Learning about the Jena 6

I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the Jena 6 over the past few weeks. Most of the time it was in angry emails from viewers (who didn’t appear to be regular viewers anyway), demanding why we weren’t covering the case. Of course, their emails didn’t say why we should be covering it. Nonetheless, my interest was piqued by a video I produced at work a few weeks ago, and I began looking it up.

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s shaedove99, although its not clear if this is THE tree

It appears this started with Jena’s high school tree. A black student (identified as a freshman, connoting that he didn’t know the culture at the school) asked Jena’s high school principal if he could sit under the tree – a usual hangout for white students. The principal told him to sit wherever he wanted, so there the student sat. The next day, there were three nooses hanging from the tree.

(I don’t know about Louisiana, but in California, that would have sparked a riot. You do not play around with a symbol like a noose. Uh uh.)

Instead of being expelled, as recommended by the school’s principal, the students behind the noose stunt/prank received a 3-day in-school suspension, thanks to intervention of the local board of education and superintendent. Thus began the drama.

Obviously, the non-white students (I’m not clear on whether there’s a lot of other ethnicities at this school) didn’t like the “punishment” from the noose stunt/prank, so they reportedly staged a sit-in under the tree in question. Apparently, cops were called in to disperse the protest. Because of the tension between the races and some fights that broke out, the police department asked the parish district attorney to talk to the school. That district attorney urged/threatened an end to the goings-on in response to the noose stunt/prank and famously said, “I can end your lives with the stroke of this pen.” Black students have told others he looked specifically at them while saying it. The district attorney, Walter Reed, has reportedly admitted to saying this, but not to looking at the black students.

(Again, in California? This would never fly. We’ve had plenty of school race riots and racial tension incidents around here, and I can’t think of an instance in which a district attorney would be called in, much less have the gall to say such a thing to anyone, much less black OR white students, even much less to the whole lot of them.)

Things got worse. The school was set on fire and each side accused the other of arson. A black kid was hit by a bottle trying to get into a white party, and a white boy was charged with battery in the incident. A day after the party, a white guy pulled a shotgun an a group of black kids, who wrestled it away from him, ran away and called the police. The kid who had the shotgun away was charged with theft of a firearm, while the kid who pulled the shotgun was not charged.

On December 4, 2006, a white boy was talking about the shotgun incident at the school and was basically jumped by the boy who was charged with the firearm theft, along with five other black boys. The white boy was knocked unconscious, but was OK enough to attend a school event later that night. The six boys who beat him up were ultimately charged with attempted murder.

Did you do a double take? Yeah, so did I when I read that. A school fight blown out of proportion into attempted murder charges.

The case, to the best of my knowledge, finally began making national news when Mychal Bell was convicted by an all-white jury on reduced charges — aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit second-degree battery. The quotable district attorney argued Bell had used his tennis shoes as deadly weapons. A judge found he had been improperly tried as an adult, and threw out the conspiracy charge but let the battery conviction stand. It was later overturned. A new bail hearing for Mychal Bell is set for tomorrow.

Charges on three other kids have also been reduced to similar charges as Bell’s.

Here’s an abbreviated timeline from JenaSix.org. While Seated has a sober accounting of the case and has traveled to Jena to check things out for himself. Jack and Jill Politics has a rightfully indignant post here, criticizing the mainstream media’s coverage of the case.

I work for the mainstream media, and it pains me to say that it has a hard time covering these kinds of stories. Most stories — in general — have a good guy and a bad guy. The people versus the big, bad corporation. The people versus the pedophile. The people versus the big, bad government. But in a case like this — just like the Long Beach Halloween beatings — how can you paint anyone as a bad guy, especially when they happen to be teenagers?

In a case like this, however, it really seems to be a clear-cut case of institutional racism. Who knew it still existed? I guess that’s the crutch of living in a state like California, which is more diverse and and racism is generally more personal and under the radar. But I think its pretty clear to me that Jena’s school board, superintendent and district attorney used the laws according to their own interpretations, with bias and prejudice — completely opposite of the laws that we champion as blind. I think one obvious solution — not THE solution, but an important one needed for change to be effected — would be to move the case out of the state. Hey, district attorney, if the charges stick on a federal level, then what can we do? I doubt they would though. The school board, superintendent and district attorney should also be replaced immediately — blame them for blowing all of this out of proportion.

The LAT last week published its first story (I’m pretty sure) about the case last week. Unfortunately, at least an inch of the story is devoted to how Jena’s residents are tired of the media scrutiny and how the cameras and activists are making them look like bigots:

The noose incident was “nothing more than a bad joke. Whites and blacks stuck their heads in the nooses, poking fun at it,” said Billy Fowler, a local school board member. “The black students — it caused some tension for them, I’m sure, but it’s not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.”

Fowler said that though he and many others agreed that the Jena Six were being excessively punished, many had lost sympathy for the boys because of damage to the town’s reputation.

“If they’d kept their mouths shut, they might have gotten those charges taken off,” he said. “But with the way this town’s been done wrong, I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”

Fowler and others assert that there’s no direct connection between the noose incident and the later beating, a position supported by U.S. Atty. Donald Washington, who has been reviewing the case for possible federal intervention.

Oh, I’m sure the charges would have been taken off if they’d kept their mouths shut. Right.
< /sarcasm>

And no direct connection between the noose stunt/prank and the racial tension that led to the beating? Right. Maybe we should commission a study on how the sight of a noose affect black people. We could add it to the thousands of other duh studies that are done around the world all the time, studying how French fries make people fat and how women do more housework than men. Maybe federal intervention wouldn’t be such a good thing after all. How about moving the case to an entirely different state — up north?

My views are mine and not those of my employers. And I am publishing this on my day off. Thank you for your time! :)

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