Friday, August 31, 2007

Blogging for Justice: Free the Jena Six

(This is going up here a day after I posted this on Maat's Feather on the Day of Blogging for Justice for the Jena Six. Feel free to come over for discussion!).

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This diary is part of the Afrospear campaign (the call for which was made by Bro. D. Yobachi Boswell - hat tip to him!) to raise our voices against the travesty of justice being played out in the case of six teenagers known as the Jena Six.  Why this campaign? Well, the Afrospear press release today makes it plain:

The Afrosphere Jena 6 Coalition "ask that the mainstream traditional media step forward and discharge their duty to provide coverage of this vitally important event to their viewers and readers and act as "the fourth institution" of governmental "checks and balance" that constitutional framers intended the press to be."

I regret only that this diary is coming late in the designated day, a victim of 48-hours of work-crisis I won't bore the reader with.

When I was in law school, my first-year moot court assignment was about free speech, and high school students.  The central issue in our mock case was whether a 1952 Supreme Court case that evaluated the right to free-speech against the Fourteenth Amendment rights of Black folks to live free from public expressions of racial hatred and white supremacy -- Beauharnais v. Illinois -- was still good law that would govern racially-based speech.  In Beauharnais, a white man was convicted under an Illinois libel statute making it a crime to exhibit in any public place any publication which "portray[ed] depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion" or which "expose[d] the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy."

Mr. Beauharnais was convicted because he was handing out what the Beauharnais court quaintly called "anti-Negro literature" on the streets of Chicago.  (I'll let y'all click the link to the case and read some of it for yourself; then tell me if it sounds all that much different than Ron Paul or Michael Richards, 55 years later.)

Justice Frankfurter, writing for a bitterly divided majority, relied on the 1942 case which enunciated the fighting words exception to the First Amendment, Chaplinsky v. United States to conclude that the Illinois statute under which Beauharnais was charged was constitutional, well within the police power of the State to keep the peace following centuries of slavery and white supremacy.  Justice Black, writing the lead minority opinion in Beauharnais (despite having been part of the unanimous ruling in Chaplinsky where race was not an issue, claimed that the First Amendment was virtually inviolate, such that speech inciting race hatred, like that advanced by Mr. Beauharnais in Chicago, was protected under it without regard to asserted countervailing rights, such as those arising under the Fourteenth Amendment, which were not equally absolute.  And, as a portend of today's High Court reasoning in a variety of contexts involving race, we were told that this was for our own good.  Justice Black's eloquent dissent in Beauharnais ended by warning "minorities" that, in essence, we should be careful what we ask for (the right to be free from public assault on our characters and dignity) because we may get it:

If there be minority groups who hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remark:

"Another such victory and I am undone."

Ultimately, because that's what our professors made plain was the "only right answer", those of us who were eager 1L's being exposed to modern Constitutional law in the area of race readily, even if sadly, concluded that Beauharnais was no longer good law, having been impliedly if not expressly overruled by Sullivan v. New York Times.  Yet I wonder from time to time whether our High Court's accidental or purposeful retreat from the interpretations of the First Amendment which balanced free speech against the societal injury of racial fighting words and concluded that the societal harm from certain speech was so severe as to justify public (although not private) censorship -- as affirmed forth in Beauharnais and its predecessor case, Chaplinsky -- is directly correlated with this country's shift, beginning in 1953 with Brown v. Board of Education from an overtly-white supremacist nation to a covert one, as Blacks and whites in this country came more and more into constant contact with each other over the objections of most whites.  With the result that white supremacy was forced under ground by the law which, as set forth in Beauharnais, (which was fatally undermined by Sullivan v. NY Times but has never been expressly overruled by the Supreme Court, much the way that Brown v. Board of Education just was by Parents Involved v. Seattle School Dist. #1), criminalized attacking the character of people of color through "free speech" in public.

I wonder because had Beauharnais in particular not been effectively overruled ot make way for "absolute" First Amendment rights -- rights that the story of the Jena Six should confirm even for the staunchest racial utopianist tare not rights that all races enjoy equally on the ground in America -- perhaps the "racial free speech" act that began the saga which ended with the criminal case of the Jena Six would have never been necessary.  Or, even if it had been, it certainly might have been nipped in the bud as soon as one of the country's most ancient symbols of racial terror was hung from a tree in Jena, Louisiana last September, 2006.

On the assumption that a reader seeing this diary might not have actually heard of the Jena Six (since that's what I was told last time I wrote about this case a month ago), here's my synopsis of the facts as they are known today following the trial and conviction of the first of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell:

In September, 2006, a black student at Jena High School asked school administrators whether he could sit under the "white tree," a shade tree on school grounds that had historically been used only by white students in the largely-segregated town of Jena, Louisiana.    After hearing that he could sit wherever they wanted, he did. 

The next morning, he and the other Black students of Jena High School were greeted with three nooses hanging from the "white tree." -- in the school colors, I guess to make them more noticeable. 

Following an investigation, Jena High's principal identified the responsible parties - three of the school's white students.  To his credit, he recommended expulsion.  He was overruled, however, by the School Superintendent, who imposed only a three-day suspension as punishment.  Trying to justify this to the media later, this paragon of academic virtue said that the act was not a threat to anyone; instead it was just a simple case of happy teenage foolishness: "Adolescents play pranks."

Spoken as only a true redneck of the South could speak, about a symbol of racial violence that is as well known in Jena, Louisiana as it is everywhere South (and many places North!) of the Mason-Dixon line.

Naturally, the Black community got a bit upset.  Parents started trying to identify who to complain to.  The Black students of Jena High went a different route.  They (apparently spontaneously) reached into the wellspring of political action that has served justice well for millenia:

They decided to collectively protest by ALL sitting under the white tree at the same time.

Anywhere other than America, the point would likely have been proven by that act.  But we're not talking about anywhere.  We are talking about a small Louisiana town (that is nonetheless the largest town in LaSalle Parish, Louisiana.)  A town whose population of just under 3,000 is 85% white, with only 350 Black residents in its borders.  A town that still refers to its single Black school board member as "colored" and that has a town barber who seems to find it a point of honor that he has never cut a Black man's hair.

In light of this, the official reaction to this collective political action by our young Black youth in Jena (which puts me in mind of that great understatement from "Stand by Me" spoken by one of the few white castmembers: "It appears that [the] students have assembled in an exercise of their First Amendment rights.") was not entirely unpredictable, especially in America today.  Jena High's administration called a mandatory student assembly. LaSalle Parish's DA, Reed Walters, accompanied by 10 fine representatives of LaSalle Parish law enforcement, came to address the students.  Students contend that the DA threatened the protesting Black students with retribution if they didn't stop making a fuss about the noose incident.  He reportedly also said to these young men and women the  words that were portends of the nightmare that the Jena Six now face:

I can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.

After this assembly, and the DA's "laying down the law"  students were reportedly put on lock down for the rest of the school week. 

Despite this "mandatory cooling off" at Jena High, things remained tense throughout the fall, reportedly calmed only by the fact that it was football season -- which is a big deal in the South, no matter what race you are.

Yet on the night of November 30, 2006, someone set fire to the main academic building of Jena High School. Nobody knows who did it, to this day.

  It doesn't matter, I guess, since the next night, Friday December 1, 2006, a Jena High black student named Robert Bailey Jr. accepted an invitation to a party held at an establishment normally frequented only by whites in Jena.  Upon his arrival, he was punched in the face, knocked down, and jumped by several white youth who were present.  Of this gang of thugs, only one student was (subsequently, and much later) identified.  Instead of facing what Robert Bailey Jr. now faces -- which is up to 80 years in prison -- this upstanding young white citizen was given probation, and asked to apologize.

The next day, a white man who may, or may not, have been at the party the night before got into a verbal fight with three Black teenagers, including Robert Bailey, Jr. at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena.  At some point, the white guy pullled out a shotgun from his vehicle and brandished it at the Black kids.  Their response was to wrestle it from him, and run away with it (no doubt to ensure they would not be buckshotted as they fled). They called the police, and reported the incident.

They were subsequently arrested and charged with theft of the shotgun.  (No charges were filed against the white man who brandished it at them.)

On December 4, 2006 - Monday -- back at school at Jena High, a white student named Justin Barker, allegedly began taunting Black students, including Robert Bailey, Jr..  He called them niggers repeatedly and expressing support for the white students who hung the nooses and beat up Bailey.

(Justin Barker's mama obviously has not taught him the fine Southern arts of minding your own business and knowing when to shut-the-hell-up.  Equally obviously, she *did* teach him the fine Southern art of feeling entitled to break the law just because he is a privileged white male kid who is afraid of a butt wuppin' by uppity darkies.  I say this because young master Barker this May decided to bring a loaded hunting rifle onto the Jena High school grounds with 13 rounds in it, I guess since he knew that Mychael Bell was about to go to trial.

This criminal act is, of course, something that in our post-Columbine era -- where young students are arrested for writing fiction stories in class even hinting of possible school violence -- you'd have thought would have landed Justin Barker under the jailhouse.  Yet LaSalle Parish law enforcement clearly decided that this was just another case of "adolescents play pranks" since after Justin Barker was quite belatedly arrested, he was promptly released on only $5,000 bail.  Juxtapose this outcome with Mychal Bell's bail of $90,000 for getting into a school fight - if you dare risk your head exploding.)

This was the proverbial camel-breaking straw, I guess, for the young Black male students of Jena High School who witnessed it.  Justin Barker was apparently knocked out cold with a single punch, and while he was down, allegedly kicked by several black students.  He was up and about by the time the police and ambulance arrived.  After being scanned, treatened and released at the hospital, he attended his school's ring party that same evening.  He reportedly had to spend the next week on Tylenol.

Would that the Jena Six had it so good.  For their headache, six black Jena students -- Robert Bailey Jr. (17), Mychal Bell (16 - charged as an adult), Carwin Jones (18), Theo Shaw (17), Bryant Purvis (17), and an unidentified 15-year old were each arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder because of their alleged involvement in the beat-down of Justin Barker.  Their bail amounts ranged from a low of $70,000 to a high of $138,000 (for Robert Bailey, Jr.)  Most remained in jail for months until their poverty-stricken families could post bond.  Mychal Bell and Carwin Shaw have never left jail - neither of their families could afford to bail them out.

The Jena Six were all expelled from Jena High School, their academic careers now officially over.

While there was a great deal of pressure for the students to plead guilty, Mychal Bell (represented by a white public defender) refused to plead guilty to a felony.  This prompted the DA to immediately reduce the charges on the morning of trial to second degree aggravated battery (in Louisiana, battery with a dangerous weapon.)

I know you're asking:  what dangerous weapon?

Mychal Bell's tennis shoes, with which his feet were shod when he allegedly kicked Justin Barker.

(I will one day write a diary about how I feel as an attorney knowing that in the State of Louisiana, there are *multiple* cases actually concluding that sneakers are a dangerous weapon.)

Mychal Bell's fate was swift, and once again, predictable -- since his public defender put on no witnesses on his behalf, whereas the DA put on 17 witnesses -- all white, including young master Barker.  Trial was held before a white judge, and an all-white jury selected from an all-white venire, on which sat two friends of the DA, a white witness' relative, and several friends of witnesses for the prosecution. Mychal Bell's parents could not attend the trial to support their son, excluded by the rule that normally excludes trial witnesses to avoid tainting their testimony -- yet Justin Barker was permitted to attend, despite his also being a witness governed by that rule.  A gag order was even placed on Bell's parents, preventing them from letting the world know that their son was on trial for an aggravated felony only for racial reasons.  At trial, 11 white students, 3 white teachers and 2 white school nurses gave varying testimony about whether Mychal Bell did, or did not, do anything to Justin Barker.  Justin Barker admitted he did not know whether Mychal Bell even touched him.

But this is Jena, Louisiana.  So after only 3 hours of deliberation, Mychal Bell was convicted on July 28, 2007 of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on September 20, 2007.  He faces a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.

The remaining members of the Jena Six have not yet stood trial.  They all still face charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit attempted murder, their charges having not been reduced by the LaSalle Parish DA.

The first time I blogged about the Jena Six, in a diary called The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree it was shortly after I first heard that Mychal Bell, a young Black man in high school -- with a promising athletic future, status on the school honor roll -- and what I have now learned is a a minor juvenile record, for getting into fights and vandalism (something that my own son faced as a teenager, his temper having once been inconsistent with a zero-tolerance world) -- had been convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated assault on one of his white peers, such that he faced up to 22 years in prison for what under normal circumstances would have been deemed a high school fight justifying, at best, his suspension and, perhaps a juvenile court referral. 

But the circumtances of Jena are not "normal circumstances".  

Not normal, unless you view the circumstances that have led to six young men -- all children, in my eyes -- facing what is now between 22 and 80 years in prison for a high school fight as normal through the gauzy lens of racial history in America, in which Blacks have always had to confront the "fighting words" aspect of America's love of Free Speech - but have almost always been punished severely for reacting, as the Supreme Court in both Chaplinsky and Beauharnais recognized, as normal human beings would react to fighting words - by fighting white racist speech with their bodies, the only power that usually they have to stop it.  To know the facts of the story in Jena, Louisiana as they relate to the Jena Six is to experience an evocative, frustating, memory -- perhaps a collective memory -- of what we thought was a different time when we could neither fight in self-defense to save our own manhood and womanhood or protest peacefully against it without meaningful risk of life.  The memory of a time they said was done now, in our colorblind, post-Dr. King society:  when public terrorist threats against Black folks for simply exercising their God given rights was not an uncommon thing.

(And for those self-serving racist naysayers out there like the LaSalle Parish School Superintendent, make no mistake, hanging nooses was a terrorist threat -- the threat of lynching at the hands of whites -- and it is that terrorist threat that was the genesis and remains at the root of the poisonous tree of racist injustice known as case of the Jena Six.  For what other American symbol (other than the white sheet and hood of the Ku Klux Klan) is more recognizable to Black folks born and raised in America as the harbinger of the end of Black lives for exercising their rights -- it was once called "being uppity" -- than the hangsman's noose?

I thought we learned all those lessons -- about long ago.

Yet Jena Louisiana obviously continues not to learn its lessons.  This is evident when their white supermajority -- 85% of the town -- has spent more time complaining that they are being unfairly branded as the collective racists they are than about the unfairness of what they almost all also admit was a schoolhouse fight that should not land someone in jail for 22 years.  This was evident when on Tuesday, nine children -- children who have a right to free speech, or did before the Supreme Court's decision in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case -- were suspended on Tuesday from Jena High School for were advised that wearing their tee shirts advocating to "Free the Jena Six" were "disruptive."  Wearing tee shirts in a school that has no dress code.

It seems that the good white citizens of Jena, Louisiana have not yet learned what justice really means outcomes which are just, not just the procedural appearance of a courtroom show called "justice." True justice does not waste time trying to sweep injustice under the rug, or deflect from injustice, as Louisiana is desperately now trying to do by doing something of questionable legality:  releasing information about Mychal Bell's juvenile record to the media, in response to what is an increasing hue and cry against the injustice of the Jena Six case.  This retributive, self-serving and quite likely illegal act on the part of LaSalle Parish is clearly, along with most things Jena these days, is a travesty of justice.

The travesty of justice in Jena, Louisiana is the old evocative story I mentioned above:  The story in which Justice in America for Black folks is, increasingly again, Just Us, when it comes to the criminal law.

It is likely to always be so, here in America.

Unless we fight.

Since I am not an advocate of kicking ass and taking no prisoners as a method of social change, except rhetorically, unless one has truly has no other options, all that is left is for folks like me -- mothers like me of young Black men -- to tell the story and spread it far and wide.  Tell it so that it is never forgotten and it is front and center.  Until justice, which like the symbol of my blog, Maat's Feather, is done grounded in truth.

But if we don't tell the story, protest this injustice, nobody will.

Since the mainstream media does not care about these young Black men in Jena - go check out how few stories they have written, even today, about the resurgence of sanctioned Jim Crow misconduct in American law enforcement that is evinced by this story.  

Since Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) of Louisiana, who has the power to instantly stop the railroading of these children doesn't care -- go check out the form letters she sent us all when we wrote to beg her to intervene. 

We won't even mention Bobby Jindal or Emperor George W. Bush.

They don't care in Louisiana about the lives of young Black children.  They don't care that whites are again from an early age free to taunt and levy psychic -- and PHYSICAL -- threats and injuries at Black children.  Don't believe me? Then ask yourself this question:

Why is it that we know the names of ALL of the young Black men that allegedly did wrong in Jena, Louisiana (except for the one that the law expressly prohibits the press or anyone else from naming due to his age), yet we know NONE of the names of the several white youths who committed the acts of harassment, terrorist threats, threatened and actual violence which created the racial tinderbox that ultimately exploded in a loss of patience -- the final moment of "sick and tired of being sick and tired", for which the Jena Six's lives are now being thrown away, legally, before they have all even become old enough to vote?  Not ONE of these white hooligans names has ever been printed in the press that one can find on the Internet. 

Not one of the names is publicly known -- even the allies of the Jena Six have not printed them.  Except for one - Justin Barker, the so-called victim of the Jena Six.  This is not accidental, even if it's not conscious.  It's merely a continuation of the same unconscious white supremacy that makes sure that when a Black person commits a crime, his race is announced to the world, but never mentioned when a criminal is white.  It's because their young white lives, even though they have all done dirty and there has never been any dispute about that, are perceived as still having future value despite their bad acts -- not just in Jena, Louisiana, but everywhere.  So, unconsciously or consciously, they are allowed protection of their future reputations despite their being the catalysts in this travesty of justice.  In contrast, the Black youth who were involved and who were demonstrably the responders, not the instigators, are obviously seen as having no future worth protecting.  If they were, then why are they all facing sentences that guarantee they will finish growing up behind the walls of a hellish Louisiana prison, and if they are given the maximums, will likely die there as well?

Yet they don't care anywhere else either.  Because the travesty of justice that is occuring in Jena, Louisiana in connection with six of our Black youth is happening all over America now, in increasingly frequent travesties of justice small and large that are collectively condemning our young Black men's futures before they've even had a chance to become legal men.  There was a quote in one of the first articles I ever read about the Jena Six that makes it plain what time it is for us in light of that:

You better get out of your houses. You better come out and defend your children - because they are incarcerating them by the thousands. Jena's not the beginning, but Jena has crossed the line.  Justice is not right when you put on the wrong charges and then convict. I believe in justice. I believe in the point of law. I believe in accepting the punishment if I'm guilty. If I'm guilty, convict me and punish me, but if I'm innocent, no justice.

I believe in those things too, and have since long before I ever took my oath as an attorney all these many years ago.  Which is why I'm glad that we have had today to blog for justice for the Jena Six - our youth, being snatched away from us by the injustice of ongoing white supremacy in America and its handmaiden, prosecutorial discretion in the hands of racist whites. 

But, since when it comes to the Jena Six, neither the media nor the politicians stumping for our votes seem to care much (including, except as a member of the collective Congressional Black Caucus since I cannot find any public statement he has yet made about the Jena Six despite being the only Black man running for President at this time -- Senator Barack Obama /sigh.) 

So it's up to us to care, since they are OUR children, that our young men are being railroaded into figurative death -- their youth being potentially stripped away from them, merely for a youthful loss of temper that those much older probably would have had long before young master Justin Barker got the ass-whuppin his racist mouth had coming to it.

Here's the call to action:  those of you who believe in justice -- those for who the words of Dr. King about the nature of justice and his wise counsel that where injustice is concerned, what affects one, affects all --  those of you in solidarity, raise your mouses.  Raise your virtual pens.  Beauharnais v. Illinois may no longer be considered good law, but some words are still fighting words. 

So let's fight.

Since we cannot and should not in a just world need to use our fists, let's fight through our blogs.  But don't stop there.  Fight through our letters and phone calls and through taking our bodies to the streets in protest if we have to, to save these young men's lives from the travesty of justice unfolding in Jena.

Blog for justice today, and tomorrow and until we as Black people actually see it as something more than a one-off whenever whites accuse us of committing crimes against them.  Justice for the Jena Six, whose finally getting sick and tired of being sick and tired have them now facing between 22 and 80 years in prison for a schoolyard brawl.  Justice the New Jersey 4, young Black women who like the Jena Six had no criminal records yet who are now serving between 3 and 11 years in prison merely for defending themselves against a gender-based physical attack on them grounded in their status as lesbians -- despite videotape proving they acted in self-defense against, not as instigators of, violence.  Blog for justice for the survivors of Katrina who rang bells in the Big Easy yesterday on the Second Anniversary to both honor the souls of the dead and to warn future generations that the tide may still one day rise against us - unless we are ever vigilant.

And after you're done blogging, please take the time to read the words of those other Afrospear members who have taken up the cause of justice through their blogs today for the Jena 6, and follow their links to action:

  • Wayne Hicks @ Electronic Village

  • D. Yobachi Boswell @ Black Perspective

  • Daz Wilson @ Ultraviolet Underground

  • Francis Holland @ Afrosphere Bloggers Association

  • Jim D. Walton @ Black in Business

  • 6. Cooper @ Wonderland or Not

  • 7. Yolonda @Ebony Mommy

  • 8. Vanessa Byers @ Vanessa: Unplugged

  • 9. Sincere @ http://sincere-thoug...

  • 10. Pia @ Courting Destiny

  • 11. Adrianne George @ Black Women in Europe

  • 12. Eddie Griffin @ Eddie Griffin BASG

  • 13. PB @ Savant Writer

  • 14. Tom Autopref @The Small Business Weekly

  • 15. Dave J. @Wandering in Ether

  • 16.  B. Medusa @ Mnemosyne

  • 17.  Shawn Williams @Dallas South Blog

  • 18. Deidra @Black and Missing but Not Forgotten

  • 19.  AAPP @ African American Political Pundit & African-American Opinion

  • 20. Invisible Woman @Invisible Cinema

  • 21. Plez @PlezWorld

  • 22. Mahogony Diva @ Mahogany Diva

  • 23. Saba @ Greasy Guide

  • 24.  Out of the Jungle


    At 3:47 AM, Blogger Villager said...

    Blogging for justice is never late. Thank you for supporting this effort. We've had good news in the past day on Kenneth Foster. Hopefully, we can move the process forward for the six young men in Jena, LA.

    At 7:42 AM, Blogger Shanikka said...

    Thanks for the positive feedback. I managed to get this posted at my main site Maat's Feather on time yesterday (at literally 11:45), and I have also cross-posted it other places today as well.

    Feel free to drop by Maat's Feather to dialogue. I also posted the glad tidings about Kenneth Foster, which to me just goes to show the old folks' wisdom about never giving up unti you literally give out.


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