Carl Horowitz

"You think we brought thousands to Jena. You wait 'til we go to D.C. and bring the whole country, because there's Jenas all over America. There's Jenas in New York. There's Jenas in Atlanta. There's Jenas in Florida. There's Jenas all over Texas." -- Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking in Jena, Louisiana, September 20, 2007

Times had been tough for a while for Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and other self-proclaimed civil-rights spokesmen. Their attempt to sway public opinion in the hopes of railroading into prison three white Duke University lacrosse players on phony rape charges backfired badly this spring. In this context, the unfolding crisis in Jena, Louisiana that began at the start of the 2006-07 school year has been a godsend, a renewed opportunity to put the "real" America on trial.

It's hard to say which is more depressing: the vicious, unprovoked stomping on December 4, 2006 by six (or more) Jena High School black students of an innocent fellow white student, Justin Barker, or the subsequent outpouring of nationwide sympathy among blacks for the alleged assailants. The charge of attempted second-degree murder against each of the six defendants subsequently was reduced to aggravated second-degree battery at an arraignment for five of them.

To supporters, the defendants, known collectively as the "Jena Six," merely had overreacted to a continuing legacy of white racism. Whatever wrongs they had committed pale in comparison to another wrong committed a few months earlier: the hanging of empty nooses from a shade tree on school grounds. Apparently, a six-on-one assault, euphemistically known as "a fight," wasn't the injustice; prosecuting the assailants while declining to prosecute the noose-hangers was.

The rage rose and eventually crested, for the time being, this past September 20, when an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people descended by bus upon Jena, population 3,000, to demand that the prosecution drop all charges against the attackers. A parade of speakers, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, gave the people what they came to hear -- an indictment of American justice.

Remember, signs at the rally read "Free the Jena 6," not "Reduce the Charges against the Jena 6." The demonstrators really believed the assailants were innocent. For them, the three white kids (Justin Barker, for the record, was not among them) who admitted to hanging the noose, ultimately receiving an in-school suspension rather than an expulsion, were the real criminals.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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