Thursday, September 20, 2007

On the Jena 6

Okay, so the population of Jena, Louisiana has multiplied by a factor of about six today as marchers descend upon the town in protest of the treatment of the Jena 6. In case your local paper or progressive blog of choice hasn't really covered it (and chances are they haven't), the Jena 6 are six black teenagers who were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate. The attack took place in the aftermath of an incident in which three white students hung nooses from a tree in retribution for their black classmates' bold and insulting decision to sit under that "white tree."

But it is not and never has been about race.

Which parts of that story weren't race-related? When the black students felt they had to ask permission from the principal to sit under the tree, because no black students had ever done it before, doesn't that indicate that race might be a factor? And when the three white students chose nooses to hang in the tree, is that not a clear sign of race-related intimidation? What, were they just saying the kids were welcome to "hang out"? And when the principal chose to expel those three boys, and the school board dismissed it as a mere prank, did they have no idea that it was a racial threat?

What about the protests that followed? When District Attorney Reed Walters looked out at a crowd of black protesters and declared that he could "make [their] lives disappear with the stroke of [his] pen," was race not involved there?

What about the violence that followed? When a white man broke a beer bottle over a black student's head outside a party and was charged with battery and given probation, was race not involved? When a white student threatened a black student with a gun outside a convenience store, and the black student took it away from him and was later charged with theft of a firearm and second-degree robbery, was race not a factor?

Race was already a factor long before Justin Barker was assaulted.

Initially, the black students were charged with assault. DA Walters, he who could make their lives disappear with the stroke of his pen, upped the charges to attempted second-degree murder. On the first day of the first trial, charges against Mychal Bell were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery - "aggravated" by the use of a "deadly weapon," in this case, Bell's tennis shoes. And although witnesses couldn't even agree on whether or not he was even involved in the attack, he was found guilty and faced up to 22 years in prison.

Twenty-two years in prison for possibly - maybe not - beating a classmate so severely that he was able to attend a school function later that same evening.

But it is not and never has been about race.

I'm not saying - no one is saying, to my knowledge - that these young men should go unpunished for their crimes. Justin Barker was knocked unconscious during the attack and had to be treated at a hospital for his injuries; he easily could have been more seriously injured than he was. Violence such as that can't be excused or ignored. "Free the Jena 6" is a slogan, not a sincere proposal. Don't free them, but give them justice, not reactionism. Charge them only for the crimes they committed, try them only on the evidence available (an on all of it), and sentence them only for those crimes - not out of some sense of indignance, ire, or resentment.

The charges on three of the other young men have been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery - aggravated by their shoes - and conspiracy. Mychal Bell's conviction has been overturned and all charges dropped, but he remains in jail pending the DA's appeal to the state Supreme Court, since he can't afford $90,000 bail. Three white students who hung nooses on the "white tree," a white guy who beat up a black guy outside of a party, and a white student who pulled a gun on that same black student remain free. There's a lot of history behind this trial, and no one is innocent. It's hard to raise the necessary righteous indignation when we don't have a shining hero to support, but we need to, because injustice has been rampant since the first noose went up. And anyone who claims that it is not and has never been about is naive, willfully ignorant, or blatantly dishonest.

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