Category: Uncategorized

Take Your Nooses Down: Mellencamp’s Jena Song

John Mellencamp has released a new song inspired by Jena’s famous noose incident.  Produced by the gifted T-Bone Burnett, the song is reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”.  In other words, it’s a throw-back.  The lyrics, by pop standards, are pretty well-written, and the hook is infectious; but it is the accompanying video that has folks in Jena upset.

Jena’s mayor, Murphy R. McMillin, laments that “The town of Jena has for months been mischaracterized in the media and portrayed as the epicenter of hatred, racism and a place where justice is denied.”  Black-and-white images of freedom marches, Martin Luther King Jr., lynchings, and white supremacy placards from the 1960s, McMillin suggests, merely underscore Jena’s ill-deserved reputation as the haunt of all evil.

“I do not want to diminish the impression that the hanging of the nooses has had on good people,” McMillin told the Associated Press in a carefully worded statement. “I do recognized that what happened is insulting and hurtful.”

But, he said, “To put the incident in Jena in the same league as those who were murdered in the 1960s cheapens their sacrifice and insults their memory.”

Perhaps Mr. McMillin has a point.  The video is a bit over-the-top.  Moreover, it deflects attention from the disastrous handing of the noose incident by adults to the behavior of adolescent school children.  Reed Walters and Roy Breithaupt’s treated the noose hangers as innocent pranksters while signalling that the behavior of black parents and students who protested the noose incident was irresponsible and inflammatory. 

White residents, if the Jena Timesis anything to go by, thought Reed and Roy had it right on both counts.  Black residents were left with the impression that public officials had given their tacit approval to a message of hate.  When concerned parents attempted to share their views with the local school board, they were refused a hearing.  Finally allowed to make a brief presentation, the parents met with stoney silence.  Only the single black member of the school board thanked them for coming.

Viewed against the backdrop of these well-documented facts, John Mellencamp’s take on Jena isn’t so easy to dismiss.  At the very least, Jena authorities revealed an appalling lack of racial sensitivity.  Mayor McMillin assures the outside world that Jena residents hate the  noose symbol every bit as much as John Mellencamp.  White Jena, the mayor suggests, feels the pain of black Jena, and always has. 

We’ll see if Mr. Mellencamp (and the 30,000 people who visited Jena on September 20th) can be convinced of that.  I’m not betting the rent money.

A missed opportunity ignites a racial uproar

Jason Whitlock suggests that Friends of Justice “spoon-fed” our version of the Jena story to the media.  In reality, reporters like Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune carefully corroborated every detail of our initial narrative; nothing was accepted at face value, nor should it have been. 

But there’s more.  Until recently, essential elements of our narrative have been largely ignored.  This op-ed from USA Today, “In Louisiana, a missed opportunity ignites a racial uproar,” suggests that the horrendous events of late November and early December might have been avoided if Reed Walters, Roy Breithaupt and the local school board had done their jobs properly back in September.  Friends of Justice has been saying this from the beginning.  The puzzle pieces don’t snap into place until this connection is made.

Defining Ourselves as a People

This story from CNN deals with a series of Jena-like noose hanging incidents currently afflicting the Coast Guard.  It could be argued that without all the attention to the Jena 6 we wouldn’t have racist whites hanging nooses.  I suspect this is true.

Tragically, racist acts and racist speech are part of the unfolding conversation.  America has a lot of bigots and, shroaded beneath the white sheet of internet anonymity, they are becoming more vocal.  These folk need to be lured out of the shadows into the bright light of day where they can be denounced and repudiated.  They have a right to their opinions, but the rest of us, particularly those in positions of power, have the responsibility to say no.  Only so do we define ourselves as a people. 

____________

Coast Guard tries to deal with noose incidents 

(CNN) — The head of the U.S. Coast Guard and a congressman planned to travel to the Coast Guard Academy on Thursday to speak to cadets about the discovery this summer of two small hangman’s nooses on Coast Guard properties.

“These are going to be our future leaders. The last thing you want are your leaders not being tolerant,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, told CNN before heading for the academy with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.

A 6-inch string tied as a noose was found in an African-American cadet’s sea bag in July while he was serving aboard the historic tall ship Eagle.

And during race-relations training in August — set up in response to the first incident — a white female civil rights instructor found a small noose in her office at the academy in New London, Connecticut.

Initial investigations failed to discover who was responsible. Last week, after the incidents became public, academy superintendent Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe ordered the Coast Guard Investigative Service to investigate further.

People found to be involved could be prosecuted under military law, he said in a written statement.

An academy spokesman, Chief Warrant Officer David French, said Burhoe is expanding race relations training to all staff members at the academy, and has contacted the community and the NAACP for assistance.

Cummings said he would have a message for the cadets when he addressed them on Thursday.

“I want to say to them that they should not tolerate it amongst themselves, because they will be judged by their weakest link,” he said. “So far we haven’t found out who did this, but I think they can help us find this person.”

The noose incidents were first reported last week in The Day newspaper in New London.

The reports came amid a rash of incidents around the country involving nooses and their grim symbolism.

The so-called “Jena 6” case began about a year ago when white students in a small Louisiana town hung nooses from a schoolyard tree after black students sat under it.

Last month, two teenagers were arrested in nearby Alexandria, Louisiana, after driving through town with nooses hanging from their pickup truck, the night after a protest march brought thousands of demonstrators to Jena.

In Hempstead, Long Island, a suburb of New York, a noose was found Friday hanging in the locker room at a police station. Community leaders called for an investigation into that incident.

“The noose, to African Americans, is a symbol of hatred and it takes us back to the times when African-American people were being hung from trees for no reason at all,” Cummings said. “And so it’s a very offensive kind of thing.”

The Coast Guard Academy has about 980 cadets, about 14 percent of whom are minorities. African Americans make up about 4 percent of the corps.

We Don’t Sweep Things Under the Rug Here

The ultimate mission of Friends of Justice is to shift the climate of opinion in the direction of tolerance and equality under the law. This story from the Shreveport Times suggests that positive changes are beginning to emerge out of the messy tumult surrounding the Jena 6 saga.  “We don’t sweep things under the rug here,” a Louisiana University President declares.   After Jena, that is a wise policy.

_______

ULM president: Students to be exposed to more cultural sensitivity

October 4, 2007

By Chris Day
cday@thenewsstar.com

University of Louisiana at Monroe officials say students throughout the academic year will be exposed to more opportunities for a dialogue on cultural sensitivity.

ULM President James Cofer said various programs, speakers and focus groups are on the agenda as the university responds to a recent online video posting with racist footage that gained national attention after a ULM freshman posted it on Facebook.

“We don’t sweep things under rugs here,” Cofer said. “We need to learn on a whole number of levels from this experience.”

The online video was shot by pre-nursing freshman Kristy Smith and placed originally on her personal Facebook page, from which it circulated around the Web to sites including YouTube and The Smoking Gun.

In the video, Smith’s friends in swimsuits re-enact the December school fight in which six black Jena High School students left white student Justin Barker unconscious.

In the video, Smith’s female friend and two unidentified males cover themselves in dark mud on the beach. A third male runs onto the beach holding a noose in his hand, and the others pretend to kick and punch him amid abusive racial epithets.

University officials discovered the video on the Web on Monday morning. They responded with a Tuesday afternoon news conference and a Tuesday evening forum in Brown Theater for students to express their opinions.

Officials estimate more than 500 students were in attendance.

Media relations director Laura Harris verified Wednesday that while Smith videotaped her friends that day on the Red River in Alexandria, someone actually in the video footage is also a ULM student.

“Students make mistakes,” Cofer said. “I think this was a callous and irresponsible act “» that does not reflect the behavior of the other students on this campus.”

Cofer described the cultural insensitivity of the students involved, their underage drinking and the Web posting all as “problematic.”

“We will use this as a learning experience for all of the university students,” Cofer said. “Our students will not let this define them.”

Cofer said faculty members are encouraging class discussions within the framework of their academic disciplines.

“How does this fit within kinesiology? How does this fit within criminal justice?” Cofer said. “These discussions are taking place in our classes right now.”

Students agreed the Tuesday night forum was a good first step in encouraging a dialogue on racial issues.

Child development sophomore Angel Delandro, who saw the online video last weekend, said she went to the forum “to see what everyone else’s opinion was” after hearing about it from a friend.

“It was a good effort, but they could’ve had it in a bigger venue,” said Delandro, who is black. “It looked good for them to do it so soon, but it should’ve been put off a few days. It would’ve had a bigger impact if more people knew about it.”

To encourage as many students as possible to attend the forum, Wayne Brumfield, Student Affairs vice president, created a Facebook account to correspond with the Facebook groups established following the video’s posting.

Various athletic groups were told by their coaches to attend the forum.

ULM cheerleader Markeysha Wilson said she was told to attend.

“Not everyone’s true feelings were stated in that forum,” the finance sophomore said. “If someone there was racist, he or she wouldn’t have gotten up and said that. And you can’t punish a girl for what she believes.”

Nursing sophomore Jazmine Agee said that no matter what the university does from this point forward, “it’s not going to make any students wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m not racist.’ Changing your beliefs — only the person can do that.”

“There’s not much the university can do,” music education sophomore Doug Bennett said. “It really had nothing to do with the school itself. The best the university could do is confront the students involved and ask for an apology.”

Kristy Smith claimed Tuesday that while she filmed her friends’ actions, she is not racist. She said she has as many black friends as white friends.

Smith would not return calls Wednesday.

The Law Report: Responding to a Hate Crime

The October 2nd edition of NPR’s The Law Report demonstrates that not all supporters of the Jena 6 favor the same response to Jena’s infamous noose incident.  Members of the old civil rights vanguard (La. NAACP President Ernest Johnson, Al Sharpton) believe that the noose hangers should have been prosecuted as hate criminals.  Alan Bean (me) disagrees.  True, the hanging of nooses is a hate crime.  But focusing on the nooses per se deflects attention from the men who transformed a teachable moment into a tacit reaffirmation of the color line. 

Reed Walters condemned and threatened black students for protesting the school system’s pathetic response to the noose incident.  Now he is prosecuting these same kids for their alleged involvement in an assault that would have been unthinkable had Mr. Walters said what should have been said three months earlier. That’s why I rose to the defense of the Jena 6. 

What good would it do to turn the noose boys into felons?  Who would profit from that?  Society?  How, precisely?

Forcing Mr. Walters to answer for his bizarre ethical lapse (and the Pandora’s box of fury it unleashed) would be more to the point.

The only restorative response to the nooses was expulsion (the same penalty Justin Barker received for bringing a loaded weapon to the Jena High School campus) followed by (and this is the important part) a mandated K-12 course in sensitivity training including detailed attention to slavery, Jim Crow America, and the loathesome practice of lynching. 

Given the social realities in Jena, this suggestion is unrealistic.  But that’s just the problem.

___________________

Damien Carrick: Let’s now shift our focus to another part of the world, where people have also been demonstrating against the justice system. Louisiana, USA, where a prosecution has exposed raw racial tensions and erupted into a huge national controversy.

Jena, Louisiana, has a population of 3,000, the vast majority are white. The small town in the Deep South has become the centre of a huge legal controversy. Two weeks ago, thousands of black protesters from all over America converted on Jena to protest what they see as the unfair prosecution of six young men, who are facing charges of attempted murder.

Well last Friday, 17-year-old Mychal Bell, who was the last of the six behind bars, was released on bail after spending ten months in jail. He and the other five will still face trial in a juvenile court.

The young men, and the controversy around them, have become known as ‘The Jena 6’, and the case has sparked a national debate about racism in the south, and the use of race hate laws. Sharona Coutts reports.

Sharona Coutts: Late last year, three white nooses appeared, hanging from a tree in a playground at Jena High School, that was known among the students as the White Tree.

The nooses weren’t the first sign of tension at the school, where 80 per cent of students are white, and 15 per cent are black. But they set off a chain of events that propelled this tiny town into the national spotlight.

The trouble started at a school assembly when a black student asked whether he could sit under the white tree. The school’s principal said yes but a few days later, the nooses appeared.

In the days that followed, black students staged a protest under the tree. Alan Bean is a pastor who also runs a civil rights group called Friends of Justice. They were one of the first groups to get involved in the case of the Jena 6.

Alan Bean: Things got so bad at the school in the next few days that they had to have a virtual lock down at the campus. There were police officers patrolling the school campus, parents were coming to pick up their children, and for the next few months there was a steadily escalating round of violent encounters between the black football players and some of the friends of the young men who had hung the nooses.

Sharona Coutts: The school suspended the students who had put up the nooses for three days, but Alan Bean says the trouble didn’t stop there.

Alan Bean: In late November somebody burned down the central academic wing of the school. And what happened was that in the wake of that fire, it just seemed to lance a wound, and all of this crazy stuff started coming out.

Sharona Coutts: Things came to a head when a black student decided to go to a dance which was predominantlyfor white s. When he arrived, the white students attacked him.

A few days later, a group of black kids overheard some whites joking about the attack, and another fight broke out. This time, though, instead of suspensions, the black students were charged with conspiracy and attempted murder, offences that could have put them behind bars for up to 25 years. Two weeks ago, up to 30,000, mostly black people marched in Jena to protest against the charges.

The Reverend Al Sharpton was there.

Al Sharpton: It’s trouble for us if we pay the same taxes, fight in the same wars, stand up in the same county, and our sons can’t get the same justice your sons get. [Applause]. These young boys should not have a stain on their career and their future, if the others don’t have one on theirs.

Sharona Coutts: That’s a sentiment widely shared in the black and civil rights communities. It’s not that the boys did nothing wrong. But, say protesters, it’s unfair that they were charged with attempted murder after what was essentially a schoolyard fight, when the whites who put up the nooses on the trees, got away with a slap on the wrist.

Ernest Johnson heads up the Louisian branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NAACP. He is one of many who argue that the white kids should have been charged with some type of hate crime.

Ernest Johnson: If nothing else you would have had an attempted hate crime charge. And this is like having an attempted murder, or an attempted theft. You have the actual act itself, or you have the attempt to perform the act. And so the hanging of those nooses were an attempted hate crime. And they should have been charged. And they’ve already consented that they did it. They considered it a prank. But if you pull a gun on a person in an attempt to kill em, and then you just say you were playing games, I mean at what point do you determine that they were playing games or not playing games. I think that’s something to be determined in a court of law.

Sharona Coutts: But some of the family members, and the people who’ve worked closely with them, disagree. Head of Friends of Justice, Alan Bean, says that charging the white kids with hate crimes would have made them scapegoats for the parents, teachers and other city officials who allowed the intimidation to occur.

Alan Bean: Obviously we needed a strong disciplinary response to that act, but the response should have been primarily educational. What really needed to happen was to institute a thorough going program of education that dealt with the racial history of America, particularly in the southern states, that dealt with the whole ugly legacy of Jim Crow, complete with lynching, so that these kids would understand the gravity of what they had done,

Sharona Coutts: As well as highlighting these gaps in the education syllabus,the case of Jena 6 has also exposed a gap in race hate laws. According to the Louisiana district attorney, there were no laws to cover any of the provocative incidents involved.

Columbia law professor, Jack Greenberg, has a long history in civil rights law. He was one of the lawyers who argued Brown versus Board of Education, the case that desegregated schools back in 1954. He says the way that race hate laws work in the States means that they have a limited scope.

Jack Greenberg: The courts have upheld a penalty for race hate if is part of a crime such as burning a cross on somebody’s lawn…the arson, since it has a racial component, it would add an additional penalty for race hate. But you just could not have a crime such as race hate. I don’t think it makes much sense, but that’s the way it has developed and that’s the way it is.

Sharona Coutts: What about the argument that some of the behaviour almost amounted to incitement — incitement to a riot, that sort of thing?

Jack Greenberg: Well I think incitement implies something more proactive and more affirmative. The nooses…maybe at the time they were being put up that might have been an incitement, but they were just hanging there.

Sharona Coutts: What about the fact that in this case it did lead to a fight?

Jack Greenberg: Well the fight I understand came quite a long while after, maybe many months after the nooses were originally put up, so to say the nooses were an incitement to the fight is a little bit of a stretch.

Sharona Coutts: The question now is how the residents of Jena, are going to put their community back together in the wake of such a bitter and public fight. Tina Jones’s son, Bryant, was one of the boys who were charged.

Tina Jones: You know I’m not sure we can. I don’t know, because with me and my son, he’s been scarred and also I’ve been scarred because Bryant had absolutely nothing to do with anything that happened previously before this fight actually took place. The only thing that Bryant participated in was standing under the all white tree. If that’s considered wrong. But, you know, and also, you get your threatening calls, and your hatemail, so you know, I don’t know if we can ever heal from it.

Sharona Coutts: Jones’s son, Bryant, is still facing charges of attempted murder. His court hearing is scheduled for early November.

Damien Carrick: That story was from Sharona Coutts, reporting from New York.

And the FBI is investigating both the threatening phone calls and the KKK websites that listed the addresses and photos of all the boys involved.

 

Guests

Pastor Alan Bean
Head of US civil rights group, Friends of Justice

Ernest Johnson,
Head, Louisian branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NAACP

Jack Greenberg,
Professor of Law, Columbia University

Tina Jones,
mother of Bryant, one of the Jena six boys who were charged.

Presenter

Damien Carrick

Producer

Anita Barraud

Reporter

Sharona Coutts

A Tortured Conversation

This brief article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune details a nasty incident in which a number of college students smeared mud on their faces, chanted racial epithets, and pretended to be the Jena 6.  This theatrical production made a brief appearance on YouTube.com before being yanked.

One of the young women involved in the episode burst into tears while being interviewed.  She insisted that she isn’t racist and pointed to her many black friends as confirmation. 

I wonder if any of her black friends were involved in the Jena 6 stunt.  I suspect not.

If the young student isn’t a racist, why did she get wrapped up in this spiteful pantomime? 

Nationwide support for the Jena 6 baffles a lot of white people.  They have grown accustomed to seeing poor, black defendants herded through the criminal justice system with silent efficiency.  The suggestion that the authorities have portrayed a group of normal high school football players as hardened thugs is disquieting.  Those with little personal acquaintance with law enforcement or the inside of a courtroom want to believe in the system is fair.  Or, if it isn’t fair, they don’t want to know about it. 

But back to my question: why did this young woman and a group of normal, apparently well-adjusted college friends, get caught up in such a tawdry exhibition? 

It’s called pack behavior.  No one likes to stand alone.  Adolescents are particularly prone to group-think.  The boys who hung the nooses in Jena weren’t evil; they just didn’t want to socialize with black students. It is possible that no one in the group felt good about the noose hanging idea; but nobody had the guts, or the moral grounding, to take a stand on principle. 

Racial equality, as an ideal, has few outspoken advocates in Jena.  If pressed on the point, most white residents would endorse the concept–in a formal, abstract fashion.  But I doubt there are many parents who sit down with their kids and emphasize that all children, red and yellow, black and white, are precious in the sight of Jesus (to paraphrase an old Sunday School song). 

My parents did that for me on a regular basis.  Several teachers championed the idea of racial equality during my school years.   Had the-girl-who-isnt-a-racist received the kind of explicit and repeated training from her parents, her church and her school teachers that could have averted this episode?  I hope so; but I doubt it.

The noose episode, the assault on Robert Bailey at the Fair Barn and the assault on Justin Barker at Jena High School are also examples of pack behavior.  One kid made a tragic decision and his buddies followed suit.  It’s about maintaining group solidarity. 

Kids can be cruel; we all know that from experience.  That’s why adult supervision must be constant, consistant and rooted in the principles of fairness and equality. 

I have made a few passing references to The Lord of the Flies, the William Golding novel published in 1954.  The book is open to a variety of interpretations, but on the most prosaic level, it is a story about boys trying to make their way without adult guidance or a clear moral vision. 

The tragic events in Jena followed a similar plot line.  Grown-ups could have intervened in the wake of the noose hanging, but they did not.  Actually, by dismissing the incident as a childish prank, adults fed the flames.

 The noose incident called for the re-affirmation of values that did not exist in Jena in any clear and explicit way. 

I have repeatedly asserted that Jena is America.  Actually, in many respects, Jena is better than America.  Residents are unusually friendly and polite (even after being beseiged by hundreds of reporters and camera crews).  Most adults genuinely want to live up to the highest ideals of their religion.  I do not say that dismissively.

But in a deeper sense, Jena is America.  Imagine a civic leader in Jena demanding that the school system respond to the noose incident with a K-12 program of diversity and tolerance training beginning with teachers and administrators.  The proposal would have been shouted down. 

Now imagine Hillary Clinton offering a similar proposal as a central plank of her primary race.  Just imagine the vitriol on talk radio and the blogosphere!  Clinton’s candidacy would be DOA within hours of making such a proposal.  Jena is America.

Friends of Justice wants to shift the national mood in the direction of mutual tolerance and respect.  We intervened on behalf of the Jena 6 because we feared a grave injustice was in the works.  But we also believed that the Jena story could spark a national conversation on the relationship between race, poverty and the criminal justice system.

Given the polarized and poisonous state of race relations in America, we had no illusions that this conversation would begin well.  When estranged marriage partners finally get around to addressing long-suppressed issues, the air generally fills with invective and high-decibel ranting. 

The initial stages of the conversation over Jena have mirrored this pattern.

But the initial explosion of emotion in a good maritial fight is usually followed by honest acknowledgment of pain and fear.  We haven’t gotten to that point in the Jena conversation.  Not yet. 

But this is a process.  The Jena story can lead to genuine social learning, but we are still at the kindergarten stage.  Much of the talk (on both sides) has been angry and ugly; but at least we’re talking.  My rhetoric has been overheated at times, but I make no apology for that; I’m learning right alongside everyone else.  The Jena story has much to teach us; I pray we will learn our lesson well.

The Black Agenda Report

The latest edition of the Black Agenda Reportrefers to the recent march on Jena as a baby step in the direction of a new mass movement.  Serious policy wonks need to read this document.  In the build-up to Jena, the report asserts, Black opinion leaders were followers, not leaders.  Furthermore, the Jena phenomenon was a protest against the “carceral state” sociologist Loïc Wacquant has eloquently described:

The prison and the criminal justice system… contribute to the ongoing reconstruction of the ‘imagined community’ of Americans around the polar opposition between praiseworthy ‘working families’—implicitly white, suburban, and deserving—and the despicable ‘underclass’ of criminals, loafers, and leeches… personified by the dissolute teenage ‘welfare mother’ on the female side and the dangerous street ‘gang banger’ on the male side—by definition dark-skinned, urban and undeserving. The former are exalted as the living incarnation of genuine American values, self-control, deferred gratification, subservience of life to labour; the latter is vituperated as the loathsome embodiment of their abject desecration, the ‘dark side’ of the ‘American dream’ of affluence and opportunity for all…  And the line that divides them is increasingly being drawn, materially and symbolically, by the prison. 

Sadly, many of the reptilian comments we have been receiving at Friends of Justice reflect this tragic bifurcation. 

The Black Agenda Report argues that if there is to be another mass movement in America it must be organized around “the black consensus”.   

While majorities of all Americans do believe in universal health care, the right to organize unions, high quality public education, a living wage, and that retirement security available to everyone ought to be government policy, and many even believe America is locking up too many people for too long, support for these propositions is virtually unanimous among African Americans. 

So far, so good.  Wacquant’s analysis proved helpful to me when I was trying to make sense of what was happening in Tulia, Texas, and it also illuminates the black-white split over Jena.  Unfortunately, the “mass movement” concept fails to account for the profound shift from an Old Jim Crow regime (which applied to exemplars like Rosa Parks) and a New Jim Crow (which, as Wacquant suggests, is primarily aimed at folks like Mychal Bell). 

The Old Jim Crow crumbled because most white Americans knew it was unacceptable and could be shamed into acting on this knowledge.  The New Jim Crow is more intractable.  Jena shows that Black America (at least the folks under 30) understand the problem.  The backlash to the Jena rally suggests that white America still doesn’t get it.

Several readers have suggested that I have it in for white people.  Not so.  I am a white people.  Moreover, until a whole lot of white people embrace “the Black consensus”, the carceral state Wacquant describes will continue to expand.  We need to reach out to Middle America; and that means reaching out to white folks and moderate-to-conservative black professionals.  That means interacting with the “personal responsibility” and “cult of victimization” arguments presented by people like Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Bill Cosby and . . . yes, I’ll say it, Jason Whitlock.  

The trick is to keep more than one contributing factor in view.  The “cult of victimization” folks refuse to acknowlege the emergence of Wacquant’s sinister carceral state; criminal justice reformers typically refuse to acknowledge the relevance of personal responsibility.  So long as everyone is screaming soundbites and bumper sticker slogans, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Showtime for Justin Barker and the Jena 6

Dr. Phil has decided to fix Jena.  Here and here you can access blow-by-blow recapitulations of the programs from Friday and Monday.  Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Dallas-based megachurch pastor who shares Dr. Phil’s “attitude is everything” philosophy, recently traveled to Jena to interview family members of the Jena 6.  Back in the studi0, Dr. Phil chats with Justin Barker and his parents.

The psychologist and the pastor want to see some “restorative justice”.  If only Justin Barker could sit down with Robert Bailey Jr., Mychal Bell and the other Jena 6 defendants, maybe, just maybe, they could work all of this out on their own.

Bad idea. 

In the course of a mid-June hearing in Jena, prosecutor Reed Walters was asked what he meant by his infamous “with a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear” comment.  The long-suffering district attorney explained that he was in the middle of a difficult case and didn’t see why he should be dragged away to the High School.  The noose incident, he suggested, was being blown out of proportion.  Besides, Walters concluded, the white kids and the black kids were perfectly capable of working things out on their own.

Jena’s Lord-of-the-Flies scenario, in which immature adolescents were deprived of adult guidance and expected to respond reasonably, unfolded because grown-ups were unwilling, or unable, to respond to a hate crime. 

Dr. Phil and Bishop Jakes know that Justin and the Jena 6 need a little guidance.  They don’t want to stick these kids in a room by themselves.  A guided discussion ending is in hugs all around is more what they have in mind.

I hope that happens . . . after the legal fight is over.

America has opted for a retributive justice system.  We don’t ask “Who has been hurt; who is at fault; and how can peace be restored?”  That’s restorative justice.  Instead, we ask, “What crime has been committed; who is the guilty party; and what is the appropriate penalty?” 

Retributive justice is rooted in the idea that punishment (fines, incarceration, or even the death penalty) provide the best fix available.  The process is adversarial–somebody is going to win, and somebody is going to lose.  Robert, Mychal, Theo, Bryant, Carwin, and Jesse Ray are looking at serious prison time if they are convicted of assaulting Justin Barker.  Even worse, they will be felons for the rest of their lives: deprived of student loans, most forms of federal assistance and, most likely, decent jobs . . . forever.  

If the Jena 6 are convicted, the American Dream is gone.

On the other hand, if the evidence against the Jena 6 falls short of the “reasonable doubt” standard, they will walk free.  This isn’t an academic observation–the facts in this story are far murkier than most pundits realize. 

Regardless of how things play out in the courtroom, Justin and the Jena 6 will be eternally locked in a winner-takes-all firefight.  That’s the way the game is played in America.  If T.D. Jakes and Dr. Phil may have a problem with that they are not alone.  But they aren’t calling the shots here.  A hyper-pious lay-preacher named Reed Walters is calling the shots and the last thing he wants to see is a group hug involving Justin Barker and his alleged assailants. 

Bishop Jakes and Dr. Phil may get a chance to effect a rapprochement between these kids–but first these cases will have to be transferred out of LaSalle Parish and out of the hands of Reed Walters and Judge J.P. Mauffray.

But Dr. Phil doesn’t want to wait that long.  The story will never be hotter than it is right now.  Who knows if the story will garner the same audience response a month from now.  And Dr. Phil is all about the ratings–he has no choice; that’s the way the media game is played.

Jena Goes High Culture

This elegant essay in The New Yorker echoes my “Jena is America” theme.  Pay particular attention to one of the stark statistics Steve Coll references: African Americans are currently being incarcerated at four times the 1980 rate.  It’s good to hear the New Yorker talking about the New Jim Crow.