Jena 6: A Question of Equal Protection

A comment from a reader prompted me to write the response below, which I then decided to reproduce as a blog post:

. . . [P]erhaps I am guilty of skimming over the details of the beating Justin Barker received at the hands of Mychal Bell and his friends. I’ll repeat again that I think the practice of a bunch of guys “jumping” one person is pretty despicable. It used to happen at my high school and I always hated it. But like many people in Jena and elsewhere, I think the charges, sentence, and incarceration of Mychal Bell were and are excessive.

Ultimately, the adults in this case have to bear the responsibility. If school and law enforcement officials in Jena were interested in teaching these students—Black as well as White—that taking the law into their own hands is wrong, they would have intervened when the nooses were hung, when the Black student was assaulted by White students at the party, and when the Black students had a gun pulled on them. I failed to mention in my blog that the boys reported the incident to the police after they disarmed their assailant but he was not even questioned. Instead, these Black boys were arrested and charged with assault and theft of a firearm after they did the right thing by going to the police.

The signal sent to these boys was that they could not look to school or law enforcement officials to protect them from overt racism—which is psychological violence—and physical violence. Violence is used to put and keep people in their place, and the nooses were supposed to remind Jena High School’s Black students of their place. When these students defied the racists by peacefully gathering under the “white tree” on which the nooses had been hung, District Attorney Reed Walters arrived at the school surrounded by armed police and threatened to end the students’ lives with a stroke of his pen. Is this not intimidation? Weren’t the nooses themselves symbolic of violence to the Black students? Clearly, they didn’t think it was just a prank. Yet school officials and the legal establishment continued to pooh-pooh the issue until it escalated into the violent confrontation with Justin Barker that resulted in his beating. Was it right or necessary? Of course not! Could it have been avoided? Certainly, if school and law enforment officials had taken the racism directed at the Black students more seriously and intervened sooner.

The whole incident reminds me of Simpsons character Chief Wiggum’s response to Marge when she said, as she was being arrested: “I thought you said the law is powerless?” Wiggum replies, “Powerless to protect you, not to punish you.” Clearly, when it came to protecting Black Students, Jena’s law enforcement officials were asleep at the wheel. When it comes to punishing them, however, they’re operating in overdrive.

If that’s not racism, what is it?

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