The mainstream media is gradually starting to cover the story of the Jena Six, a group of black teenagers from Jena, Louisiana charged with second-degree attempted murder of a white classmate.
But it’s a story that began a year ago, when a black student asked if he could sit under a tree at Jena’s high school, which had been unofficially designated for white students, and it continues today, with neo-Nazi groups posting online the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the six students, encouraging violence against them.
The day after the young black man asked permission to sit under the tree, three nooses dangled ominously from its branches. The school’s principal recommended expulsion for the white students who hung the nooses, but the superintendent overruled him and instead punished the students with a three-day suspension, claiming the nooses represented not 200 years of racial inequality and horrifying violence, but a harmless prank.
Black students protested under the tree, and district attorney Reed Walters accompanied police officers to the school and warned the protesting students that “with one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear." His words, combined with the tense racial climate in Jena, ignited a series of events – a black student was beaten by a group of white males at a party, three black teenagers were threatened at a gas station by a white student with a sawed-off shotgun (after grabbing the gun away from the white youth, the black students were charged with theft of a firearm and assault), and a white student was hit in the head and kicked by a group of black students – the Jena Six.
Reed Walters’s threats were realized when the six students were expelled from school, jailed and charged with the second-degree attempted murder of Justin Barker, who was treated at the hospital for his injuries and attended a social event following his release a few hours later.
Mychal Bell was the first to be convicted, and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. That charge, however, was overturned on the grounds that Bell should have been tried as a juvenile. He was not given bail after this decision.
Meanwhile, the FBI is monitoring a web page created by white supremacists in Roanoke, Virginia that urges readers to contact the families of the Jena Six and alert them that “justice (is) coming.” Telephone numbers, addresses and names were provided under the heading “Lynch the Jena Six.” No legal action has been taken against the individuals behind the web site.
If a group of teenagers could be arrested and jailed for attempted murder after a schoolyard fight, then a group that publicly incites violence against individuals should, at the very least, be charged with a hate crime. The same goes for the students who hung the nooses, a symbol for the KKK as well as a jarring reminder of a long history of racially motivated violence in the United States.
A three-day suspension is not adequate punishment. Three days’ suspension is what happens to a student who gets caught smoking in the bathroom, not what happens to students who hang nooses in trees to threaten their fellow students. At that point, punishment should be taken out of the school and into the legal system.
According to Walters, however, he could find no legal reason to prosecute the students – even after reviewing federal hate crime laws. He emphasized at a press conference that hanging the noose was a “villainous act,” and that the students should be ashamed at what they did. Walters also remarked that the case against the Jena Six had absolutely nothing to do with race and everything to do with justice for Justin Barker, the white student who was attacked at the school, and with “holding people accountable for their actions.”
Yet, the students who hung the nooses are accountable only to their own conscience. The white student who threatened three black students with a shotgun was not charged with assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder or anything at all, for that matter. The group of white males who beat up Robert Bailey, Jr. at a party resulted in just one being charged with battery and put on probation.
White supremacists spew hate in a public forum, but there is no basis for prosecution. Accountability is essential to justice, but true justice cannot exist if accountability only applies to one race.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.