Time-warped justice

September 21, 2007

Almost everything about the case of the Jena 6 is a sad and troubling reminder of this nation's racially charged past and its still racially tense present.

There was the initial request, about a year ago, by a black student to sit under a tree on the grounds of a high school in Jena, La., where white students tended to congregate. The next day, three nooses were left dangling on the tree. Three white students were suspended for two days. In December, six black schoolmates beat up a white student; they were initially charged with attempted murder.

The charges have been reduced, but in the first of the cases to go to court, prosecutors tried one of the youngest of the accused, Mychal Bell, as an adult; he was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy by an all-white jury.

As much as things have changed and improved for African-Americans in recent decades, the situation in a small town in central Louisiana proves that, as a nation, we still have a long way to go in the quest for equality, fairness and justice.

In response to thousands of marchers (including some from Maryland) who descended on Jena yesterday for a rally at the courthouse, some white residents insisted that their town was being judged unfairly by outsiders. And the prosecutor pointedly noted that the protesters seemed to forget the victim, who was treated at a hospital (and quickly released).

But who is missing the point here? African-Americans make up only about 15 percent of Jena's population and tend to live in segregated areas of town. The appearance of nooses - powerful symbols of oppression - should have generated a community-wide dialogue. Instead, after a number of ensuing interracial fights in which serious charges were not filed against whites, the main response in this attack was prosecutorial overreaction.

Last week, a state appeals court overturned Mr. Bell's conviction, saying that he should not have been tried as an adult on the battery charge. Another judge had previously dropped the conspiracy conviction. Most of the other defendants could still be tried as adults, and Mr. Bell could now be tried in juvenile court.

The specter of black men and boys being treated more harshly than their white peers by the criminal justice system in a historical pattern that persists to this day is why this case deserves the nation's collective attention - and condemnation.

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