On the Jena 6

31 08 2007

“A silly prank.” That’s what school officials at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, called a racist stunt by a group of white students who hung three nooses from a tree in an effort to stir up racial tension and fear.

Apparently, what provoked the incident was a desire among several black students to sit in the shade of a tree nearby the school usually reserved for whites only, after the vice principal permitted black students to sit wherever they pleased.

Determined not to be intimidated many of the school’s black students, protested the racist incident only to be threatened by the LaSalle Parish District Attorney, Reed Walters, who told students that additional “unrest’ would be treated as a “criminal matter.” He also reportedly told back students that if they did not comply, he “can end their lives with a pen.” The white students who committed the prank, on the other hand, got of with in-school suspension – a mere slap on the wrist.

Such an uneven and inadequate response predictably led to a sharp spike in racially charged incidents that bled into neighborhoods nearby. Mary Mitchell at the Chicago Sun-Times describes them in her column yesterday:

In one incident, a young black student was assaulted by a group wielding beer bottles at a predominantly white party. But only one person was charged — with a misdemeanor — in the attack. In another incident, a white Jena graduate allegedly pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black high school students when they left a local convenience store. The teens managed to wrestle the gun away from the man.

The final incident involved the young black men now known as the “Jena 6.”

On Dec. 4, more than a month after the black students sat under the “white” tree, a fight broke out in the lunchroom between a white student and a black student. The white student was knocked to the floor and was allegedly attacked by other black students.

One of the black students said to be involved in the incident was the one assaulted earlier by the bottle-wielding white students. The white victim sustained bruises and a black eye. He was treated at a hospital and released. According to court testimony, the beating victim attended a social event later that same evening.

Five of the black teens were charged, as adults, with attempted second-degree murder and were given bonds ranging from $70,000 to $138,000. A sixth teen was charged as a juvenile.

Apparently under pressure by watchdog groups, the district attorney abruptly reduced the charges against 16-year-old Mychal Bell — the first youth to go to trial — from second-degree murder to second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. The aggravated battery stems from the prosecutor’s contention that the teens’ gym shoes were used as weapons.

This means these teens can be locked up for decades for an out of control school brawl that they did not instigate. Now I have been wondering why this story has not garnered more national media attention or why many civil rights leaders have not been made this more of an issue in the media. Of course, I should note that there is a great deal of local activism surrounding the issue in Jena and that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has gotten involved in defending the charged teens.

But making a stronger case for the Jena 6 could not only help illustrate many of the essential frustrations black people have with the Justice system, but most importantly highlight a serious miscarriage of justice. Perhaps, the national media simply is not interested in certain types of stories of racial division.

For some reason, the national media is interested in other types of racially charged stories. Take for instance the story of the August 4th assault in Newark, NJ, on four college bound teens in which three were killed execution-style and only one survived. Police later apprehended three of the suspects, one of which Jose Carranza, 28, is a particularly vile human being. He was granted bail earlier this year after being charged with raping a child and assault.

Naturally, this story made national headlines because the media could easily sensationalize the idea of the black and brown divide, and the culprits were hardened criminals committing a heinous act. But more to the point, it spoke to the fears and anger many white people feel about illegal immigration and presumed reign of criminal terror that would follow with them flooding our streets – a prospect that’s as unlikely as the fear is pervasive. And while I agree anti-immigrant sentiment among African-Americans is far from uncommon, such concerns are hardly at the center of any debate covered by the press, especially something as significant as immigration.

By contrast, the Jena 6 situation is about fighting racism in a town that is 85 percent white and 12 black. This is not a situation where white politicians and media figures can exploit for the sake of demagoguery. The injustice here is something that happened to another group of people who are victims of a “silly prank,” not from the perceived threat of immigrants whose mere presence alone could somehow stain our national character.

Free the Jena 6

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