Thursday, September 20, 2007

More demonstrations

Updated On Saturday, I suggested that the favorable decision regarding Mychal Bell was unlikely to change anyone's intentions about attending today's rally in support of the Jena 6. It appears I was right. Reuters brings the news.
Tens of thousands of black Americans descended on a small town in central Louisiana on Thursday to protest what they say is injustice against six black teen-agers charged over a high school fight.

Protesters arrived in buses and cars from cities as far away and apart as New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New Orleans for a rally in support of the "Jena 6."
AFP adds that
[w]earing black clothing as a sign of mourning, protestors bused in from across the country chanted "No Justice! No Peace!" and swarmed the grounds of the town's high school, many bending to touch the stump of a tree cut down after it sparked months of racial tensions. ...

"The Department of Justice in Washington's gone silent," [Jesse] Jackson told the crowd. "We are intent to have hearings on the matter of criminal justice in Jena because there is a Jena in every town, a Jena in every state."
And AP said that
[a]t times the town resembled a giant festival, with people setting up tables of food and drink and some dancing while a man beat on a drum.

[Rev. Al] Sharpton admonished the crowd to remain peaceful, and there were no reports of trouble. State police could be seen chatting amicably with demonstrators at the courthouse.
AP also reported that state police estimated the crowd at 15,000-20,000 while organizers said it might be as many as 50,000. My own experience has been that in such cases a reasonable estimate can be obtained by averaging the claims and shading it some toward the organizers' figure (i.e., officials tend to undercount somewhat more than organizers tend to overcount). By that method, the crowd numbered in the range of 35,000-38,000. By any count, even the police figure, a whole lotta people that at least met the organizers' hopes.

What's more, there were protests elsewhere, in at least New York, Washington, Oklahoma City, and Baltimore, each drawing some hundreds of people.

A fair amount of the coverage compared the march to the civil rights marches of the '50s and while such comparisons are often either flip or a lazy way to have a hook, there were echoes not only in the fact of, and reasons for, the march but also in the reactions of those criticized, up to and including the insistence that there really isn't a problem even as the evidence says otherwise.

For example, both local US Attorney Donald Washington and local DA Reed Walters insist, in Walters' words, the case "is not and never has been about race." Washington even claimed
there was no direct link between the noose incident and the December fight, which he said was motivated by "male bravado" rather than race.
Yep, no "direct link," nothing racial involved at all. Totally separate. And the denial gets even more direct than that. In a pretty good overview in Newsweek about Jena, it says that
[m]any whites in Jena deny that the town has a race problem. Frankie Morris, a barber at Doughty's Westside Barbershop, says: "There's a bunch of country boys around here. They're not prejudiced."
This was said despite the fact that, as the article immediately goes on to say,
Morris's boss, Billy Doughty, has never cut a black man's hair because "the white customers, they might say something about cutting their hair with the same stuff," he says.
That refusal to see, the refusal to face what is and has been going on, becomes clear in the hometown newspaper's timeline of events. The Jena Times claimed in that timeline that the original question about blacks being able to sit under the tree was a "joke" intended to "invoke laughter" and everyone knew it. It insisted that there was "no racial motivation" for the nooses, something I fail to understand how anyone can be expected to believe. It repeatedly blamed "the media" for the problems, saying it was "flam[ing] the racial winds," which is something of a mixed metaphor, and "promoting racial tensions." And it also tossed off the attack on the black student in a single line but went on at length about the attack on the white student. (Note that at the link you have to scroll down to get to the timeline.)

[s]ome black community leaders in Jena said the case was an example of wider problems in the town, which they said was effectively segregated and had few opportunities for blacks more than 40 years after laws were passed to end segregation.

"Blacks live on one side of town. Whites live in another side of town. We live in a segregated city. We've done it all our lives. It's not something that we want but it's something we can't do anything about," said B.L. Morgan, pastor of Antioch church in the town and a rally organizer.
But oh no, there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here and
"[o]utsiders need to stay away," says [Billy] Fowler, the white school-board member. "Let local black and white people sit down and solve these problems."
Just like they did when they had a "whites only" tree at their school. Just like they did when nooses were considered a "prank." Just like they did when they decided it was a misdemeanor punished by probation when a black was the victim and attempted murder when a white was the victim. Just like they have done all along. And would continue to do in the absence of the spotlight of publicity and national attention.

Just to repeat what I have said before, the issue to me is not that the Jena 6 are being prosecuted, it is the grossly disparate legal treatment set against a background of segregation and racism. And I celebrate the moves to present Jena (and any- and everyplace else) with the reality of its racism.

Footnote: AFP includes some unsettling facts from the Urban League.
African-American men are three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested: 24.4 percent of blacks arrested in the United States in 2005 ended up in jail compared with 8.3 percent of white men.

They also receive jail sentences that are on average 15 percent longer than whites convicted of the same crime.

The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault: black men were sentenced to an average of 48 months in jail, which is 33 percent longer than the average sentence of 36 months received by white men, according to the League's annual State of Black America report.
Jena is not alone. It is merely the current example.

Updated to include the reference to the Baltimore demo and the paragraph about the Jena Times' timeline.

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