Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Aggravated assault... with a shoe???

I used to make the argument that institutionalized racism was dead in the US. Individual companies and people were still all too often prejudiced, but official state and country policy was unbiased. I say used to, until I heard about the Jena Six.

Forgive me if you already know about this story, but it only recently came to my attention. Here's the story. Rural town in Louisiana (population of 2,900 with about 350 black residents ), high amounts of self segregation in school. At a school assembly, black high school student asks "permission" to sit under a tree where white students usually sit. The next day, three nooses are hanging from the tree. Principal suspends students responsible, only to be overruled by the superintendent claiming it was just a prank.

Racial tensions at school begin to escalate, some violently. A black student gets assaulted at a party by a group of white males. The same black student runs into one of the males the next night at a convenient store. As the white male goes for his shot gun, the black student wrestles it away from him and refuses to return it. When his friends get him to bring it to the police, he's charged with three counts relating to theft and disturbing the peace. The white student goes unpunished.

The next day, another white student verbally provokes some black students who attack him. He lost consciousness and suffered some minor injuries, but was well enough to attend a school function later that day. In connection with this attack (shortly after), 6 black students were charged with aggravated assault, later increased to attempted 2nd degree murder. The day before the trial of the first defendant, the charges were changed to aggravated 2nd degree battery. The term aggravated is used when the assault involves a "deadly weapon." In this case, the prosecutor claims the shoes the defendant was wearing was the deadly weapon.

Compare this to the treatment of the white male eventually (7 months later) tried for attacking the black student. His charge: simple battery. Currently some of the 6 are behind bars awaiting trial, as their families cannot afford the bail, which ranged from $70,000 to $138,000. The single white male's bail- $5000. Oh yeah, did I mention the white district attorney made some questionable statements in response to the noose incident and subsequent fighting? Or that those who hung the nooses have never been charged, although it could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime?

Now, I'm not defending violence as a means to solve any difference, but from a justice standpoint, the double standard seems pretty evident. This is our judicial system treating people differently based on the color of their skin. I mean, for a second, take race out of it. Since when is a tennis sneaker considered a deadly weapon??? When the DA wants to seek a harsher punishment? The original charges of attempted murder and conspiracy could have resulted in a 50 year sentence combined for an attack in which the victim was released 2 after two hours in jail and has no lingering injuries. How in any way was the punishment sought suited to meet the crime?

So why bring this up now? The first of the 6 was just convicted and faces sentencing on September 20th. His public defender did not offer any witnesses in his defense, and he was tried in the same county by an all white jury. There's a petition (follow the first link below) to attempt to change the charges the prosecutors seek and arrange an alternative place for the defendants to be tried in. And they need all the help they can get.

Anyways, here are a couple of links to check out for more information:
sign the petition

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