ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–On Sept. 20, people from all over America gathered in the Lilliputian Louisiana community of Jena. Many, mostly black, had traveled hours on crowded buses to protest what they perceived to be a situation that provided proof racism still exists in the rural south.
Led by civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, an estimated crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 came to central Louisiana in order to call attention to the plight of six black teenagers, all male and known as the “Jena 6,” who have been charged in the beating of a white teen.
A person’s perception is his or her reality. But if facts are imprecise and context is ignored, a person’s reality can be far from accurate. Such is the case, I believe, in reference to the situation in Jena.
Time and space will not allow for a detailed discussion of the case of the Jena 6; however a brief synopsis is as follows:
Last September, a climate of racial tension emerged when a black high school student sat under a tree known as the “white tree.” The designation implied the tree was off limits to blacks.
The following day, three hangman nooses were found dangling in the tree. The principle wanted to expel three white students responsible for the act. The superintendent and school board disagreed and suspended the students for only two days.
In early December, six black students, now known as the Jena 6, beat a white student while at school. The white teen was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital where he was treated for his injuries and later released.
The LaSalle Parish district attorney originally charged the Jena 6 with aggravated second-degree battery. Later he upgraded the charges to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit the same.
In mid-December it was announced that one of the Jena 6, who was 16 at the time of the crime, would be tried as an adult. His bond was set at $90,000. By the time the teen came to trial in late June, his charges had been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
An all-white jury was selected to try the teen. LaSalle Parish officials indicate they sent out 150 jury summonses. However, only 50 people reported for jury selection. None of them were black.
During the trial, the prosecution called 17 witnesses to testify. The attorney for the defense called none. The jury found the teenager guilty. The defense appealed the decision. On Sept. 14 an appeals court overturned Bell’s conviction, saying Bell should not have been tried as an adult, although he remained in jail as that decision was being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Bell reportedly was denied bail Friday.
The case of the Jena 6 is far from simple. However, I do believe it is a situation in which we can find good, bad and ugly.
Under the category of good, it is clear that the criminal justice system has thus far worked in this case. The charges originally filed against the Jena 6 were disproportionate to their crime. Also, the teen that stood trial should not have done so as an adult. A miscarriage of justice had occurred but the checks and balances of the system worked them out. American’s criminal justice system is not perfect, but it is the best and works most of the time.
Also good is the fact that the protests were peaceful. Other than a lot of traffic snarls in central Louisiana, those who came to march conducted themselves in a positive manner.
On the bad side of the ledger are the district attorney and the presiding judge. It was a very bad move to charge the Jena 6 with attempted murder. It was equally bad to try one of the teens as an adult. The DA should never have done it and the judge should never have allowed it. Were these men motivated by race? I don’t know, but their actions did not help the perception of the situation.
Another aspect that is bad in the case of the Jena 6 is the number of people that did not show up for jury duty. Only one-third of the 150 that received summonses bothered to appear –- and no blacks showed up. No one can know for certain how many of the 100 no-shows were black. Whatever the number it could have helped quell the perception of racism.
Under the category of ugly is the hanging of the nooses in the tree. The lynchings of blacks are a hideous and heinous part of our nation’s history. The teens that placed the nooses should have received a more stern punishment. The slap on the wrist they received only contributed to the perception of racism.
Also qualifying for ugly is Jackson and Sharpton. They were aware that the all-white jury was due to the fact that no blacks showed up for jury duty. However, they continued to emphasize that an all-white jury convicted a black teen. They certainly added to the perception of racism in the case.
Is there racism in America? Without a doubt, there is. There are white racists, black racists, brown racists. However, to create the perception of racism where there is little or none is wrong.
In the case of the Jena 6 there was good, there was bad and there was ugly. However, while the wheels of American justice grind slowly, they usually grind fairly in spite of racism –- real or perceived.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.