WASHINGTON — Witnesses in a Capitol Hill hearing Oct. 16 blasted the U.S. Justice Department for doing nothing as Jena, La., officials inflicted blatantly discriminatory punishment on six Black high school students while white students who committed violent racist acts were let off with a slap on the wrist.
LaSalle Parish Judge J.P. Mauffray last week sent 17-year-old Mychal Bell back to jail for 18 months, saying Bell violated his probation for a previous conviction. The judge took this action even though an appeals court overturned Bell’s conviction as an adult by an all-white jury on aggravated battery charges and the district attorney declined to retry Bell as a juvenile. Bell had already spent 10 months in jail.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), one of several Congressional Black Caucus members to visit Jena, told the hearing, “As a parent, I am almost in tears. Mychal Bell is back in jail” and “nooses have now proliferated around the country.”
Glaring at two Justice Department attorneys sitting at the witness table, she thundered, “I want you to tell me why you didn’t engage. Why didn’t you intervene?” Many in the crowded hearing room stood and applauded.
The witnesses and several Democratic lawmakers on the committee charged that the Jena Six had the book thrown at them for allegedly attacking a white classmate, Justin Barker, a year ago, yet white students who earlier attacked Robert Bailey, an African American student, with fists and beer bottles, screaming racist epithets, received a brief suspension. Bailey is now one of the Jena Six defendants.
Also treated with velvet gloves were three white students who hung Ku Klux Klan-type nooses from a tree on the school lawn after Black students dared to sit under the so-called “white tree.”
House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-Mich.) convened the hearing with U.S. Attorney for Western Louisiana Donald Washington and Civil Rights Division attorney Lisa Krigsten among the witnesses.
Washington, the first African American U.S. attorney in that region, reversed his earlier position and told the hearing that hanging nooses is indeed a hate crime under U.S. law. He claimed he met with LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who has ramrodded the case against the six Black youths.
Krigsten claimed the Justice Department has launched an investigation of the LaSalle Parish judiciary to determine if they engaged in discriminatory law enforcement. She added, “We were concerned only that federal laws are applied uniformly, not Louisiana state law.”
Washington claimed his hands were tied and the Bush administration is powerless to act on prosecutorial misconduct in the re-imprisonment of Bell.
The Rev. Al Sharpton shook his head in disbelief at this cop-out. “They are telling us that Louisiana state law supersedes federal law. You have to ask: who won the Civil War?” He pointed out that federal law is the highest law in the land and that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson sent Justice Department officials and federalized the National Guard to enforce that law in the face of segregationist “states’ rights” claims.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) read off a list of federal statutes, including the hate crimes law and civil rights laws. “If charging decisions were made in a racially discriminatory way, what actions can be taken against the prosecutor?” Scott demanded.
Washington conceded that, if it is proven that the Black and white youth were subject to two different standards, “Yes, that would be a violation of law.”
Dr. Charles Ogletree, director of the Harvard Law School Institute for Race and Justice, said the record in the Jena Six case “is replete with disparities” that open the door for prosecution of District Attorney Walters.
Calling hanging nooses a “powerful symbol of white supremacy,” Ogletree warned, “What happened in Jena is not an isolated incident. Lynching may seem historic but we can’t forget what happened to James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, or Emmett Till. There is a cancer in Jena and we try to treat it with aspirin and good wishes. When an adult tells Black youth that hanging a noose is a ‘prank,’ they are not addressing the underlying tensions in our communities.”
The Rev. Brian Moran, pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Jena and president of the newly-founded Jena branch of the NAACP, told the hearing that prosecutor Walters caused deep fear when he told Black students at a Jena High School assembly that he could “take away their lives ‘with a stroke of my pen.’” Moran said, “We know that justice can be done. The question is: why hasn’t justice been done? Right now, Jena is a town with two systems of justice. That is simply un-American.”
The two Justice Department attorneys had laid it on thick that the Bush administration is working for “reconciliation and healing” in Jena. Moran retorted that the “healing will not begin until there is justice” for the Jena Six.
Click on link to see Tim Wheeler’s Online eXtra story Are the Jena 6 victims of GOP ‘dirty tricks’?