Saturday, September 15, 2007

One small victory in the struggle

A bit of good news - just a bit - regarding the "Jena 6," a group of six black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana, charged with two felonies in the wake of a school brawl in a time of racial tension in the little town in the central part of the state.

I previously wrote about the case in June; here's a quick backgrounder: A black high school student asked school officials for permission to sit under a tree traditionally reserved for whites. The school replied sure, he could sit anywhere he wanted. But the next morning, three nooses painted in school colors were found hanging from the tree, an action ultimately dismissed by school authorities as an adolescent prank.

That, of course, didn't sit well with blacks in town and it set off months of escalating tensions, with incidents involving both blacks and whites attacking each other. In one case, a white student beat a black student on the head with a flashlight. He was charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor. Subsequently, a group of black students went after a white student, knocking him down and kicking him. Even though that student's injuries were minor enough that he attended a school function that same evening, the six black students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit the same - both felonies. The charges were later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, less serious charges but still both felonies.

The first to come to trial was Mychal Bell, who was quickly convicted on both counts by an all-white jury and faced 30 years in prison. So things stood in June.

Now, however, both those convictions have been overturned. On a technicality, but overturned. First, the trial judge vacated the conspiracy charge on the grounds that Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, was improperly tired as an adult - but he let the more serious charge of aggravated battery stand on the rather curious grounds that
Bell could be tried in adult court because the charge was among lesser charges included in the original attempted murder charge,
a charge that was not pursued in the court. It was left to the state's Third Circuit Court of Appeal to find that the remaining charge was likewise improper because while
[t]eenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder ... aggravated battery is not one of those crimes, the court said.
So once the attempted murder charge disappeared, the aggravated battery charge had to go with it.

It is a small legal victory but still a victory. The reason it's small is three-fold: One, local District Attorney Reed Walters, who in the course of events told students - quite possibly specifically black students - "I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen" (and who labeled the tennis shows the accused boys were wearing "potentially lethal weapons"), says he intends to appeal the reversal to the state Supreme Court. Two, even if that fails Walters could pursue the case in juvenile court. Most importantly, three, it doesn't affect the other defendants, who were 17 and for these purposes legal adults.

The case has become something of a cause célèbre.
Nearly 200,000 people have signed petitions criticizing the prosecution of the black students and calling on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to intervene in the case. Bus caravans headed toward Jena have been organized at scores of churches across the country and organizers had predicted more than 20,000 protesters might show up in the town of 3,000
for a major civil rights demonstration next Thursday, the day Bell was to have been sentenced. Some have wondered how Bell's changed circumstances will affect the turnout, but precisely because the victory is a small one and the issue is still very much alive, it's unlikely to seriously affect anyone's plans.

Not unexpectedly, there have been some attempts to be artificially even-handed, to go the "nobody's entirely innocent" (And what, therefore nobody's in any way guilty?) route. The New Orleans Times-Picayune takes that tack, calling the story "an evocative tale, trading on every trope of race," which "[i]n the retelling ... has bled from breaking news into bluesy ballad." It even suggests that the town of Jena
finds itself victimized by the same mob emotion, prejudice and rush to judgment of which it stands accused, with perhaps ominous implications for the protest.
Ah yes, the ever-threatening hordes of outsiders.

But let's face some facts here. This is a town with a traditionally whites-only tree at its school. It has school officials who treated nooses as a "prank." It has a local DA who threatened to ruin students' lives (again, quite possibly specifically black students' lives) and who regards a white student beating a black student as a misdemeanor but the reverse as attempted murder.

That's the issue. The issue is not that "no one is completely innocent." The issue is not even per se that the Jena 6 are being prosecuted - in fact, I suspect that had the six been charged with simple battery, as was the white student, this case would never have achieved the notoriety it has. It is, rather, the patent, undeniable, continued existence of racism found in the tree, the official attitudes, and the grossly disparate treatment meted out. And, as always, in the face of such as this, silence is not an option.

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