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In search of justicePosted Friday, September 21, 2007, at 10:08 AM
Thousands demonstrated Thursday in support of six black Jena, La. high school students charged with beating a white classmate after an incident stemming from who could sit under a campus tree.
"What we need is federal intervention to protect people from Southern injustice," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.
The Associated Press explains the basics well:
"The cause of Thursday's demonstrations dates to August 2006, when a black Jena High School student asked the principal whether blacks could sit under a shade tree that was a frequent gathering place for whites. He was told yes. But nooses appeared in the tree the next day. Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said this week he could find no state law covering the act.
"The incident was followed by fights between blacks and whites, and in December a white student, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious on school grounds. According to court testimony, his face was swollen and bloodied, but he was able to attend a school function that night.
"Six black teens were arrested. Five were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder -- charges that have since been reduced for four of them. (One, Mychal Bell, has found guilty but charges have been dropped after a judge ruled he should have been charged as an juvenile). The sixth was booked as a juvenile on sealed charges."
The AP story doesnt explain that comments made by Barker allegedly sparked the attack. Barker's words and the white students' hanging of the nooses, as wrong as those actions were, assaulted senses and feelings -- not someone else's body.
If the black students weren't acting in self-defense after being struck first or seriously threatened, they had no legal standing to inititate a fight. But I wonder if Jena law enforcement and district attorney Reed Walters chose to overplay this particular incident in order to make a racist "statement."
Meanwhile, the white students who hung the nooses and are the root cause of all that followed received practically no punishment for their actions.
Within the difference in levels of punishment lie cries of "injustice."
But how can you punish a group of people through the court system for their attitudes, as many think should occur?
"It is not and never has been about race," Walters told the Associated Press. "It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions." Walters didn't hold the white students accountable. He claimed he couldn't find any laws under which the white students who hung the nooses could be charged. This comes from a man who, in the Bell trial, claimed tennis shoes are assault weapons when used to kick someone.
Since the nooses weren't supposed to be there, I could see at least a charge of vandalism. How about trespassing? And those nooses could be conceived as a serious threat. People can be easily prosecuted for threats.
At the least, stronger punishment than a three-day suspension should have been levied. Expulsion? No. Once a student's gone, they may never come back, and a chance to convince racists of their wrong attitudes may be lost. That is, if the school system does its job, which seems questionable in this case.
Jena doesn't seem so much a throwback to the 1960s as it does a situation in which everyone involved needs to step back and consider their own actions and attitudes.
For the record, I tend to side with the black students. But, overall, it appears that a few teenagers on both sides need to quickly do some maturing -- and a few adults in official positions need to examine their attitudes.
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David Melson is a copy editor and staff writer for the Times-Gazette.
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