Jena’s Divide and Conquer Politics

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 11, 2008

Jena, Louisiana, that smoldering microcosm of the nation’s persistent racism, is once again fueling the fire; one now spreading rapidly, engulfing more communities of color. Jena’s mayor, Murphy Mcmillin announced yesterday that the city’s residents could look forward to the opening of the LaSalle Detention Center, bringing 400 new jobs, $1 million in property tax increases and $60 million in new money spent to Jena’s 3000 predominantly white inhabitants, 15 percent of whom live below the poverty line. The detention center, with a 1,160 person capacity, is just one of the most recent additions to the booming detention industry. The US detains over 280,000 each year and deportations are reaching new levels as well. In their 2007 “accomplishments” report, ICE trumpeted 276,912 deportations of “illegal aliens” and 164,296 criminal deportations. The opening of the Lasalle detention center in Jena speaks volumes about where we stand in terms of race and racism in the United States. The Jena 6 affair—which, we need be reminded, is not over as charges are still pending against two of the plaintiffs in what has been the most public demonstration of racism in the judicial system in years— made clear that people of color, face unequal justice. It also laid bare that racist policies are predicated on and promulgated through the exploitation of racial divisions and the economic, political and cultural anxieties and biases of white people, especially poor ones. This is part of the familiar divide and conquer strategy which pits poor whites against people of color for the sake of profit and power. The opening of the detention center tells this same story and also shows us that racism, as policy and as sentiment, is larger than one group or issue. After initial protests in Jena last year that pulled thousands to the town, Mayor McMillin spoke to a white supremacist group. The group’s website reported him responding to the prospect of a counter demonstration saying, “I am not endorsing any demonstrations, but I do appreciate what you are trying to do.” He added, “your moral-support means a lot.” The interview was posted on the same site that listed the names of the six black youth involved in the case and encouraged that they be dragged out of their homes. In today’s press conference about the detention center the Mayor told reporters "We would invite any kind of expansion.” According to a local paper, the mayor chuckled after the comment. In both instances, McMillin has proven himself an ugly figure and one willing to exploit racial divisions to promote policies, maintain power, and make a buck. He assuages the anxieties of poor whites and powerful elites by once again inviting racist groups into Jena. That the invitees are the Department of Homeland Security and a private prison contractor rather than a white supremacist group is neither here nor there.