Injustice is bigger than the `Jena 6'

September 25, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

We black Americans seem to need a major event or outrage every so often to revive our mass energies in ways that remind us of the 1960s civil rights movement. In the 1980s, we had mass arrests at the South African embassy to protest apartheid. In the 1990s, there was the Million Man March to redeem black fatherhood and proper role modeling. In 2007, we have the "Jena 6."

Thousands flowed by the busload into tiny Jena, La., last week. They came to march on behalf of six black youths who were originally charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating up a white youth last December at the local high school in what many describe as a schoolyard fight.

It was the local district attorney's decision to charge those students with attempted second-degree murder, while white students had gone free for other attacks, that touched off the national uproar.

The white student who was beaten allegedly taunted blacks with racial slurs. He was a friend of students who had hung nooses in a tree that they designated be a whites-only gathering spot at the high school. The victim was treated and released after a few hours in a local hospital.

Suddenly, little Jena became a symbol in many minds of every injustice or racial grievance, real or perceived, that black folks have endured in recent years, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the gross disparities between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

The Jena 6 put real names and faces to Justice Department statistics that show African-American men to be three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested. The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault, according to the National Urban League's annual State of Black America report.

But now that the crowds have gone home and Jena is once again a quiet little oil and lumber town, will the big march have lasting significance, like the movement that helped end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela? Or will it be like the Million Man March: a stirring memory and a great applause line for political speeches, but not much follow-through?

It was the bad fortune of the Jena 6 demonstrators that they had to share the spotlight with another media eruption, the latest misadventures of O.J. Simpson, charged with armed robbery in Las Vegas for allegedly trying to steal memorabilia from his own glory days.

Mr. Simpson reminds us of one of America's most racially divided moments. His acquittal of double homicide charges gave white Americans a shock that their black friends, neighbors and coworkers have been long acquainted with, the chilling sense of denied justice.

And for black Americans with an eye for bitter irony, Mr. Simpson's acquittal showed a strange form of progress, at best: America had progressed enough to let a rich black man buy his way out of accountability in the way once reserved for rich white men.

But that's not a good enough standard of justice for a great people or a great country. As demonstrated by the Rev. Al Sharpton's fiasco with Tawana Brawley and the recent bogus Duke University rape case, unequal justice doesn't always tilt against black folks or Latinos. We simply have been statistically more vulnerable to it.

The best legacy for the Jena 6 march would be a new movement, dedicated this time to the reduction and elimination of unequal justice wherever it appears. I don't care who leads it, but it shouldn't be for blacks only.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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