Magazine article The New Yorker

DISPARITIES; Comment; Comment

Magazine article The New Yorker

DISPARITIES; Comment; Comment

Article excerpt

Just over a year ago, during a high-school assembly in Jena, Louisiana, a black student asked the school's white principal if it would be all right to sit under an oak tree outside, an oasis of shade known as the "white tree," because only Caucasian students congregated there. The principal said that the young man could sit where he liked. Later, the student and some African-American friends walked over to the oak and chatted with some white schoolmates. The next day, somebody fixed two nooses to the tree's branches.

The ropes inaugurated a narrative of conflict and small-town justice in the Deep South known today as the case of the Jena Six, a story populated by a disconcerting number of stock characters from the late Jim Crow era. Its origins signalled a theatrical quality that a swelling cast, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, has managed to sustain; an Off Broadway production (backlit oak tree, gentle wind machines, soliloquies about past and present) seems inevitable.

Although some of the evidence in the Jena case is murky, a cumulative verdict of racial double standards lies beyond reasonable doubt. Between Reconstruction and the end of the Second World War, more than two hundred and fifty people in Louisiana, the great majority of them African-Americans, were lynched. Jena's recent noosemakers, identified as a trio of white students, were recommended for expulsion by the principal, who was evidently conscious of this history, but a white school superintendent imposed suspensions only, on the ground that the tree display was a prank. In the days leading up to that decision, fights had erupted between black and white students, and the local district attorney, Reed Walters, reportedly gave a speech in which he warned students, "With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear."

Last December, at the school, a black student coldcocked a white student, Justin Barker, knocking him briefly unconscious; other black students allegedly kicked the victim while he lay on the ground. Barker was treated for cuts and bruises at a hospital and released a few hours later. The police arrested six black students, aged fourteen to eighteen, and Walters charged them with attempted second-degree murder and a conspiracy count; if convicted, they faced up to seventy-five years in prison.

Jena prosecutors started reducing the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. Still, last June an all-white jury convicted one of the defendants, Mychal Bell, who was sixteen years old at the time of the assault, of crimes that threatened him with up to twenty-two years in an adult state prison. Michael Baisden, a black syndicated radio talk-show host who normally specializes in romance and its perils, undertook an on-air protest, along with others, which spread across black radio and then to the Internet. In late September, thousands of demonstrators descended on Jena. Last Thursday, Bell, whose convictions had been thrown out, was released on bail, after ten months in jail; Reed Walters has agreed to retry him as a juvenile.

Last week, in the Times, Walters defended his work; he described himself as just "a lawyer obligated to enforce the laws of my state." A devotion to the sanctity of statutes is, of course, essential in a nation governed by laws, but equally important is the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, derived from an intuitive commitment to fairness and common sense. …

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