Questions Of Justice From Jena To Jackson
Yesterday was the five year anniversary of the question that triggered the debacle that blew up into a civil rights demonstration the nation had not seen for decades. Jena, Louisiana became ground zero in a conflict that had the potential to be perceived as one of the greatest challenges to race relations. It started as a clash between white youths and black youths. But when the local authorities got involved, there were only white victims and black perpetrators even though there was plenty of blame to go around. After a black student asked the Jena high school principal for permission to sit under a tree historically reserved for only white students, nooses were hanged. Depending on perspective it was a warning message to the black students at the predominantly white school, or it was just a racially insensitive joke at the black students’ expense. After a series of challenges, scuffles, fights and attacks, a white youth, Justin Barker, went to hospital and six black students, the group that became the Jena 6, faced prison. All but one of the black students faced attempted murder charges.
The mighty arm of law had to face the mightier arm of public awareness. Once national attention reached a critical point and a sizable portion of the black community came together to protest, resources were put together to challenge the lopsided appearance of justice applied and denied. The black students that were all but sentenced to decades of imprisonment in what should have been slam dunk prosecutions now had the means to fight their prosecutions. The charges of attempted murder were dialed back significantly and although the black students didn’t get off scot free, they weren’t singled out to have their lives destroyed for getting into a school yard fight that should have never happened in the first place. In twenty first century America, black students asking for permission to sit under a tree reserved for white students is itself uncalled for. The fact that it would eventually lead to such disparate treatment from authorities is a true indication of our post racial society.
An argument regarding the unfairness of our justice system could be made over the fact that black students could face attempted murder charges for a school fight with a white student. While no one is saying that the black students shouldn’t be punished, attempted murder is hardly appropriate. Although the white student was sent to the emergency room, after treatment he went to his prom held later that night. Most people who suffer a life threatening attack or a brutal attempt on their life would hardly feel the need to go dancing later that evening. Attempted murder hardly seems proper. Maybe the prosecutor didn’t like the fact that those black boys could be so impertinent to think that they could attack a single white kid so a message needed to be sent that such behavior would not be tolerated. And if that was the message sent, maybe it would be easier to receive if it was uniformly applied.
Two months ago, on an early Sunday morning just before dawn, a group of white teens were drinking alcohol in predominantly white Rankin County, Mississippi when one of them made the suggestion to “go fuck with some niggers”. With bravado fueled by alcohol and a sense that they can get away with a racially motivated crime, they got on the interstate and drove to a predominantly black part of Jackson, Mississippi where they pulled off the highway and found their victim at the Metro Inn Motel parking lot. James Craig Anderson was a forty nine year old auto plant worker. He was standing next to his car. The teens jumped out of their car and started to unmercifully beat Mr. Anderson repeatedly while yelling racist slurs.
The event was partially captured on a security camera video. Although the beating happened out of view, the camera shows the two vehicles, a white Jeep Cherokee and a green Ford F-250 pickup truck, carrying the white kids pulling into the parking lot and stopping next to Mr. Anderson’s car. The video shows the white teens getting out of their cars and going back and forth between their cars and where Mr. Anderson was determined to have been standing based on testimony from witnesses who told authorities that this is when the repeated beatings took place. The video showed that after the beating some of the white teens left in the Jeep. The remaining white teens jumped into the green truck. Next, the video showed Mr. Anderson as he staggered into view, no doubt dazed, confused, and more than likely looking for help. The green pickup truck suddenly surges straight into Mr. Anderson and killed him as it sped away from the scene.
Eighteen year old Deryl Dedmon, Jr. was the driver of the pickup and the leader of the white mob that assaulted James Anderson. He was charged with capital murder. The entire incident is being described as a hate crime. One other white teenager, John Aaron Rice, was charged with simple assault. The other white teenagers who assaulted Mr. Anderson that Sunday morning have not been charged with any crime whatsoever. If Mr. Anderson was senselessly murdered there probably wouldn’t have been any crime at all. Nobody was so relaxed about justice when that day when Justine Barker made the choice to get up and go to the prom.
Mr. Anderson is dead. He didn’t get up and go to a dance later that night. He didn’t play a prank to provoke anybody’s anger. More than likely he never knew why he was being pummeled that morning and why that pickup truck drove him over. He was just a man going about his business that morning when a group of whites drove sixteen miles to show him and the world that racism is very strong and well in this post racial society. We have two white youths being held for their participation in this crime. But if the people who run our justice system want to pretend that there is an effort to assure that the system is fair and that it’s not biased based on the skin color of the victims or perpetrators, it seems that it would be far more appropriate to charge every teenager that participated in that assault as accomplices to murder, especially given the fact that their victim ended up losing his life that morning.
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