Sunday, September 23, 2007

Why Jena Matters

In an effort to deploy hope against experience, civic and religious leaders gathered to stem the tide of ethnically-based sectarian violence that has threatened to turn neighboring tribes against each other. While both groups are at something of a stalemate, prospects for achieving peace and reconciliation in the longer term are uncertain.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the foregoing sounds like a stray utterance from Petraeus week. It is in fact something of a description of last week's goings-on in Jena, Louisiana. It was certainly as good as anything that passed for reporting on the events leading up to and following the massive protests. Beyond isolated stories (such as in the Washington Post), most of the MSM neglected the story entirely until last Wednesday.
The only media sources that bear more culpability are those that ignored the events entirely - such as the majority of talk radio - even as the protests were in full swing. Some went so far as to report on Rev. Jesse Jackson's suggestion that Sen. Barack Obama was "acting like he's white," without making any reference whatever to the Jena 6 controversy itself.

By way of recapitulation, let's review the sequence of events leading up to the protests. (H/T: Wikipedia.) During an August 2006 school assembly at Jena High School, a black student asked the principal for - and was granted - permission to sit under the aforementioned "white tree" in the school courtyard. (There is some dispute presently as to whether or not students of all races sat under the tree at one time or another.) The following morning, two or three nooses were found in the tree. When the principal learned that three white students were responsible, the principal recommended suspensions for the students. The school board subsequently overturned the recommendation, with the white students being given less severe punishments.

Following several fights between white and black students, LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters was asked to speak to an assembly at Jena High on September 6, 2006. During the assembly, Walters was reported to have said "[w]ith one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear." As the students segregated themselves into white and black sections, the black students felt reason to believe that Walters' comment was directed at them, although Walters denies that such was the case. On September 10th, black students attempted to address the school board concerning the preceding incidents, but their request was refused.

In early December, there were three race-related assaults, each involving Jena High students. The first took place on December 1st at approximately 11:00 p.m. Five black students, including 16 year-old Robert Bailey, Jr., were denied entry to an invitation-only party. After the black students exchanged words with the hostess, a white male jumped in front of the woman and a fight ensued. When the fight was broken up, the five black students and the white man (who was not a student), were asked to leave. A second fight began between the black students and a group of whites who were also not students. When police were called, a white male was arrested and charged with simple battery and received probation.

On the next evening, an altercation occurred at a convenience store involving a white male and three black students, including Bailey. While accounts differ, eyewitnesses agree that the white male went to his truck and got a pistol grip shotgun. The black students were able to wrestle the weapon from the white male. The incident resulted in Bailey being charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white male was not charged.

All of this served as a backdrop to the assault on 17 year-old Justin Barker on December 4th. Barker was struck in the back of the head and repeatedly beaten and kicked to the point of unconsciousness by a group of black students. (It was said that Barker made fun of Robert Bailey for having been beaten the previous week.) Five of the six Jena High students who were implicated in the assault - the so-called Jena 6 - were charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder. DA Walters agreed to reduce the charges for the first defendant to be tried, Mychal Bell, to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, proposing that Bell's sneakers were a deadly weapon.

Unbiased observers will concede that the whites involved in the precipitating altercations received extremely lenient treatment vis-a-vis that received by the Jena 6. Confounding circumstances - such as incompetent counsel provided by the court-appointed public defender - might make it difficult to believe that justice was entirely served. (To be sure, Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, as they overturned Bell's conviction on September 14, 2007, noting that he should have been tried as a juvenile.)

As discussed elsewhere, all of this deserves attention for multiple reasons. And this applies not just to aspirant Democrat presidential candidates. Republicans (to include the faithful of LaSalle Parish) can't hope to "build a majority party
based on contempt for the minority." Doubtless, the GOP must remain true to its roots as party dedicated to fairness, inclusion and equal justice for all.

We can do this only by sanitizing our ranks of those who by way of their verbiage or behavior - public or private - betray the principled stances that led to our party's formation. Simply put, we must anathematize racism and racists... The righteous outrage of Republicans - particularly white Republicans - over racially motivated miscarriages of justice must thunder across land and country such that our position on the matter is clear.
As alluded to above, the situation is Jena is important for one more reason. The considerable difficulty that America has had in reconciling its own racial history with the ideal of a destiny of accord is illustrative of the difficulties that will be faced by Iraqis as they continue to make their way forward. Democrats and others who bemoan the lack of political reconciliation between Shia and Sunni would do well to recall our own struggles toward the end of "sectarian violence."

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