"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.
The buses long have left town. But the indignation that fueled the event burns as intensely as ever. On October 1, student activists staged walkouts at more than 100 schools around the country in support of the "Jena 6." Organizers in particular offered praise for 17-year-old Mychal Bell, the only defendant thus far convicted. Having spent nearly 10 months in jail, Bell was released in late September on $45,000 bail (he'd wrongly been tried as an adult, concluded a state judge), and is now back behind prison bars for violating probation for a separate prior offense. Bell "could have been my brother," said Amira Rahim, who helped organize the walkout at the University of Pittsburgh.
Such is the mentality at far higher levels. At an emotionally-charged October 16 hearing, members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled Donald Washington, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. The push for racial solidarity was in the air. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Tex., demanded, "I want you to tell me why you, the first black [Western District of Louisiana] U.S. district attorney, did not do more, and I want to know what you're doing to get Mychal Bell out of jail." Washington lamely responded: "I did intervene. I will tell you that just like you were offended, I was offended."
Perhaps the most egregious flight from reality occurred at Black Entertainment Television's Hip Hop Awards show, held Saturday night, October 13, and broadcast the following Wednesday. Two of the Jena 6 defendants, Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis, had been selected to present the award for Video of the Year. The pair received a standing ovation as they walked on stage at the Atlanta Civic Center. Purvis, the only defendant thus far not yet arraigned, declared that the September 20 Jena march proved "our generation can unite and rally around a cause." He then handed Kanye West the award for his hit single, "Stronger"; West shook hands with both teens.
How does one rationalize bringing Jones and Purvis aboard? The show's host, comedian Katt Williams, put it this way: "By no means are we condoning a six-on-one beat-down.... But the injustice perpetrated on these young men is straight criminal." This was a case, he added, of "systematic racism."
Such comments are very much in line with a plethora of do-it-yourself videos recently posted on YouTube. Though the presentations vary by length and production quality, their guiding assumption is invariably the same: The six black defendants are not thugs, but victims of white racist America. Footage of the September 20 march and rally is especially prominent. One video, a real tear-jerker, has Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" playing over a photomontage of the day's events -- talk about sacrilege!
We at the National Legal and Policy Center (www.nlpc.org), a Falls Church, Va.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting public accountability, decided to fight fire with fire. If YouTube has become a forum for distorting the record, we thought, it also can be a forum for setting it straight. And so NLPC President Peter Flaherty and I, with some outside production help, earlier this month recorded a roughly 20-minute video, broken into two parts, to counteract common misconceptions about Jena. The presentation, titled, "Sharpton & Jackson: Wrong about Jena," is up on YouTube.
We've made every effort to summarize events and put them into context. What's more, we identified not only the race-hustlers, but some of their major corporate enablers.
Building publicity for a nationwide political campaign costs money. The organizers of the "Jena 6" agitprop know that without outside support, events such as the September 20 rally might not have come off. But they're savvy. Over the years they've cultivated close working relations with executives of many major corporations. Jesse Jackson in particular has secured generous funding for his organizations from Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Boeing, Toyota and other companies. And Al Sharpton for a number of years has served in a compensated position on PepsiCo's African-American advisory board. Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, for his part, has praised Sharpton as a "dynamic leader."
We can expect Black Entertainment Television to bankroll a celebration of Jena's black defendants. The Washington, D.C.-based cable network, after all, was founded back in 1980 as an explicit expression of black identity -- though, one might add, with the crucial help of $500,000 in venture capital from cable mogul John Malone, who is white. But officials of McDonald's, Anheuser-Busch and other companies whose product lines are not inherently connected to racial identity should be more circumspect. They might not be directly aiding the Jena publicity machine, but their donations have helped make it possible all the same. Let the race-hustlers dig into their own pockets to fund their deluded campaign.