In the past months, the story of the “Jena six” has received fleeting national attention. These six Louisiana black boys have spent months trapped in a nightmare that has gotten progressively worse. One boy faces a possible sentence of 22 years of prison, while the others face 100 years in prison for attempted murder. Their crime, if it can be called that, was defending themselves in what amounts to a schoolyard fight.
This tragic story began last September, in the small town of Jena, Louisiana when a lone black student asked the school if he could sit underneath a tree in the schoolyard that had been the exclusive domain of white students. The next day, three nooses were hanging from the tree’s branches as a warning to the black students not to encroach on this territory. When the black students ignored the threat and sat under the tree, they were greeted not by white students, but by a surly district attorney who ordered them to leave.
In the next months, the black students became the targets of intimidation and violence. The most harrowing incident involved a white man threatening three black boys with a sawed-off shotgun. The kids were able to wrestle the shotgun away, and flee from the scene. The tensions between the black and white students boiled over on December 4 when a fight broke out at the high school. One white student was injured, and six black students were arrested and charged with second degree attempted murder.
The first student tried, Mychal Bell had the charge dropped to aggravated battery, which requires a dangerous weapon. The weapon in question was not a gun or a knife, but a tennis shoe. Bell’s lawyer called no witnesses on his behalf, and he was convicted by an all-white jury on charges that are charitably described as specious. This farce of a trial is something you’d expect in To Kill a Mocking Bird. It’s eerily reminiscent of Stalin’s show trials where the defendant never really had a chance at acquittal, and the notion of a fair proceeding was laughable.
The Prosecutor was far from an even-handed officer of the court. From day one, he was on an inexplicable vendetta against those black students. While the black students were exercising their right to sit where they wanted, the prosecutor bragged that he could, “end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” At the trial, he seemed determined to mete out the most draconian sentence possible on his hapless victims. Somehow, I doubt that the prosecutor would have tried to lock a white kid away for life if it had been a black student who had been injured. It is profoundly troubling that this David Duke brand of justice is still alive in the 21st century.
The implications of this racially-tinged episode are just as disconcerting. It is a stark reminder that our justice system is still far from color-blind. A kid from an inner city who’s caught with the “wrong” kind of cocaine faces a mandatory sentence of five years in prison and the prospect of a ruined life afterwards. Meanwhile, a kid in the suburbs who does the “right” type of cocaine probably won’t be caught in the first place, but if he is, can usually count on probation or some other slap on the wrist. It all means that blacks are 80% of those prosecuted for drug offenses even though 2/3 of all cocaine users are white or Hispanic. We live in an era when Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjuring himself and hindering a federal investigation gets no jail time, while a young black man, Marcus Dixon, was consigned to rot in prison for 10 years because he had consensual sex with his white girlfriend.
The Senate is in the midst of investigating the sentences imposed on two border patrol guards convicted of shooting a drug dealer as he fled. If it is right to free two men who are demonstrably guilty, circumstances notwithstanding, of the crime for which they were convicted, then it is only just for someone in power, either in Louisiana, or in the federal government to help restore the lives of six boys whose lives have been hijacked by an arbitrary and capricious justice process. I’m not holding my breath.