Feature

A new civil-rights cause in Louisiana

Tens of thousands of people marched through the small Louisiana town of Jena on Thursday, protesting the treatment of six African-American students arrested last year for the beating of a white classmate. White kids involved in a string of racial incident

More than 10,000 people marched through the small Louisiana town of Jena on Thursday, protesting the treatment of six African-American students arrested last year for the beating of a white schoolmate. The protesters—who included Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and radio host Michael Baisden—said the black students were treated far more harshly than white classmates after a series of racial incidents at Jena High School. “This is about fairness,” Jackson said.

The controversy started last year after several black students sat under an oak tree in the school’s courtyard where white students usually gathered. White students responded by hanging three nooses in the tree the next day. A series of fights followed. The white students who put the nooses in the tree received in-school suspensions. The black students who allegedly beat up their classmate were charged with attempted murder.

“The obvious issue was one of equal justice,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post (free registration required). “Either treat the whole series of incidents as a mere disciplinary problem for the high school to handle, or treat it as a criminal matter. Just don't have one standard of justice for whites and another, much harsher standard for blacks.”

The charges against the “Jena 6” were later reduced, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, “but that probably wouldn't have happened were it not for the media attention and national outrage.” The fact is the law wasn’t color blind in Jena. White kids who hit a black student with bottles at a party were only charged with battery. A man who brandished a shotgun at black students wasn’t charged at all; the teens who wrestled the gun away were charged with stealing it.

It was excessive to charge “the beaters” with attempted murder initially, said James Wooten in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But beating up a classmate was also an excessive reaction to the nooses in the tree—especially since the victim wasn’t the one who did it. What this case shows the rest of us who weren’t there is that “it’s often difficult to get a full and impartial read on stories involving race, as was the case at Duke University.”

“Race has muddled” what otherwise would have been “a clear-cut case of schoolyard fisticuffs and hooliganism,” said Deborah Simmons in The Washington Times. There was the tree incident, and a string of racial violence by both sides that culminated with felony charges. One teen—Mychal Bell—was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but an appeals court reversed the conviction last week and sent the case to juvenile court. “In the old days, most of these incidents would have been treated as no more than an old-fashioned fistfight among boys—boys coming of age and duking it out.” How times have changed.

Have they really? said Courtney Martin in The American Prospect. Nooses? Racial violence? The Jena 6 case is actually a "reminder" that we still have a long way to go before realizing the "dream of equality for all." The residents of predominantly white Jena should think hard about that. And so should we all.

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