Last Thursday, the streets of Jena, Louisiana were filled with over 20,000 peaceful protesters, marching for the Jena 6. This small southern town of no more than 3,000 found itself the focal point of a national outcry against racism and the judicial system. Had the white authorities of Jena meted unfair punishment on six black students?
This is a story that would not have reached national news but for the outreach of a group of African American bloggers who brought public outcry to a local issue, culminating in one of the largest civil rights protests this country has seen in years. By now, the media has finally caught up with all the events that have been occurring in this small town, and it has squarely labeled this town as one with a large racial divide. However, the townspeople deny that racism is an issue in Jena, trying to deflect public outcry by writing this off as an insulated incident.
But the issue is that this is not just one incident. It was a continued pattern of behavior that had been ongoing for years. What is most disturbing about this case is the extreme differences in reactions of authorities to certain events. Let us review the facts of the case. A black student asks his high school principal if he can sit under a shady tree, one that was dubbed the “whites only” tree. His principal states that the student is allowed to sit wherever he wants. (Doesn’t it strike you as problematic right at the beginning of the facts that there is a shade tree that was deemed for whites only? That a black student felt he needed to ask permission to sit under said tree?) The next day, three nooses were found hanging from the “whites only” tree in a chilling statement of racial hatred. The principal, upon discovering the identity of the noose hangers, recommended their expulsion to the school board. But here is the ugly part, school officials disagreed with the principal and refused to expel the students. Instead, they deemed that the hanging of the nooses were merely a “silly prank” and handed down only three days of suspension to the offending students.
I need to pause here to consider the enormity of this statement. Hanging nooses from a “whites only” tree after black students had in the minds of the white students "defiled" their “white” area, is considered a “silly prank.” That’s like saying a convicted murderer who just broke out of prison and pulls out a knife or gun and points it in front of your face, is just playing a little joke on you. It doesn’t feel like a joke. It definitely doesn't feel like a "silly prank." It feels like a threat, like intimidation, and it feels dangerous. Given the history of our country and the fact that blacks were lynched for exercising their civil rights, there is no way this is just a “silly prank.”
While the misconduct by white students was handled as a joke, other related incidents were also mishandled by the white authorities. A former white student brandished a shotgun at three black students and went unpunished. (Bringing my previous analogy even sharply to bear on this case.) And in the weeks that followed the noose incident, several racially charged fights broke out, one of them involving Robert Bailey, one of the Jena Six. Bailey, 17, was attacked a by a 22-year old white man who broke a bottle on Bailey’s head but was only charged and convicted of simple battery.
The reason media attention has been so great on the Jena Six is the excessive nature of the charges brought against the young men. According to court documents, the six boys knocked a white boy unconscious and continued to kick him. The school officials and the LaSalle Parish District Attorney have decided to make an example of these students, charging them with felonious assault and second degree attempted murder which could result in decades of imprisonment.
Attempted murder? According to Louisiana state law, a person can only be tried for aggravated second-degree battery, not to mention murder, when a weapon is used. There wasn't a weapon used in the Jena Six incident. However, the district attorney was so convinced that the Jena Six incident was not simple battery that he claimed that the attackers' shoes were the weapons. Shoes as weapons? I didn’t know high school boys were now wearing stilettos. The victim in question had allegedly incited the event with derogatory remarks. And although being severely beaten up, the victim was well enough to discharge himself from the hospital a few hours after admission and to make it to a high school event later that same day.
Now, let me state for the record that I believe that the Jena boys deserve punishment. After all, beating a person unconscious and still kicking him while he is down is a violent crime and should be punished as one. There is no question that a mob of six could easily kick a man to death. But I also think that this is a situation where the authorities led to the simmering racial tensions that culminated in this violent act. Had the school board appropriately punished the boys who had hung the nooses, perhaps the racial tensions would not have escalated. But by writing off as a “silly prank” something that was as ugly and dangerous as nooses on a tree, the school board told the white kids of Jena, it’s ok to be racist and bring back signs of lynchings and the good ole boy days. It’s ok to promote a “whites only” tree. It’s ok to hate. In fact, during last weeks rally, a couple of yahoos decided to drive past the protesters, with 2 nooses hanging off the back of their pick up truck.
Racism is a learned behavior, we aren’t born with the knowledge to hate another race, or sex or religion. We are taught by out parents, our friends, our peers. There will continue to be racism as long as someone out there hates and passes it on to another generation. We no longer live in a time where overt racism affects us, nowadays, racism is much more subtle. But it would be foolish to think there is no racism in the world. We live in a time where honor killings still occur in parts of this world, simply for interacting with a person not of your race or religious ethnicity. Earlier this year, a seventeen year old Kurdish girl was stoned to death by men (some even from her family) who were outraged that she had a relationship with a Sunni Muslim boy. Her death was recorded by cell phones and video tapes of the men who took part in her stoning. (I bring this story in here because it is such a horrific event that demonstrates not just racism but sexism which is an even greater problem in many countries.)
Whenever I think we have come so far, it is brought home to me that the Civil Rights movement is not that old. It’s only forty years old, the same as I am. It reminds me of something the comedian Chris Rock said during one of his comedy shows. He said he may be a very rich and famous black man but there was no white man in the audience who would ever want to trade places with him, even if he was poor, because that's how much better being white in this country is. Not one person disagreed. And yet I recall having a discussion with acquaintances of mine who unequivocally stated that racism was not an issue in this country anymore and that it was the minorities who were breeding hatred against whites. And no amount of arguing on my or others parts could change their minds. They did not believe that inequities occurred against minorities.
We cannot change everyone's minds. We cannot solve racism overnight. It is an ongoing problem not only here but throughout the world. And perhaps it is naive to believe that it would ever be resolved. But I continue to hope for more tolerance, more understanding of people's differences. Maybe a story like this would not occur in another forty years. We can only hope and pray.