What's in the 'Jena 6' for us? Absolutely everything!

By Michelle E. Brown

I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with the Human Rights Campaign. I have seen its potential and recognize its challenges. And although at times being on the board of governors has brought me extreme angst there has also been moments of extreme pride. HRC's support for the Coalition for a Fair Michigan in its fight against the first Proposal Two and then supporting the broad based coalition fighting the second Proposal Two attacking affirmative action are two such moments.

On Sept. 20, HRC joined thousands of protestors in support of the Jena 6 - Donna Payne, associate director of diversity in Louisiana and HRC President Joe Solomonese at demonstrations in Washington, DC - bold moves that garnered both praise and criticism.

I have had conversations with friends and colleagues across the country about the Jena 6. And although I see HRC as a civil rights organization, I did not expect any action from them on the Jena 6. After all it is what it is - not a grassroots, average everyday LGBT person's kind of organization. So I was pleasantly surprised and yes very proud to be a member of HRC's Board of Governors Sept. 20.

Then the criticisms began most notably in online articles/blogs including the one in the ADVOCATE, an article by James Kirchick, which condemned HRC's participation in Jena 6 demonstrations. Kirchick asks "What's in the Jena 6 for us?" I am sure there are some members of Michigan's gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer community asking the same question.

What's in the Jena 6 for us, in a word - everything. If we, the LGBTQ community, allow any American to be persecuted, discriminated against, intimidated and treated unjustly as the Jena 6 have been, I can assure you we won't be saying "tomorrow it could be us" - it WILL be us. Every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, differently-abled, immigrant, African American, Latino, and Asian - all of us will be at risk.

We must never forget that the foundations of this country's government - the Constitution, the judicial system, the government - were not based on a diverse and equal society. And despite the passage of time these racist, classist roots still have an extreme influence on how we behave as a society, For the ADVOCATE, any publication or media outlet to say that the hanging of three hangman's nooses on the "white" tree is not an expression of hate - a hate crime - is a colossal demonstration of ignorance and indifference.

One need only visit Milwaukee's African American Holocaust Museum's graphic display of lynchings in the south, hear the story of the museum's founder James Cameron (who was a lynching survivor) or see the real and brutal photos from the "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" exhibit to understand that this symbol -- the hangman's noose (which the ADVOCATE sadly used on its Web site) is not only a symbol of the deepest hatred, but also racial intimidation.

To not support or deem the Jena 6 undeserving of our LGBTQ support is a silent endorsement of a biased judicial system that disproportionately sentences people of color and the poor to longer harsher sentences than their white counterparts. To turn our backs on the Jena 6 would be a silent endorsement of a society, in this day and age, where African American youth still had to ask if it was alright to sit under the "white tree"; where LGBTQ youth remain unsafe in schools due to bullying; where transgender youth are assaulted, even killed for being their true authentic selves and where marriage with all of its legal rights and protection are denied to millions of lesbian and gay couples.

To call the Jena 6 "Brutal thugs" is to turn a blind eye to the conditions perpetuating racial hatred and to endorse the stereotypical demonization of those who are different while absolving their "victims" of any responsibility for their actions.

To ask "What's in the Jena 6 for us" is a failure to take responsibility for the world we are leaving our youth - a world of injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to be silent, to sit on the fence and think if something doesn't affect us directly it's not our problem me.

Martin Luther King Jr. said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." WE, the LGBTQ community, are in a fight everyday not for special rights but for equality. We say our fight is a fight for civil rights and look for allies in our struggle from the social justice, African American and other communities who understand discrimination and bigotry.

What Mr. Kirchick and others who question and/or condemn HRC for its actions in regard to the Jena 6 and cry out "What's in the Jena 6 for us?" fail to understand is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility to fight the fight not just reap the benefits.

During the 1960's many Jewish activists stood shoulder to shoulder with the African American community in that fight for justice - not because there was anything in it for them but because, having been victims of hatred and oppression, they knew they had to take a stand against injustice.

Many other everyday men and women, left there safe lives in suburbia, on college campuses and across the country participated in marches, went to jail and even died not asking what was in it for them but because they believed in freedom and equality.

Detroit's own Viola Liuzzo horrified by images of the aborted march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge went to Alabama to participate in subsequent marches. Before leaving she told her husband she was traveling to Selma because the struggle was "everybody's fight." She was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan.

No one's suffering, oppression, victimization injustice can be taken lightly.

When we support the Jena 6 we are taking a stand for more than 6 individuals. We are taking a stand against the ills that allow this and other attacks on our civil rights to continue. If we don't stand up for the Jena 6 then tomorrow it can and will be us. So kudos to Joe Solomonese, Donna Payne, the Human Rights Campaign and all those willing to take a stand to end injustice everywhere. What's in it for us? Absolutely everything!

- Michelle E. Brown is a community activist and author.

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