Friday, September 21, 2007

The Jena Six and De Facto Racism

Slavery existed in North America from 1619 in British colonial America to 1865 with the confederate government's collapse, the confederate military leaders surrender, and the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. In the former confederate states, a struggle to establish citizenship rights for the former slaves and in effect democratize the region was then carried forward only to be beaten back in the last decades of the nineteenth century by a combination of white racist terrorism instigated largely by the slaveholder and allied Southern ruling groups who had supported the Confederacy and the "acceptance" by the federal government, the federal Judiciary, and particularly Supreme Court of what became by the beginning of the twentieth century a white supremacy dictatorship which segregated blacks in schools, and all other public accommodations, public transportation, lunch counters, bathrooms, drinking fountains, etc while denying the overwhelming majority of Blacks the right to vote, serve on juries, belong to police forces, or practice the rights enjoyed by citizens of virtually any state, including many dictatorships not based on a series of racist laws and policies.

This brutal system, an advance only in its relationship to slavery, was overturned by the struggles of the Civil Rights movement which in the 1960s led to to the Civil Rights Acts which abolished "legal" segregation in public accommodations, restored the right to vote and all of the civil rights that are attendant upon it to Blacks, and revived the struggle to democratize the Southern states, which historically had served as both the "solid South" of segregation and, through the Democratic party until the 1960s, the principle ally of conservative Republicans in mobilizing a "conservative coalition" in Congress and national politics generally to fight the advance of organized labor and the passage of progressive social legislation. Just as 1865 saw the end of slavery but not the end of a system of racist oppression, tyranny and terror in the former Confederate states, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 heralded the end of de jure segregation and disenfranchisement in the Southern states, but not the end of institutional racism there or in the larger society.

Today successors to the segregationist White Supremacy Solid South have become a mainstay in the right-wing dominated Republican party, providing that party with both a large bloc of Senators and Congressman and also of electoral votes in presidential elections. While African Americans have not yet lost the Civil Rights they won in the 1960s (and I am not saying that they are going to in the foreseeable future) the Solid South today is a region where the Right has a kind of "home field advantage" rooted in its historical foundation of slavery and segregation (both of which were systems to control labor) and the superstructure of White Racism which overlay that foundation. The South today is where justice is most harsh and unequal, where the death penalty is most likely to be both instituted and executed, where income and education remains on a regional basis lower than the rest of the country and the religious right is most influential in a direct way in politics. This is the context in which the story of the Jena Six, which today is producing mass protest and demonstrations which even the quiescent mass news media are highlighting, should be understood.

The following analysis of events is based on my reading of the federal investigation directed by U.S. Attorney Donald Washington which has been made public, although some of my conclusions are different from
Washington in the investigation.

Jena is a small overwhelmingly White town in Louisiana. In August 2006, a freshman African American student asked the principal of Jena High school for "permission" to sit under a shade tree that was "de facto" reserved for white students. When the principal told him anyone could sit where they wanted, he and a group of African American friends sat under the tree. The next day, there were three nooses hanging from the tree, an act which was a both a crude threat and a sort of celebration of lynch law as a way to keep Blacks in their place. When the principal learned the identity of the three white students who had done this, he recommended their expulsion from school. The local board of education and school superintendent quickly over-ruled the principal. The superintendent added ignorance to injury when he was quoted as saying that the act was merely a "prank" not a "threat against anybody."

The incident provoked a series of fights between African American and white students which the principal sought unsuccessfully defuse at a school assembly in late September. At the assembly, the local District Attorney, J. Reed Walters, invited to speak by the principal, made the situation much worse by warning the students that if they didn't stop fighting over the incident which he called an "innocent prank," "with one stroke of my pen, I could make your life disappear."

While Black students claim today that he was looking at them and he and school officials have denied this, that is really beside the point. Such threats might make sense on the old Dragnet television program, or in authoritarian fantasies as solutions to problems, but in reality they only inflame situations.

As the semester continued, Black students asked to address the school assembly on the noose incident but were denied that right by the Board of Education on the ground that the issue was settled. Fights continued. On November 30, 2006, the main high school building was gutted in an arson fire and white and Black students traded charges blaming each other. By early December there were escalating incidents, one on December 1 at a student party where a group of black students, including Robert Bailey, were told that they could not attend, leading to a fight where Bailey claimed he had been hit in the head with a beer bottle, another on December 2 where Bailey and a group of his friends clashed with a white student from the party the previous night who got a shotgun from his pickup truck and brandished it (there are conflicting stories about who was the aggressor in this incident, but the fact that the high school student could be driving around with a shotgun in a pickup truck and that in itself would not be an issue is a commentary on both the South and other regions of the country where conservatives have reduced the bill of rights to the right to bear arms). Bailey, who seized th weapon was charged with "theft of a firearm," robbery, and disturbing the peace. The white student who brandished the weapon (in self defense he contended) was charged with nothing.

On December 4, 2006, a white student, Justin Barker, was attacked and brutally beaten by a group of Black students. Robert Bailey was one of the students. There were reports (believed widely by Black students and
later denied by Barker) that Barker had been boasting that Bailey had been beaten up in the fight at the party and that this was an act of revenge for the earlier incident. There is debate and disagreement over the extent of Barker's injuries, but no doubt that he was brutally beaten.

What then happens is worthy of the old segregationist South. The district attorney, who had previously said "with one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear," initially charged five African American students with assault and then changed the charge to attempted second degree murder, which could bring with it a fifty year prison sentence and which, from my reading, there was absolutely no evidence to support. On June 27, 2007, one of the students, Mychal Bell, a juvenile who had a previous criminal record, was brought to trial and
convicted of aggravated second degree battery (which requires assault with a deadly weapon). District Attorney Walters contended that Bell's Tennis Shoes, with which he kicked Barker, constituted such a weapon.
Bell was also tried as an adult.

Last Week, on September 14, 2007, Bell's conviction was thrown out by a Louisiana Appeals Court judge on the ground that he should have been tried as a juvenile. District Attorney Walters is appealing the decision. As I write this article, a hearing is being held whether bail should be set for Bell's release. Bell is still in jail and if the conviction stands could be sentenced to as much as twenty-two years in jail. Yesterday, the day that Bell was initially scheduled to be sentenced, a rally of more than 10,000 people was held in Jena to protest this return of Jim Crow justice.

Justice demands that the Jena Six be freed from the major criminal charges hanging over them, that they and the whites whose hanging of nooses at the shade tree, physical assaults against the Black students at the party, brandishing a shotgun, and other acts be given fair punishment for their transgressions. Justice in my opinion also calls for some disciplinary action against the District Attorney whose attempted second degree murder and "reduced " aggravated assault charges (which still hang over the other students who are yet to be
tried) in no way fit the crime.

It is interesting to note that the District Attorney who launched a prosecution of Duke University Lacrosse players based on charges later dropped from an African American women that she was assaulted by them
at a fraternity party has seen his professional career shattered and faces prosecution in a case which filled both sports talk radio and television and the usual rightwing media propagandists which great outrage. For the propagandists of the rightwing power structure, the events at Duke (and I am not saying that the Lacrosse players were not the victims of a serious injustice) are examples of "political correctness" and "liberal bias."

For these same people, the nooses were a harmless prank, the constitution gives teen-agers the right to have shotguns in pickup trucks, and the Jena Six, who show the rest of us that there is no such thing as institutional "reverse racism" but world of institutional and ideological racism which is routinely swept under the rug, don't deserve to be mentioned.

George Bush said he was "saddened" by the events at Jena High but that was all he said. His father when he was president said, as I remember, that he was "saddened" by the Rodney King riots, but that was pretty
much all he said. I am outraged by the events in Jena and so should all Americans who believe in equal justice under law. They show us how which ground we have to regain in the struggle against racism in the U.S., which is indivisible from the struggle for democracy.

Norman Markowitz

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