrants with the phrase “La migra,” he calls them out. “They’re in the same boat as us, they on our side,” he says, sometimes holding his fist in the air.

When we finally pull into New Orleans, Fred wakes up in the back seat and gets out his camera to photograph the Superdome as we go by. He listens intently as I tell him about coming down to New Orleans six months after the hurricane to do volunteer cleanup. I talk about seeing the water lines on the buildings and overpasses, the mangled cars destroyed by the powerful flood waters, the rotting smells. As we sit in a traffic jam on the highway we think about how the traffic must have been trying to get out of the city when they finally told people to evacuate and left them to fend for themselves. How people were trapped, how they must have agonized, and how some even died. Being back in New Orleans, I was angry, and eager to be part of the resistance that was springing up in the face of further crimes against the people by the system.

That night we found ourselves packed like sardines in a living room with the Houston Revolution Club, who had come to distribute Revolution in the housing projects. Right away Tyrone and one of the youth connected around sports, they both played football in high school. A documentary TV program about life in prison was blaring in the background and Fred watched this with interest as we all talked. Part political discussion and part sleepover party, the conversation was wide-ranging and lasted well into the night. People got into ideas and art, like what is the impact of the N word and racist ideas in comedy even when the artists’ intentions aren't to promote those views. We discussed where racism comes from and whether white youth in Jena are just influenced by their racist granddaddy, or if there is a whole system of oppression at work. Fred struggled to join the conversation and explain to Tyrone what he had been discussing with us. “Racist ideas were promoted as a trend, they told people that Black people were less than whites.” A youth from the Rev club chimed in, “Well, those ideas justified slavery, they justify the exploitation and oppression of Black people that still goes on under the capitalist system today.”

The next day they are out in the projects, still nervous about how people will respond to them. They follow paper sellers hesitantly, surprised to see many people are happy to see youth from Jena, and open to checking out Revolution newspaper. Afterwards Fred comes to tell me about the experience. “One things for sure,” he says, smiling and shaking his head affectionately at the Rev Club youth. “These kids got some heart, man!”

He talked about the Rev club going into the projects full of enthusiasm, marching right up to a group of guys playing dominoes and jumping right in with the paper, talking about revolution and communism. How they weren't afraid of people and they were cool with people, and they wanted to hear what they said and get into discussions.

During the trip from Jena to New Orleans we learned something about the divisions created between people and how we can begin to break those down, through struggle that is fierce and that is lofty. When youth from Jena walk through the rubble of New Orleans and see the lives of people in the projects, and when they consciously make the decision to be part of the fight against oppression, not just where it hits them personally, but wherever it is, and the people in New Orleans see them knocking on their door—this is part of changing things.

I tell Fred about the new outrage in New York where a Black man was convicted by an all white jury for defending his son from a mob of racist white youth. His first question is, “Are we going to New York?”  

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