It’s a cold day in Hades when Congress and the president should meddle in a district court case. But such an injustice has been done in Jena, Louisiana to the so-called “Jena-Six” that reports around the world are showing an America that betrays its long-admired system of justice. Because the nation’s image — already tarnished by the Bush administration’s mishandling of the Iraqi war, torture, a judicial department stacking the deck with political appointees and an Attorney General forced to resign in disgrace — is being drug into the gutter again in reports from England to China, our nation’s leaders need to speak up to show the world that what is going on in Louisiana is not condoned by most Americans.
Specifically, President Bush, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate president pro tempore Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., should use their bully pulpits to demand accountability with the district attorney’s office handling the case and reprimand those leaders within the community that would turn a blind eye to such blatant racial prejudice.
The story began in Sept. 2006 when a black freshman in the predominantly (80 percent) white high school in Jena, La., asked the vice-principal if he could sit under a shade tree on the school grounds that white students normally sat under. He was told he could. The next day, three rope nooses (in school colors) were hanging over the tree. The principal recommended expulsion for the three white students involved, but the superintendent over-ruled him and placed the students on a three-day suspension. Black students staged a protest under the tree for such a light punishment, tensions escalated and a few days later the white district attorney Reed Walters addressed a school assembly about the unrest. He told the black students that if they didn’t stop making a fuss about the “innocent prank” that “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” (See news reports in truthout.org, July 3, 2007; and the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 15, 2007.)
On the night of Nov. 30, 2006, a still-unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High School. On Friday night, Dec. 1, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites; that Saturday, a young white man pulled out a shotgun while confronting a few young black men in front of a convenience store in Jena, but the black men wrestled it away before a shot was fired. Only one of the white men involved in those two incidents was cited for any crime — simple assault. The black men who took the shotgun away from the white man were charged with stealing the gun.
Two days later, on Dec. 4 at Jena High School, a white student who was taunting black students with racial slurs was knocked down, punched and kicked by six black students. The white student, who was initially unconscious, was taken to the hospital, treated and released that day and later attended a social event that evening. Still, the six black students were arrested and jailed on charges of attempted murder. District attorney Walters alleged they had used a deadly weapon: their sneakers.
It gets worse. Mychal Bell, 17, one of the Jena Six, was recently convicted of aggravated battery in this case by an all-white jury, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. His appointed defense attorney, also white, called no witnesses. Fortunately, last Friday a state appeals court overturned his conviction simply because Bell had been 16 at the time and the case should have been tried in juvenile court. Four others are waiting to be tried as adults in a community that appears unconcerned with a system of justice that metes out harsh penalties to blacks in the community, while treating whites with a different set of rules.
Said local school board member Billy Fowler, who agreed the Jena Six were being excessively punished, the noose incident was nothing more than a “bad joke” and that the black students had lost community sympathy because the town was now getting such bad international press. “If they’d just kept their mouths shut, they might have gotten those charges taken off,” Fowler told The Times. “But with the way this town’s been done wrong (by the bad publicity), I don’t think that’s going happen now.”
It’s clear the district attorney, the district judge and town leaders — with the apparent exception of the high school principal — are, as one religious leader from New Orleans said, running a 1960s town in the 21st century. Political pressure is needed to ensure justice prevails in the case of each of the Jena Six and that Congress makes it clear to the bigoted white leaders of that district — which Bush won in 2004 by a 4-1 ratio — that such injustice is not the American way.
President Bush, along with Pelosi and Byrd, could play an effective role in this case by simply going on national television to reinforce that America is a land in which justice is color-blind and that the bias and bigotry demonstrated in this case is not representative of America. It would send a message to the misguided community leaders in Jena, and would help stem the international damage to the nation’s prestige. Nothing is more inviting to America’s foes that using such stories to point out this nation’s failings and to undermine America’s integrity.
We don’t advocate such political meddling willy-nilly — but this is far from the religious intrusion of then Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (and others) in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005. The case with the Jena Six is nonpartisan and strikes at the heart of our system of justice and our honor as a country. The need to counter the damage done to the nation’s image is imperative and it demands quick action from the very top.
Angelo S. Lynn