October 21, 2007
The Jena 6 and CrimeBy Michael L. Wagers
The Jena 6 have become the newest cause proffered by some in the civil rights community as an outrage demanding America's attention. BET did not miss a beat this week in pushing the wrong agenda. The network "used" two of the Jena 6 defendants as presenters at its Hip Hop Awards ceremony. BET joins a list of other groups and prominent politicians and celebrities that have turned a small town injustice into the latest cause celebre. British rockstar David Bowie has donated $10,000 to the legal defense fund. John Mellencamp released a new song recently entitled, "Jena, Take Your Nooses Down." I am surprised he beat Bruce Spingsteen to the punch.
According to some civil rights pundits, the small Louisiana town of Jena, population 3,000, is the new Montgomery. The 10,000 marchers that gathered last month protesting the treatment of six black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate is the beginning, according to the Reverend Al Sharpton, of the 21st century civil rights movement.
If we take a step back and look at the facts, however, it is a stretch to think that Mychal Bell and his cohorts are the vanguards of a new movement. But as so often happens in cases like these, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? Many of the same voices such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson were also the ones that propelled the Duke Lacrosse case into the national spotlight (and media circus). Jackson wrote the following about that case:
Now this makes for a good story. Too bad what really happened did not fit this script.
Luckily, we are learning more about the Jena 6 case. Todd Lewan, a writer for the Associated Press, has helped straighten out some of the facts for us. Take this correction, for example:
Or this one:
Let's look at what we do know: A schoolyard brawl sent one student to the hospital. Justin Barker, who was at the losing end of that fight, received a concussion and his eye was swollen shut. The prosecutor, whatever his motivation -- racial tension in the town, racism -- was overzealous in charging the students. He also charged Mr. Bell as an adult. But, before we become outraged, again, let's return to the facts. Charges against the students were reduced and a court subsequently overturned Bell's adult conviction.
This is exactly what is supposed to happen; this is the way the system is supposed to work. And thanks to the real civil rights movement, protections are now in place to guard against overt racial discrimination in the system. Make no mistake: prosecutorial misconduct does occur; police do act abusively and can be corrupt; and, judges issue bad rulings. But, the system is set up in such a way to catch and punish the misdeeds committed by actors in our criminal justice system. Just ask former Durham County (NC) District Attorney Mike Nifong.
This is not to suggest that race is not an issue in this case. The hanging of the noose was inspired by bigotry and meant to racially intimidate black students. This act, according to the defendants, provoked their actions. Also, it does seem that there was selective prosecution for those involved in the interracial skirmishes that occurred in the months leading up to the fight. The prosecutor, for example, charged three black students with theft after they took a shotgun away from a white student who had pulled it on them; the white student was not charged.
Does this make what is going on in Jena the modern day equivalent to Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to white passengers in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955? No, and not because Parks engaged in an act of civil disobedience and the Jena 6 defendants engaged in an act of violence. Some movements do indeed begin with violent action. It is not the same because times have changed.
My suggestion to Messrs. Bowie, Mellencamp, Sharpton, and the others who are indignant about the Jena 6 case, is to express outrage at what is happening on the streets of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit -- the list could go on. The modern day equivalent of racial segregation is the culture of violence that exists in many communities in this nation. This street violence is doing more harm to communities of color than what is going on in Jena. It is killing off a whole generation of young African American youth. The rallying cry should be, "Stop the Violence," Not "Free the Jena 6."
But alas, the attention being focused on Jena is seeing good theater. As Lewan writes about what is happening in Louisiana:
On the other hand, the narrative playing out daily in distressed urban centers does not fit the preordained script about race and society in the United States because its causes are difficult to talk about.
Again, let's stick to facts. For the second year in a row, the crime rate in the country increased. Murders and robberies led the way; robberies, for example, increased by 7.2 percent in 2006. South Carolina tops the list in violent crimes per 100,000 citizens. Who is disproportionately affected by this rise in violence? Of the nearly 15,000 homicides that occurred last year, blacks made up almost half of all victims, despite only making up 12 percent of the total population. Offender statistics are just as discouraging: nationwide, blacks kill someone, most often another black person, eight times more often than whites. And of course, national statistics masked the true picture; the percentages are more pronounced in urban centers, like South Los Angeles.
While we are still well below the crime numbers of the bad old days of the early 1990s, the nature of violence we are seeing on the streets is troubling: petty disputes and arguments among groups of African American youth escalate and too often end with a shooting. The often depressed and depraved situations some of these youth experience growing up impoverished, fatherless, poorly educated has perpetuated a norm on many city streets where violence is the expected outcome to a dispute; where violence is seen as a means to an end. This leads, as an African American pastor told me in Newark a few years back, to a generation of youth for whom getting shot or shooting someone is "often the luck of the draw." That is a sad commentary on urban life.
Instead of writing songs about or marching on Jena, let's channel that energy toward ways to end this culture of violence. In Philadelphia, the police commissioner has called on 10,000 African American men to hit the streets over the next 90 days to stop the hemorrhaging that city has been experiencing for years. As we learned from the New York City police department in the 1990s, police can do much to address street crime. But, as the exasperated Philly commissioner realizes, police can only do so much.
Any sensible person realizes that the end result of the carnage caused by this street culture produces a bigger injustice than what's happening in Jena: more violence means more kids in the hospitals or morgues and more young black men behind bars. Let's focus our attention on the violence that plagues African American communities. That is the civil-rights problem of the 21st century.
Michael Wagers is Assistant Professor, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina and former Executive Director, Police Institute at Rutgers-Newark.