by Etan Thomas and Dave Zirin
“Outsiders need to stay away.”
That’s what Billy Fowler of the school board in Jena, Louisiana, said about those who have raised concerns about the sentencing imposed on six African American boys — aged 15-17 — facing 100 years in prison.
Outsiders are always what people in the South have called those who challenge racism. But the story of Jena is not an outsider/insider story. It’s a story about the worst tradition of what is known as Southern Justice. And like in the days of Jim Crow, it’s a story where any shades of gray matter far less than black and white.
The issue by now has become well known: discussed on CNN and in the pages of USA Today. At Jena High School, a black student received permission from school authorities to sit underneath what was known as “the white tree” (remarkable that he felt he had to ask!). The next day, in retribution, three nooses hung from the branches, threats that they would soon be harvesting “strange fruit.”
In protest, black students collectively decided to sit under the tree. This a bold and beautiful act in the spirit of the best traditions of the ’60s. They refused to comply with racist terror, even when those threats are as drastic as being lynched for simply not staying in your place.
And just like in the old South, the state made clear which side it was on. The town DA, Reid Walters, actually had the audacity to threaten only the black students, telling them that he had the power to ruin their lives with the stroke of his pen if they continued to make trouble.
Tensions escalated over the course of the semester. Two black students were beaten by a white student while another group of black students were threatened with a shotgun by a former classmate. Surprisingly, none of the white students or former students were punished in any way for these incidents.
But the following Monday when a white student was beaten up by six black classmates, they were immediately arrested and charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, charges that would put them in jail for 100 years without parole. The Jena 6 ranges in age from 15-17. The white student spent three hours in a hospital emergency room and required no further medical care.
Mychall Bell was the first student tried. He was represented by a public defender that called no witness, and was quickly convicted by an all white jury, white judge, and now faces up to 22 years in prison.
Recently, in response to a public outcry about the case, prosecutors have announced that charges against Shaw and Jones had been reduced to lesser felonies. But the need to be heard on this continues. Two other students, Robert Bailey Jr. and Bryant Purvis, still await trial for attempted murder. Bell’s conviction has been allowed to stand even though the judge ruled he had been improperly convicted in an adult court when he should have been tried as a juvenile. Shaw and Jones still face years in prison.
As Billy Hunter, the head of the National Basketball Player’s association, said, “The situation in Jena, Louisiana is abominable and rotten to the core. The actions of the District Attorney demonstrate that racism and bigotry are live and well in Jena. As a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California and Assistant Chief in the S.F. District Attorney’s Office, it is my opinion that the District Attorney’s has severely overcharged the case revealing his bias against the six black Jena youth. His actions should serve as a wake-up call for all Americans who believe in an impartial and fair criminal justice system.”
This is a case that should outrage any individual regardless of the color of their skin. When the justice system can be a direct symbol of racism, injustice and terror, the very moral fiber of our society is threatened. This is not a time for neutrality. Insiders and so-called outsiders will be marching in Jena on September 20th. We will also be circulating a statement in the world of sports for those who choose to support the efforts to have the charges against the Jena 6 dismissed.
The simple truth is that when it comes to issues of basic justice, there are no such thing as “outsiders.”
Etan Thomas is a center for the Washington Wizards and a columnist for SLAMonline.com. You can order Etan’s book “More Than An Athlete” on amazon.com here and through his publisher here. Dave Zirin is a columnist for SLAM, a regular contributor to The Nation, and a regular op-ed writer for the Los Angeles Times. Find out more about Dave here.