If for some reason, you’ve missed the the controversy about the half-dozen black kids, known now as the Jena Six, here’s a fast rundown from a column by Trey Ellis.
The Jena 6 case began last fall when a new black student to the mostly white, rural Louisiana town of Jena sat under the “white tree,” so called because it was the place where the white kids at school congregated.
The next day three white boys on the rodeo team hung three nooses from the tree.
The white boys were only given an in-school suspension, their act deemed no more than a “prank.”
The day after that several of the school’s black high school football stars organized a peaceful silent protest under the tree. The school freaked, called in the police and the next day Reed Walters, the local D.A., addressed the school. There, he is reported to have looked at the black kids in the audience, waved his pen in the air and said, “With a stroke of this pen, I can make your life disappear.”
The football season was a good one for Jena and for a few months there was relative quiet in the town. Then on November 30th, a wing of the high school was burned down. Whites thought it was blacks and the blacks assumed it was the whites.
Wayne Goodman of NPR, has a detailed description of what happened after that:
The next night, 16-year-old Robert Bailey and a few black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. When Bailey got inside, he was attacked and beaten. The next day, tensions escalated at a local convenience store. Bailey exchanged words with a white student who had been at the party. The white boy ran back to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip shotgun. Bailey ran after him and wrestled him for the gun.
After some scuffling, Bailey and his friends took the gun away and brought it home. Bailey was eventually charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.
The following Monday, Dec.4, a white student named Justin Barker was loudly bragging to friends in the school hallway that Robert Bailey had been whipped by a white man on Friday night. When Barker walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by a group of black students. The first punch knocked Barker out and he was kicked several times in the head. But the injuries turned out to be superficial. Barker was examined by doctors and released; he went out to a social function later that evening.
Six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. But District Attorney Reed Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder.
Since that time, some charges have been reduced, last Friday, one boy’s adult conviction was successfully challenged on appeal, and there have been other legal developments in the individual cases. (Here’s a legal time line.)
I ‘ve been following the Jena case these past months but haven’t blogged about it because, to be honest, such cases of unequal treatment occur in both the juvenile and adult justice system all too often. When it comes to justice, we still have—as John Edwards puts it—two Americas, in part separated by race, in part—as the O. J. Simpson trial demonstrated to us more than a decade ago—by class.
But, in the end, the Jena incident has captured the imagination and the conscience of so many—me included—less because of the unjust treatment of the six young men, then because of a tree. I’ve quoted John Edwards above, so I’ll keep with the trend and quote him again, as yesterday’s statement cut to the heart of the matter:
When a ‘white tree’ stands outside a public school, marking a place where white students sit but black students are not welcome, there is something so wrong that the right words are hard to find. When children have learned to intimidate each other with age-old, hateful symbols of racial terror, we are reminded that we cannot take progress for granted.
Fortunately, we also still have in this country the desire for racial justice, understanding and tolerance….
Well, yes. And these are the two realities we must hold up today, one in each hand:
In one hand, the knowledge that, in too many areas, racial and class divides still cripple us.
In the other hand, the knowledge that, as a nation, we do have have better angels if we can only truly heed them:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...”
Time, once again, to challenge ourselves to act as if the truth was really true.