Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Jena Six

Well, I've been pretty quiet on the blog, not because of a lack of interest in keeping it up, but simply because of a lack of time to dedicate to it. I'll keep posting as time and energy permits.

I thought that the whole situation in my State's town of Jena deserved some commentary from me. What do I think?

Well, from my perspective, it is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that there is an inequity in the administration of justice that tracks along racial lines. Critics of the movement in support of the Jena Six try to make this an issue of a simple and clear-cut case of assault and that justice should be meted out to the six black students accused of assault in accordance with the law. They argue as if the racial tension and the context of racial discord surrounding this event should have no bearing on the prosecution of this case. They even go so far as to divorce the whole noose-hanging episode from the assault that is the basis for the prosecution of the Jena Six, saying that one is not even connected to the other.

However, even if you do divorce the two episodes and keep them as separate cases, it is hard not to notice that the noose-hanging behavior resulted in a kind of leniency within the criminal justice system that is at odds with the significance of the act. We all know that hanging nooses on trees in the rural south amounts to a clear death threat targeting a particular group of people only and exclusively because of skin color. The fact that it is a death threat should be enough to warrant detention and prosecution. If a person calls in a bomb threat to school or writes an anonymous note threatening to kill a teacher or a fellow student, the consequences for being caught in such an act are severe. What is a noose hanging if nothing more than a death threat? The fact that it is racially tinged is also significant because it stokes the flames of historical black/white antagonisms that can lead to the violent encounters like the ones that the Jena 6 are entangled in. I hear critics of the Jena 6 arguing that the noose-hanging incident is irrelevant to their behavior, but we all know that it is not. I also never hear critics take up the noose hanging episode as a matter of justice and independently critique how that incident was handled by authorities. If the six black boys hadn't assaulted the one white boy, not one critic of the Jena Six would be addressing the noose hanging episode and calling for the harsh administration of justice for white kids who did this. I am convinced it would be a death threat of the most vile kind gone ignored. As I see it, this simple disassociation by critics of events that are clearly interrelated in the whole dynamic of life in Jena these days is, in my view, more evidence of the inequity in how justice is both discussed and administered in this country with regard to racially-charged issues.

I don't defend the violence of the Jena 6. In fact, I abhor it as I do all kinds of violence. There should be punishment meted out to these kids, just like there should be punishment meted out to any person who assault another, whether it be the result of a barroom brawl or a playground fistfight. But the fact is that we do not treat all assaults the same in this country, and the Jena Six case just highlights that often times the different ways assaults are treated are conditioned by race, with the harsher consequences being reserved more often for the darker-skinned.

As an example, it is a damn travesty that the local prosecutor did not bring charges against the white kids who issued death threats in their noose hanging antics against black people by citing that there was no law upon which to base such a prosecution. First off, if he saw the noose hangings as a clear death threat, he'd most certainly have a case. And it tells us something that he didn't see the noose-hangings as the equivalent of a concrete death threat. And second, if his argument is technically correct in that the law has to specify exactly what constitutes a death threat punishable by arrest and prosecution and that noose hanging is not mentioned a specific death threat warranting such a response, then the travesty is that this isn't codified in law. Either way, it shows an inequity in the system of criminal justice that tilts against people strictly and exclusively on the basis of race.

That is what I, and I think most people, see in the Jena Six situation. It is not a question of letting kids who do something wrong skirt and escape responsiblity; but rather it is making sure that skin color doesn't matter at all in how we hold kids accountable and responsible for their bad behaviors.


Don_cos said...

The problem I have with all this is that so many believe that the Jena six should go free, because of the noose incident. My personal take on this is that the noose incident should have been addressed, and those responsible should have been held responsible. However, this does not in any way justify what the Jena six are accused of. If you want to correct injustice, you do it within the law. We have a system set up in this country that allows us to change unjust laws and oust those who fail to uphold the law. If LA does indeed not have any law that could be used to prosecute a death threat, then such a law can be written. And if there is such a law and the prosecutor failed to do his/her job then he/she should receive a nice big Nifong for Christmas.

Huck said...

don_cos - I don't disagree with you. In fact, I agree with you in principle. However, I also know that in the racially-charged environment surrounding the noose-hanging incident and the assault by the Jena six, it is simply not possible to see to two events as distinct and separate. It is racially-motivated tension and violence that binds them. And whether we like it or not, the reality is that this is how all people are viewing it. Neither the Jena 6 attack, nor the noose hanging incidents are really and exclusively about assaults or death threats, but about racial discord. We cannot pretend that this is not what is at the root of this. Those who criticize the Jena 6 want to divorce the noose-hanging event from the assault precisely because they want to disassociate race from their discussions, but at the same time many of these very same critics are attracted to the case because it is precisely about race. How many gang assaults happen in this country? Plenty. How many garner much critical attention? Very few. And those that do, well they always have a particular angle, and this one is race. It's also why black folks are marching in Jena and not in urban slums where gang assaults can be just as vicious, but not about race. It's what makes the Jena 6 incident a hot potato for everyone, and we can't separate that aspect from the case.