Some Things (like racism in our criminal justice system) Never Change
I am going to tell a brief story. Tell me whether you think it takes place in 1957 or 2007.
There is a small town of under 3,000 people. There is a high school in the town. There is a tree at the school known as the "white tree", because only white kids sit under it.
A black student asks school officials for permission to sit under the "white tree". The student receives permission.
A group of black students then sit under the "white tree".
The next day, three nooses, in school colors, are hanging from the "white tree".
Three white students are found responsible. The high school principal recommends expulsion.
The superintendent of schools, who is white, instead suspends the students for three days, seeing the nooses as no more than a "youthful stunt". "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody", says the superintendent.
Black students organize a sit-in under the "white tree" in protest, believing that the students who hung nooses as race-based intimidation were given indifferent slaps on the wrists.
The white District Attorney comes to the school. He brings police officers with him.
At the school assembly, the District Attorney threatens the black students who had protested. He tells them he can be their best friend or worst enemy. He says that if they continue agitating about an innocent prank, he could "take away [their] lives with a stroke of [his] pen."
A few months later, a black student shows up at a white party. He is beaten. One white person is arrested and charged with simple battery.
The next day, at a convenience store, a young white man pulls out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men, including the youth beaten up at the party. The black youths wrestle the shotgun away from the white man. The black youths are arrested. No charges are filed against the white man.
A few days after that, at the high school, a fight breaks out involving black students (including the one who had been beaten up at the party) and a white student who had made racial taunts against the black students, including the word "nigger" (in support of the noose-hanging students and the students who had beaten up the black student at the party). As a result of the fight, the white student is treated at a hospital and released the same day. He goes to a social function that evening.
Six black students are arrested for the fight and charged with attempted second-degree murder. They are all expelled from school. One is an unidentified minor, while the others are from between 16 and 18 years old. Bail is set for each, from between $70,000 and $138,000, forcing many of them to remain in jail for months.
The 16-year-old's case goes to trial. The jury pool is all-white, which means that the jury ends up all white, too. One of the jurors is a relative of one of the prosecution's witnesses. Several jurors are friends of the prosecution's witnesses. Two jurors are on good terms with the District Attorney. One side of the courtroom is white (for the white student who had been beaten up). The other side is black. The judge is white.
The black student's mother and father are barred from the trial because they are listed as potential witnesses; but the white victim, also a witness, is permitted in the courtroom.
The black student's attorney, a white public defender, does not challenge the all-white jury pool. He puts on no evidence. He does not call a single witness.
After resting his "case", the public defender says that he did not think race was an issue in the trial, that he had a fair and impartial jury, and that he is confident the jury would return a verdict of not guilty.
The all-white jury deliberates for less than three hours before convicting the 16-year-old of two felonies, aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit the same. The charge of aggravated battery requires that a deadly weapon be used in the attack. The weapon in this case: a tennis shoe.
The 16-year-old sophomore faces up to 22 years in prison.
His attorney says that he did the best that he could.
The other five black students await similar trials on attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy charges.
As for the white victim, he is later arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets onto the high school campus and released on $5,000 bond.
As for the noose-hangers, they are never charged.
That's the story.
Now, back to the question: does this story take place in 1957 or 2007? Does it occur shortly after the Supreme Court held segregation unconstitutional or half a century later?
If you guessed 1957, that was a good guess. But you're wrong.
This story is real, and it is happening now. In Jena, Louisiana. In LaSalle Parish, where David Duke carried a majority of the white vote when he ran for Governor; where 75% of the population supported George W. Bush; where 85% of the town (and 80% of the high school) is white and around 10% is Black; where there is one black police officer; where families earn well below the national average, and where less than 10% of the businesses in the Parish are owned by Blacks; where the county government consists of ten people, all are men, nine are white; where the school board has nine members; all are men, eight are white.
Jena is where the privately owned Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth was forced to close its doors in 2000 after only two years of operation because of the widespread brutality and racism within its walls. Even the politically-driven U.S. Department of Justice sued the Correctional Center amid allegations that guards paid inmates to fight each other and found comedy in teens attempting suicide.
Jena is where Reed Walters, the District Attorney who threatened the black students, made a mockery of prosecutorial discretion.
And it is where 16-year-old Mychal Bell is going to be sentenced today, possibly to as many as 22 years in prison.
For most of American history, there was a justice system for white people, and a system without justice for black people. Today, in 2007, as we see in Jena, and as we see throughout the millions of jails cells scattered throughout this country, there are still two justice systems; one for the middle and upper classes (mostly white people), and one for the poor (disproportionately people of color).
One system is relatively fair, a system where Scooter Libby gets pardoned by a President who avoids pardons like the plague (and runs away from reducing federal sentences, having reduced only three out of 5,000), and where, on the rare occasion when affluent white people are wrongfully accused, like the Duke lacrosse players, they can avoid prison and even be exonerated before ever being convicted.
And then there is the other criminal justice system, the one for poor people, the much, much larger one, the one which can claim most of the 2.3 million people in prison in this country, the one off of which money is made and political offices are held.
This is the system for people like Mychal Bell, the high school sophomore whose life has been derailed unfairly by a racist prosecutor and an all-white jury, without even receiving adequate representation, while his white counterparts were left relatively unscathed.
This is the one for people like Troy Davis, who might be executed by the State of Georgia despite plausible evidence of his innocence, evidence that no court has ever heard.
This is the criminal justice system that incarcerates tens of thousands of poor people for years, excessively, for nonviolent offenses, people who will never, ever be pardoned by the President.
Jena is not some anomalous peculiarity of our criminal justice system; Jena IS our criminal justice system: two-tiered, racist, causing grossly disproportionate harm to poor people of color.
Jena reminds me that our past looks alot like our present, and makes me fear that our future will look alot like our present.