In one of the better articles on the Jena 6 controversy that I have recently read, sports commentator Dave Zirin of Sports Illustrated briefly interviews Dr. John Carlos, whose “black-gloved fist salute” on the medal podium became a defining moment of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Zirin’s work—including the weekly columns for his self-run site Edge of Sports—explores sports topics within social and cultural contexts, often searching for the negative social and economic implications of sports as well as positive examples of resistance. It’s consequently unsurprising that right before Jena 6 member Mychal Bell finally received the bail money to leave prison on September 27, Zirin’s conversation with Carlos produces this comment:
“Carlos feels a sense of frustration with ‘ministers’ and ‘so-called leaders of the black community,’ as he puts it, who show up for the big protests in places like Jena, but aren't there when the cameras are off. ‘These leaders today,’ he said, ‘they remind me of tow truck drivers. A tow truck driver is the first one to show up on the scene when there is an accident sometimes. It's true they have [radios] and sometimes show up at the scene before even the police. But can they actually fix the cars? Do they have grease under the fingernails? Will they be there to help the families once the car is towed away?’ ”
Carlos’ concern is especially relevant with regard to Jena. I don’t think we can fault the principal organizers of the Jena protests (notably Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson) for using time-honored strategies to maximize media coverage; indeed, media coverage has been critical to the fight against district attorney Reed Walters’ actions so far. Yet while Sharpton accompanied Bell out of jail, he and Jackson will more than likely not be around to “fix the cars” in the long term.
This is why Carlos’ forward thinking about what happens after Jena is astute. When Walters claims that God prevented disaster from occurring during the (largely African-American based) 20,000-strong demonstration in Jena on September 20, what does that signify for African-American residents concerning their right to receive due justice under the law? Indeed, the implied racism of Walters’ comment is a reminder that while protests on behalf of the Jena 6 have been effective in the short term, Jena’s racial relations—not to mention the racial relations of the surrounding region and Louisiana in general—have deep historical roots that will require profound and fundamental shifts, both from a structural and attitudinal standpoint. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to imagine the Jena protests as a positive turning point, and both Carlos’ and Zirin’s commentary also us to do so while also providing us with a proper sense of perspective.