For months, the story of the so-called "Jena Six" unfolded largely out of sight of the mainstream media. But in the emerging "Afro-Sphere," as some call the loose network of black bloggers, the story of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate passed from blog to blog, taking on a life of its own. Petitions were signed, money was raised and protests were organized — all online.
"I think a lot of people ignored the story but the African-American blogosphere has been on it from early on, and it has really caught steam recently," said Shawn Williams, who writes the popular Dallas South blog.
Thursday's demonstration, the largest civil-rights protest in years, owes its existence, in part, to the power of the Internet, says Williams. That's not to say that it couldn't have happened without the Web, but "once something gets out there, the action is immediate — here's what we're going to write about, here's the petition, here's the protest. It takes place within minutes, hours and days, not weeks or months," he says.
Recently, a group of black bloggers organized a "blog-in." They agreed to write about the Jena Six case on one day, raising the profile of the story. Within a matter of weeks, African-American bloggers had helped collect 220,000 signatures and raised $130,000 in donations, they say.
"Ten years ago this couldn't have happened," the Rev. Al Sharpton was quoted in the Chicago Tribune. "You didn't have the Internet and you didn't have black blogs and you didn't have national radio shows. Now we can talk to all of black America every day."
Sharpton says he first heard about the Jena case on the Internet.
Both Sides on Facebook
On Facebook.com, the social networking site, nearly 2,000 people have formed a group called "Free the Jena 6." They share not only outrage but also petitions and details about rallies.
Many of those posting comments said they first learned of the Jena Six on the Internet. "I am so disappointed with the media right now. I live in Connecticut and I never even heard of this. Honestly if it wasn't for Facebook, I still wouldn't know," wrote Jennifer Hightower.
Both sides of this emotionally charged issue are represented online. Another group, considerably smaller, recently formed on Facebook. It calls itself the "Anti-Jena–Six" and says it was founded "for those who are AGAINST the Jena Six and believe that they are little more than criminals who committed assault because they could not take an insult that posed no danger on their own lives. End of story."
A New Underground Railroad
Most of the online voices, though, express support for the Jena Six.
Williams says the Afro-sphere is "akin to the underground railroad. A lot of people are faceless and nameless. So just like the underground railroad, you know where to go but you don't know who might be there once you arrive."
Williams is attending the rally in Jena. His attempts to blog from there have been scuttled by the fact that he can't find an Internet connection.
This isn't the first time that black bloggers have rallied behind a cause. They did so in the 2005 case of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl from the Texas town of Paris. Cotton was sentenced to up to 7 years in juvenile prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. Bloggers and their readers bombarded the Texas governor with protest letters and petitions. Eventually, the authorities freed Cotton.
"That's when [African-American bloggers] first came together," says Williams. "There was a shared outrage."
Likewise, in Jena, where black bloggers have used the Internet to vent their anger at a criminal justice system that they feel let them down.