A New Way of Protesting an Old Issue

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The protester-to-resident ratio in Jena was over 5 to 1 by late last week as the buses rolled into the central Louisiana town of 3,000. All week, the calls to action on behalf of six black teenagers charged with attempted murder in a beating had been worming their way through the country, multiplying via E-mail lists, airwaves, and word of mouth. By Thursday, it was official: The case of the Jena Six had gone viral. The story dates to last December, when a series of racially charged incidents, including nooses hung from a tree at the high school, ignited a series of altercations. The suspects are accused of beating and kicking a white student unconscious. While no one was defending the assault itself, the story quickly became a symbol for a commonly perceived double standard in the criminal justice system: that blacks are more harshly prosecuted, particularly when the victim is white.

"Going viral" is a fairly recent addition to the popular lexicon, describing a story—be it serious, like this one, or totally inane, like many others—that spreads rapidly through social networks, much like an epidemic. But the phenomenon itself is not new, and civil rights activists have a long history of leveraging the theory of epidemics to their advantage. "This represents a twist on a traditional form of self-organizing that has been around since the Underground Railroad," says Chris Rabb, who founded Afro-Netizen.com, a site that encourages blacks to organize online. "Leaders don't draw crowds. Crowds draw leaders. By the time this [story] was validated by CNN and the NAACP, much of the work had already been done. A lot of folks print out the E-mails and they take it to the barbershop or their church or the PTA meeting."

By the end of the week, many were already speculating whether Jena would become the Selma, Alabama of this generation. Declarations of a new, sustainable civil rights movement are probably premature, but the message last week was clear: This isn't your father's bus boycott.