Al Sharpton was in Jena yesterday to speak at Trout Creek Baptist Church. Sharpton’s primary contribution to the fight is to put some steel into the backbones of Jena’s more trepidatious black residents–the folks who, up till now, have been unwilling to attend our public meetings. We witnessed the same fear-rooted reserve among Tulia’s more respectable African American citizens.
Mary Foster’s telling of the Jena story goes something like this: white kids hang nooses; black kids get pissed off and beat the crap out of white kids.
This version of the story leaves out several crucial developments and encourages a fruitless debate over the relative demerits of hanging nooses and a one-sided school fight. The reader concludes that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and moves on.
The real problem, as Sharpton realizes, is our two-tier system of justice: one tier for the Scooter Libbys, the Paris Hiltons, the Duke Lacrosse players, and the noose hangers; another tier for unconnected poor people. Calling it black justice and white justice is a bit over the top–but just a bit. Visit any prison or jail and you will immediately understand that our two-tier justice system disproportianately affects African Americans.
Friends of Justice calls this two-tier system “The New Jim Crow”. Poor whites are victimized by this new regime even more than middle class blacks, but the real losers are poor, uneducated black people who can’t afford a real attorney. Juries see a low-status defendant and ask what this one did; the presumption of innocence simply doesn’t apply.
I would have preferred to see Al Sharpton throwing his weight behind these kids five months ago; but we’ll take any support we can get, and we’ll take it when we get it. “Did you think you were going to lock up our sons and stain their names, and we would do nothing?” Rev. Sharpton asks. Well, forgive me for blowing my own horn, but that’s precisely what would have happened if Friends of Justice hadn’t alerted the world to this case.
On the other hand, I can’t do what Rev. Sharpton did yesterday in Jena. I have spoken from the pulpit of Trout Creek church about the plight of the Jena 6. The response was warm and respectful, but I didn’t get the kind of reaction Al received, and I never will. We need people like Al Sharpton in this fight even if, as his detractors claim, he is just chasing the cameras so he can be in the picture.
We also need Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus and any other prominent group or individual willing to travel to Jena.
In racially tense La. town, Rev. Al Sharpton takes the pulpit
|8/5/2007, 3:14 p.m. CDTBy MARY FOSTER
The Associated Press
JENA, La. (AP) — Shortly after meeting with a teen jailed for beating a white schoolmate, the Rev. Al Sharpton on Sunday told the congregation of a small Baptist church that they must not rest until justice is handed down evenly in this little town.
“You can’t have black justice and white justice,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said 17-year-old Mychal Bell, who was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, was a “a fine young man. His situation is tragic and despicable.”
Sharpton and an entourage of three dozen religious and civil rights leaders met with Bell, who faces up to 22 years in prison, for about 15 minutes at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse. “We had a good visit and prayed together,” Sharpton said. Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting.
Later, Sharpton preached the sermon at the Trout Creek Baptist Church. Marchers outside before the services carried signs with slogans supporting the six teens accused of beating a white student at Jena High School in December 2006. The six have become known locally as the Jena Six.
“I had spoken to Rev. Sharpton about the situation here, the injustice, and he said he wanted to come and support us,” said Rev. Roger Green, pastor of the church.
A standing-room-only crowd numbering in the hundreds enthusiastically applauded as Sharpton took the pulpit at the modest brick church on the city’s west side.
Greeted with popping flashbulbs and rock-star cheers, Sharpton told the predominantly black congregation, “I came to join with those that struggle. We must stand together for what’s right.”
Four of the Jena Six and their parents stood and received a standing ovation.
“You cannot have two levels of justice,” he said. “Some boys assault people and are charged with nothing. Some boys hang nooses and finish the school year. And some boys are charged with attempted murder.”
“I did not come to Jena to start trouble,” Sharpton said. “I came to Jena to stop trouble.” Sharpton said he would keep coming back to the town “until they leave our young men alone. In 2007, we will come and we will keep coming until justice rains down like water,” he said.
In comments directed at District Attorney Reed Walters who is prosecuting the Jena Six, Sharpton said, “Did you think you were going to lock up our sons and stain their names, and we would do nothing? You can’t sit in the courthouse and have one rule for white kids and one for black kids.”
Walters did not return a call for comment left on an answering machine at his residential number. No one answered Sunday at his office.
Sharpton’s visit provided inspiration to black residents of Jena, said Louise Jenkins, 41, a Headstart teacher and member of the church choir. “It was very inspirational,” Jenkins said. “It showed us that we as a people need to stick together.”
Outside, police lined the streets. No disturbances were reported.
Jena, a town of 3,000, is mostly white with about 350 black residents. Residents said race relations had been sensitive though not explosive until incidents began unfolding last fall at Jena High School.
The morning after a black student sat under a tree on campus where white students traditionally congregated, three nooses — unmistakable lynching symbols in the old South — were hung in the tree.
Students accused of placing them were suspended from the school for a short period, but tensions increased. Fights between black and white students were reported on and off campus.
Then on Dec. 4, six black students were accused of jumping Justin Barker, 18, who is white, and beating and kicking him.
A motive for the attack was never established. Barker was treated at a hospital emergency room and pictures shown during Bell’s trial showed him swollen and cuts to his face.
He was released after three hours, he said, and that same evening went to a school function. But he said he took pain medicine for about a week and a half.
Bell, a star football player who was being courted by UCLA and Louisiana State University, was tried on reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He was found guilty and faces up to 22 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled Sept. 20.
Trials for Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones and Theodore Shaw — all 18 — who still face attempted murder and conspiracy charges, and an unidentified juvenile — have not been set.
The charges sparked outrage in the black community, drawing attention from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now monitoring the cases, Sharpton and others.
Sharpton told the Trout Creek congregation that the controversy is drawing attention from national black leaders, including Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Linda Thomas, 51, a teacher, drove almost 75 miles from her home in Bunkie, La. to hear Sharpton and support the Jena teens.
“I think this will keep people from being afraid anymore. I think they will gather strength from it and pull together to see that justice is really done.”