Doing Justice

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Student groups react to the controversial Jena case.

The small town of Jena, La., first began dominating headlines after six black high school students were charged with attempted second-degree murder despite the fact that the injuries of the white student they assaulted were not grave enough to prevent him from attending a class ring ceremony only hours later. Supporters have since rallied behind the “Jena Six,” whose cause has generated a media storm and become a symbol of a larger struggle for equal justice in America.

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators attended a protest in support of the six students, held last Thursday in Jena. On Harvard’s campus, the occurrences in Jena have sparked heated discussion over e-mail open lists, as well as articles from the Black Pre-Law Association (BPLA). Representatives of the Black Community Leaders (BCL), made up of black student organizations, have planned a demonstration in Harvard Yard, as well as an editorial campaign and an IOP Forum event. The BCL hopes to raise awareness not only about the Jena Six, but also about what Sarah Lockridge-Steckel ’09, president of the Black Students Association (BSA), called “our [country’s] long history of an unequal justice system.”

“Black youth, students, people in America are not treated equally,” said Lockridge-Steckel. “It manifests itself in a variety of ways. … If it had been six white students hitting a black student, would there have been the same response?”

Months before the December 2006 attack on the white student by the Jena Six, Kenneth Purvis, a black student and football player at Jena High, reportedly asked at an assembly whether anyone could sit under the schoolyard’s large, shady oak tree — a tree where only white students tended to gather. The principal confirmed that he was free to sit anywhere he wanted.

Three white students disagreed. In the morning, shocked students and faculty members found three nooses hanging on the “white tree.”

Many wanted the students who hung the nooses to be expelled, including the school’s principal. However, the school board limited the boys’ punishment to suspension.

Matthew Clair ’09, Vice President of the Black Pre-Law Association, wrote in an e-mail that “the rules of the school … were appropriate,” but “the school district ignored or misapplied the rules.” He added that the “misapplication of the law is what we should be worried about. It is when judges and boards have the discretion to overrule, grant exceptions and misapply laws that the justice system breaks down. The board should not have overruled the principal’s decision to expel the students.”

Despite the outrage in Jena over the white students’ lenient punishment, the school seemed to be moving past the incident as the football season started up. But on November 30, an unknown arsonist set fire to Jena High. Tensions were inflamed: several fights broke out between black and white students. None of the white students were charged with any serious crime, although the black students face charges of, among other things, assault.

On December 4, a white student named Justin Barker was loudly uttering racial epithets, according to witnesses. Six black students attacked Barker, reportedly continuing to kick him even after he passed out. The Jena Six were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder.

Jena first gained national and international notoriety over the summer as the trial of Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, unfolded. In June, the prosecutor agreed to reduce the charges against Bell to aggravated battery and conspiracy. The charges against the other five teens have also been reduced following public outcry.

Many perceive the Jena Six to be victims of the improper exercise of justice. The grave sentences they face for assault are contrasted with the comparatively lenient punishments that white students of Jena High have received. Clair noted that because the white students hung nooses in a public school, charges could have been brought against them, even though their actions did not fall under the general legal definition of a hate crime.

“There is little wrong with the justice system in the plainest sense; however, law will always be interpreted by human beings, who are fallible and carry their prejudices with them. We have to admit to this fact and confront it. We can no longer hide behind our liberal-democratic justice system that seems egalitarian on the surface,” Clair wrote.

Bell is the only member of the Jena Six whose case has been to trial. An all-white jury convicted Bell of aggravated second-degree battery, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned his conviction, because Bell was tried as an adult while still a minor. The other five black students were 17 at the time of the assault and are legally adults in Louisiana. Bell remains in prison and has been so for ten months, which has generated much public outrage.

Some critics of the outpouring of support for the Jena Six have noted that teens are not blameless, and that the injuries of the student they attacked were serious. The Associated Press reported on September 24 that many locals contest the story that has been told by most of the media. Teachers and administrators at Jena High deny the existence of the “white tree,” saying that all students sat under it. According the Associated Press, the students who hung the nooses received two weeks of suspension, far more than the reported punishment of three days.

Brittany Northcross ’09, public relations chair of the BSA, remarked, “It’s a very grey area what Jena 6 is; it’s not a black and white issue of right and wrong. Within the black community, nobody feels the same way about this issue at all.”

The Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have been two of the most vocal critics of the events in Jena. Sharpton has called the case of the Jena Six “the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we’ve seen.” Clair stated that the rhetoric of Jackson and Sharpton “may, at times, be considered excessive,” but added that such rhetoric helps to bring attention to the miscarriage of justice in Jena.

In recent days, two teenagers were arrested for driving a pickup truck in Jena with nooses hanging off the back. A neo-Nazi leader posted the addresses of the Jena Six on his website and urged readers to “lynch the Jena 6.”

To Lockridge-Steckel, such incidents of racism prove how important it is for the public to get the real facts about the Jena Six.

“This is not a black issue. This is a problem for all people in America. I just hope that we can learn from it. … It’s 2007, so people are astounded that something like this could happen, but it’s been building up for a long time.”

The BCL’s demonstration will be held on Sunday, October 7 and is currently slated to begin at 3pm. Lockridge-Steckel said the BCL hopes the demonstration will include high school students and other youth, as well as local residents, campus student groups, and Harvard faculty members.