Today, Sept. 20, over 10,000 people will converge on Jena, Louisiana, to call for justice for the “Jena 6.” Thousands more will hold vigils in cities across America. As reported previously on this blog, it all started on Sept. 1, 2006, when a black student at the high school asked an administrator if he could sit underneath a tree in the courtyard where traditionally only white students sat. The administrator told him that he could sit wherever he wanted. The next morning, there were three nooses hanging in that tree. The school dismissed this hate crime as a prank. When black students protested, the local district attorney threatened that he could take their life away with a “stroke of my pen.” Then, white students provoked a series of incidents with black students.
In one altercation, a white graduate of the high school threatened three black students with a shotgun. The black youth wrestled the gun out of his hands, but incredibly were charged with theft of the weapon, ignoring the fact that they were defending themselves! Then, a group of white youth attacked a single black youth at a party — and the police took no serious action. Finally, a black youth named Mychall Bell struck a white youth who had taunted him with racial slurs, and several of his friends joined the fray. The white youth went to the hospital, but was released that day and went to a party that night. The six black students were charged with attempted murder. After a national outcry, the charges were reduced to conspiracy and battery. This month, a Louisiana court of appeals vacated the charges against Bell, ruling that the prosecutor was wrong to charge him as an adult instead of a juvenile — but he is still sitting in jail instead of moving forward with his education.
When I was in college, I was part of a faith-based movement called Friends of Justice. We emerged as an interracial alliance after a drug sting that arrested 60 percent of my town’s young black men all in one fell swoop. Friends of Justice came together across racial lines to say this wasn’t right, and we started praying, singing, and reading the Bible together. Now, Friends of Justice organizes across Texas and Louisiana to fight cases of civil rights violations and prosecutorial misconduct. In January, we got a call from a desperate mother in Jena, Louisiana, and so we sent out our executive director, Alan Bean, to do an investigation. After we generated international media attention, the cause of the Jena 6 attracted support from a host of civil rights organizations and celebrities.
America is shocked by the naked bigotry they see in Jena, Louisiana. Why aren’t Jena’s white residents equally protective of all their town’s children? By only intervening to protect whites, Jena’s white establishment bears the responsibility for letting conflict escalate between black and white youth.
It would be tempting to dismiss the Jena story as representing the vestiges of bigotry in small-town Louisiana — but Jena is America.
Judging from some of the comments I hear from white Americans, many are stuck in an “us vs. them” mentality, where justice becomes a zero-sum-game: “there they go again, breaking the law and then playing the race card to escape responsibility!” Since we don’t think of black youth as “our” youth, we resent it when someone stands up for their rights as citizens. It grieves me to say this, but too many white Americans see black youth only as potential threats that must be contained by all available means. Many protest that the problem lies only within “troublemaking black youth” — rather than our broken criminal justice system.
There is no quick fix for America’s distorted moral imagination. We can only move forward as a nation when our hearts and minds are transformed by the gospel. Lord, gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.
Lydia Bean is a founding member of Friends of Justice and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard University. To get involved, you can visit the Friends of Justice blog, make a donation, and sign up for Action Updates. Hear a song about Jena, “Sitting on the Wall,” performed by Alan and Lydia Bean at the Pentecost 2007 conference. (Refresh your browser if the song doesn’t load correctly.)