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.
Pastor Alan Bean
Head of US civil rights group, Friends of Justice
Head, Louisian branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NAACP
Professor of Law, Columbia University
mother of Bryant, one of the Jena six boys who were charged.