Jena: Justice in recess

by Beacon Staff • September 26, 2007

Sadly, the "Jena Six" case proves that racism today can still be overt, and that the justice system meant to protect citizens is the most brutal offender of all.,It is a legacy most Americans thought long dead-a shameful past but no longer a modern reality.

Sadly, the "Jena Six" case proves that racism today can still be overt, and that the justice system meant to protect citizens is the most brutal offender of all.

The story of the Six began on a high school campus in late Aug. 2006 in Jena, La. A black student asked a school administrator permission to sit under "the white tree," where white students congregated. Black students typically gathered by the auditorium on another side of campus.

The next morning, several nooses were hung from the tree. According to The Chicago Tribune, Jena High superintendent Roy Breithaupt dismissed the incident. "Adolescents play pranks," Breithaupt said.

Three white students were briefly suspended for the act. Boys will be boys.

In the following months, Jena witnessed racially charged incidents, threats and accusations. School assemblies erupted into heated arguments between blacks and whites, a campus arson fire was blamed on blacks by whites and visa versa, and racial assaults were committed at weekend parties. One black student, Robert Bailey, said he was beaten up when he tried to attend a mostly white party with some friends.

Then things erupted.

According to NPR, after the incident, "a white student named Justin Barker was bragging loudly to friends in a school hallway that Bailey had been whipped by a white man on Friday night."

Later that day, Barker was beaten unconscious by six black students, including Bailey. The hospital released Barker later the same day and he attended the school's ring ceremony.

While the attack on Barker was reprehensible, the crime pales in comparison to subsequent offenses by the state of Louisiana.

The six boys, dubbed the "Jena Six," were charged with attempted murder. Five of the defendents were over 16 years old and were tried as adults. One of the Six has gone to trial, where he was found guilty of assault and battery by an all-white jury and faced the possibility of 22 years in prison.

Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the ruling, but the student remains in prison while the prosecution appeals.

An estimated 15,000 people demonstrated in Jena last week to protest the injustices of the case.

"That's not prosecution, that's persecution," said Rev. Jesse Jackson at the rally.

The Jena Six case is more than a persecution. It harkens back to a time when the KKK terrorized black communities and Jim Crow was both philosophy and law. In many parts of the country, young Americans are brought up to believe that racism is manifested today by more subtle means.

"Racism's still alive, they just be concealin' it," raps popular, grammy-winning artist Kanye West.

It's an easy line to believe when the most notable recent controversies involving race are idiotic comments by the loquacious Sen. Joe Biden. In his ill-coceived remarks, Biden called Barack Obama "articulate" and "clean."

But things are not subtle in Jena. When nooses hung from trees leads to a suspension; and a beating by high schoolers leads to decades in prison, it should be acknowledged that racial problems in America go far beyond political incorrectness.

This country has made great progress on civil rights, but there is much work to be done when the words "Louisiana justice" mean little more in 2007 than they did in 1957.