September 20, 2007
THE "JENA SIX:" Okay, the fact that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are involved doesn't prove that there's no actual injustice, but it was enough to make me email Radley Balko -- I've gotten a lot of email on the case, but most of it seems to assume that I already know what's going on. Radley's lengthy reply is below: click "read more" to read it. As always, it's constructive to ask how people would act if the races were reversed.
UPDATE: An update and a minor correction at Radley's blog.
Unfortunately, I do think there's something to it. It's sort of a long story, but here's the gist as I understand it:
A black student moved into the area and, during an all-school event, asked the principal, in front of everyone, if he could sit under the "white tree." This was a huge tree outside the school where white students apparently would sit and read. It was long understood that black students weren't to sit there. The principle told the student that he of course could sit and read anywhere he likes. The next day, there were three nooses hanging from the tree.
Just for background, this is another part of the country where race, sadly, is still a pretty prominent part of everyday life. I was actually in Louisiana just an hour south of Jena earlier this year to research a story for Reason on the use of drug informants. There are places down there where entire towns are still segregated. The town I was in still has separate black and white Mardi Gras parades, swimming pools, and cemeteries.
In any case, the nooses set off some minor altercations in the school. The principal found those responsible and had them expelled. He was overruled by the school board, who cut the punishment to a three-day suspension. More altercations followed. Some time later, someone burned down the school's administration building. They still haven't figured out who did it.
Finally, the school called another all-school convocation. They brought in the local DA, who then threatened to press charges unless the in-school fights stopped. He took out his pen and said something to the effect of, "with a stroke of this pen, I can ruin your lives." He admits he said it. The black students say he was looking directly at the section where they were sitting when he said it. He says he said it to the entire student body.
There were several more fights, some of them pretty serious. What's got everyone upset is the racial disparity in the sentences. In one case, a white kid pulled a shotgun on three black kids. The black kids wrestled the gun from him, and took off. The black kids were charged with stealing the gun, the white kid wasn't charged. There were then several incidents of white kids beating up on black kids, and the white kids were brought up on minor charges.
The final fight took place in the school cafeteria. The victim was among some white kids who were taunting a group of black student-athletes, including one who had been beaten up several nights before. The black kids got angry, and jumped one of the white kids. Six black boys then beat the white boy. It was a fairly serious beating. The initial fall knocked him unconscious. But after treatment at a local hospital, he left on his own, and attended an event that night.
The prosecutor initially charged the six black kids with attempted murder. After some public backlash, he dropped them to felony assault with a deadly weapon (the weapons, as it turned out, were the students' shoes). As I understand it, none of the six had prior records. The first to be tried--Mychal Bell-- had his charges dropped to felony aggravated battery, but still received a 15-year sentence. An appellate judge just tossed that sentence out, ruling he shouldn't have been tried as an adult. The rest have yet to be tried.
This is a very loose outline of what happened, of course. I've followed the story, but I'm nowhere near an expert on it.
Here's a Washington Post roundup: