Lessons from Jena

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The case of the Jena 6 was discussed with great interest on the internet for months with petitions and calls for justice. However, it took 100,000 people marching on the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana to finally help this story take hold in the mainstream media. Now, millions have been exposed to the ugly racial hatred of a “white” tree and nooses as well as the equally ugly systematic racial discrimination of unequal justice.

One of the problems with most mainstream coverage is it tends to sensationalize, framing any given situation as stand-alone, without putting it into the broader context. If any lesson is to be learned from the Jena 6 case, we must examine the bigger picture of how something like this can occur in the 21st century.

Since Jena 6 made the news, there have been multiple reports of nooses showing up on college campuses and work sites. On September 7, a noose was found hanging from a tree outside of the multicultural center at University of Maryland. Shortly after African American employees launched a lawsuit in August against Navistar International of Warrensville, Indiana alleging a hostile work environment, a bag of nooses was found under the plant’s human resource director’s desk. The court is expected to award the Navistar employees $9 million. Calls on websites by white supremacists for the lynching of the Jena 6 (and providing addresses of their families) are essentially electronic nooses.

It would be easy to view these incidents as isolated, or just copycat actions by pockets of disgruntled white students or employees. But, again, that’s missing the big picture: federal government attacks on immigrants, Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action and school desegregation, and racist characterizations and dehumanization of Iraqi people in the media as a result of the war have created an overarching sentiment in which racial hatred flourishes and some are emboldened to act on that hate.

As appalling as these acts of racial hatred are, they are but a symptom of the bigger problem–endemic institutionalized racism. And while racism is a problem in many institutions, there is no place in society where racial disparities are more concentrated than in the criminal justice system, especially the juvenile justice system.

In it’s recent report America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline, the Children’s Defense Fund points out that Black youth are four times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated for the same offense. For drug offenses, Black youth are 48 times more likely and Latino youth 9 times more likely than whites to get locked up. As these youth grow up, the injustice continues. Every Black boy born in this country has a 1 in 3 lifetime chance of ending up in prison.

“I can take away your lives with a stroke of a pen” is the threat made by District Attorney Reed Walters to Black youth in Jena who protested the hanging of nooses on the tree at their high school. He later made this threat real by zealously overcharging a group of six of those students involved in a school yard fight after being taunted by a white classmate.

It would be comforting, perhaps, to think that sort of vicious overprosecution happens only in backwater towns in the south. But it would also be dead wrong. Our state, Minnesota, has the highest rate of overprosecution and overconviction of Blacks of any state in the entire country. This Minnesota trend holds for youth as well as adults. The Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center detains disproportionately more black juveniles for all forms of violations – new offenses, warrants, and arrest and detention orders – and for longer periods than their white counterparts.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the Jena 6 case, it’s that “Jena” cases happen in all states all the time.

This year, we will mark the October 22 National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation by exposing the oppressive depths of the juvenile justice system and the ways in which prosecutors, judges and others destroy the lives of our children “with a stroke of their pen.” If you care about our youth and, indeed, our future join us as we educate and activate the community on this vital issue.

Saturday, October 20
3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Teach In on the Juvenile “Justice” System
Walker Church, 3100 16th Ave S, Minneapolis
Did you know that parents are prohibited from assisting their children when they go to court? Did you know that children get “indeterminate” sentences and can be locked up for years on simple offenses? Did you know that kids have far fewer rights in the court system than adults? Come to this teach in and learn how the juvenile “justice” system really operates and what you can do about it.

Sunday, October 21
6:00 p.m.
Stolen Lives Commemoration Ceremony
Walker Church, 3100 16th Ave S, Minneapolis
Stolen lives are people who died at the hands of law enforcement. They can no longer speak for themselves but we can and will remember them and tell their stories. This year, we will place special emphasis on young people whose lives were cut short.

Monday, October 22
5:00 p.m.
Rally and March Against Police Brutality and Injustice
Juvenile Justice Center, 626 S 6th Street, Minneapolis
Rally and march for justice for all people who have experienced police brutality, especially our youth.