Justice in South is still vengeful


CIVIL rights groups that offered even measured praise when the LaSalle Parish district attorney in Jena, La., reduced charges against a black student accused of attacking a white student deserve a symbolic slap upside the head.

So does DA Reed Walters for refusing to be reasonable about the racially charged case, in which kids were fighting over who should sit under a particular oak tree. Nobody died, nobody attempted to murder anyone, and nobody was left with lasting injuries.

The civil rights groups delivered a meek "thank you, massa" response when the district attorney earlier this summer reduced attempted murder charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same against one of six black students, known as the Jena Six.

The Jena High School students are charged in the beating of a white classmate, who taunted black students in a racially charged environment that engulfed the school at the start of the last school year.

The oak tree, which has since been cut down, was known as the "white tree" because that's where only white students used to gather. At an assembly at the opening of school, a black student asked the vice principal if he could sit under the tree. Of course, the vice principal told him, "You can sit anywhere you like."

But when black students went to be with white friends to find relief from the deep southern heat in the tree's shade, three nooses were hanging from its branches.

That exacerbated the racial tension already prevalent in Jena, a rural town of only 3,000 people, 10 percent of whom are black.

From reports, the town never moved from the early 20th century, when everything was fine as long as people - blacks - stayed in their place. And to prove just how dense those folks are down there, the school superintendent referred to the noose incident as a "prank" and said he didn't "think it was a threat against anybody."

If school administrators had been at least as forthright in dealing with that - and made white students understand what a noose hanging from a tree means to their black peers - as they were about calling in the district attorney to talk to students about the disturbances, this might not be an issue.

But making light of it made matters worse. It was as if administrators said they didn't care about how black people viewed the racially charged symbol.

So the school summoned the DA, who arrived with back up: police officers.

He said, "I can be your best friend or you worst enemy." But then he added, "With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear."

And he's trying to make that happen.

In June, one of the students, Mychal Bell, 16, was found guilty by an all white jury - shock - of the lesser charges, if you want to call them that, considering that he could have faced 22 years in prison. He will be sentenced Sept. 20, and since the conspiracy conviction was vacated, or set aside, just on Tuesday, maybe he will get a lesser sentence.

Also on Tuesday, charges against two of the other students, Curwin Jones and Theo Shaw, were also reduced to aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same. Curwin, Theo, and the other students, Robert Bailey, Bryant Purvis, and Jesse Beard, will be tried later.

Meanwhile, the white student, Justin Barker, who teased one of the six during a school lunch, was beaten in a fracas, passed out, and was treated at a hospital.

That same evening he attended a ring ceremony.

I don't make light of anybody striking anyone. Justin shouldn't have teased his peers, who shouldn't have responded as they did. But the DA's idea of a tennis shoe as a deadly weapon is far fetched. A student wearing the shoe kicked Justin. Dumb move, no doubt. But the DA's move was dumber still.

This is unfair, discrimination, racist, and an outrage. What an opportunity for the DA, superintendent, and other Jena authorities to teach tolerance, quell racial fears, and to move into the 21st century. They missed it. Sadly so. As for the white students who hung the nooses, they were suspended then allowed to return to school.

And it doesn't help that a white school board member wants outsiders to stay away and let Jena whites and blacks settle their problems. Nice idea, but they need outside help. Otherwise, the inbreeding will continue to foster racial attitudes that will result in eruptions from time to time.

In fact, the U.S. Justice Department should review the case because this sure looks like a repeat of unfair charges and trial outcomes involving blacks that were prevalent in the South decades ago. Too bad it's happening again, too often.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com