When racial tensions caused by this social distance and mistrust boiled over, Jena's district attorney did what elected prosecutors all too often do in high-profile cases, regardless of the race of the defendants: He threw the book at them. Such prosecutorial overzealousness is not necessarily racist, but because blacks are disproportionately embroiled in the criminal justice system, it does fall with disproportionate force on them. This made the Jena 6 symbols for railroaded black criminal defendants nationwide.
So, the demonstrators have plenty to be upset about: racial segregation; racially disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration rates; and a pervasive societal racism that is passed from generation to generation. But because none of these sadly common racial injustices have a discrete cause, none are likely to respond to the type of quick and specific reform that a demonstration can demand. As a result, the march on Jena was a bit unfocused. It's telling that the demonstrators moved between the courthouse where Bell was tried for an offense no one denies he committed and the site of the "white tree" that, with all-too-fitting symbolism, has since been cut down. "Free the Jena 6" has become a rallying cry, perhaps because, "Stop Informal Segregation and Prosecutorial Overzealousness That Disproportionately Affects African-Americans Here and Elsewhere" won't fit on T-shirt or a placard. (And the Rev. Sharpton, who has led rallies in support of self-segregation in ethnic theme houses at Cornell University, is especially ill-positioned to lead the way forward in this respect.)
The 21st century's civil rights movement will need more sympathetic poster children than the Jena 6. These young men weren't exactly engaged in peaceful civil disobedience when they ran afoul of the law. The injustice here is not that they are being prosecuted for their crime—it is that the many other wrongs that preceded the assault have been inadequately addressed. When you think about it, the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students. This sort of racial vendetta is diametrically opposed to the message of social justice and cross-racial understanding that underlies the civil rights movement of the last century.
And yet, all along, Jena has had a better symbol for civil rights on offer. The anonymous black students who defied the informal segregation at the high school and sat under the perversely misnamed "white tree" are the movement's true legatees. They have received so little attention that I don't even know their names or how many such brave and defiant young people there were.
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