Saturday, September 29, 2007

Jena: Part 1

I arrived at Jackson about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, got my car, and found the hotel with no trouble (thank you, GPS). After showering and calling The Favorite Child, I reviewed all my little papers I printed out from various websites and realized that I needed to be in Alexandria at 5 a.m., 2 hours earlier than I had thought. This meant no sleep. I lay in the bed for an hour, then got up, got dressed, and got on the road at 1 a.m.

I was scared. I can't remember if I've told you this before, but I am greatly handicapped in terms of finding my way about in the world (only geographically speaking). I can't find my way out of a freaking paper bag. If you give me perfect directions, I will follow them and arrive on time. If the directions are not perfect, woe betide.

Here I was, in a foreign country (Mississippi is a foreign country if you are, as I am, a native Californian), driving in the dark to a location I knew not of. Good God. In fear I programmed the GPS and with trepidation I followed its guidance, but God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and two hours in, I happened upon a rest stop and thought I would rest. Four buses were parked out front. The bathroom was full of beautiful sisters, all wearing black. I asked if they were going to Jena. They were. I said I was, too, and one woman asked why. "You've got to stand up for what's right," I said. "You know that's right," said one woman, and I believe an "Amen" followed.

Seeing those buses and encountering all those women in the bathroom gave me this sense of anticipation and happiness, which got me to the Coliseum in Alexandria, where the troops were gathering.

I met so many people. Everyone was so friendly. They asked where I came from. Ali, a muscular young man from Miami, said, "You from California? You came all that way? That's deep." He promised that if I couldn't get a ride to Jena, they would make room on the Miami bus.

When the bikers rolled in, it was so exciting.
And then Al Sharpton arrived. I got a picture of the madness.
The people flowed to the Reverend as if they were the tide. They showed their love, and the Reverend was so gracious. Everyone wanted to touch him, to shake his hand, or give him a hug, or have a picture taken with him. I heard later that his limo went empty to Jena, and the Reverend rode on one of the buses. God bless him, I say. He is a man of the people.

Right around that time, I met R. from Tennessee. R. is super glamorous and very animated, and you can tell she is very comfortable being in charge. To my good fortune, she asked with whom I'd come to Louisiana. When I told her I was by myself, she said she would stick with me. Tell me, who has better luck than I do? For R. got us a ride on a bus while many others waited in the dirt parking lot, walking here and there, not sure what to do. It was chaotic. The atmosphere was peaceful and happy and purposeful, but the logistics were kind of crazy. When you think of all those people coming together and how everything just worked out, you do believe in miracles.

Most of the buses were big charter buses. The bus we got on was a little battered. Tasseled fringe was strung across the windshield. The driver's name was Red, which everyone pronounced as if it had two syllables ("Rai-ed"). Inside, there were couches instead of bus seats, and upon the couches were sprawled many bodies. The woman across from me was wearing shorts and her scarred, thin, muscular legs made me think of a race horse that had seen better days. The large woman next to me, in a turquoise outfit that stood out against all the black T shirts, had sleep apnea. I spoke to her, and she didn't respond, and I thought, "Dang, she is all bent out of shape we on this bus." Later I realized she was just asleep. Every once in a while she'd wake up and say something like, "Duchess, give me a banana," or "What about the blood song?" and they would all sing a song about the blood of Jesus. For we had gotten on the Bus of the Saved Souls from New Orleans. They had driven through the night to get to Alexandria, and were apparently the sinners Jesus loved so much. They loved Him right back. We heard a song I had not heard since my Southern Baptist days, "I've Been Redeemed" (which K. the Brilliant observed is kind of like the gospel version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"). One woman sang a version of "Amazing Grace" with so much vibrato my ears were ringing and the whole bus shook. The Lost Souls were so generous, offering us food from their stash of bananas, cold cereal, candy bars, and sandwiches. So kind.

It took a long time to get to Jena. There were all the buses, and we kept stopping. Red the Driver let everyone off the bus ("I know y'all need to smoke your cigarettes"), and the recovering addicts trooped off the bus, all the ones I'd seen, with names like Lil Bit and the aforementioned Duchess, and all the ones I hadn't, who had been tucked way back in the dark recesses. The demographics on this bus were unusual, as there were a third as many white people as black people. However, they were all very thin, in baggy clothes, and in desperate need of nicotine.

I took pictures. It was about 5:30 by this time.
To see the buses stretched out as far as you could see brought tears to the eyes, a sentiment shared by all of us who were outside. I met the president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP and I met some gentlemen from Los Angeles, and we all marveled at the buses.

Traffic was stopped for a long time. When cars could proceed (very slowly and much hampered by the crowds from the buses milling in the road), you could see all the black people in cars taking pictures and videotaping the buses and the crowds, throwing signs and smiling. The white people mostly looked straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel as if it were a life preserver. On the side of the road, a group of young white people cheered and held up a sign: "Not All White People Are Crazy."

UPDATE: Go to Che Sing the Cool for more pictures. There is a great one that gives you an idea of what it was like to be in the crowd.

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