Jena Six Case Explodes Onto National Stage
Yesterday and today, news outlets across the country have focused on a civil rights march planned for the small Louisiana town today, pulling the story of six young black men charged with attempted murder into the light of a near-media frenzy.
The whole situation started last year, when a black high school student in Jena, La. asked to sit beneath a tree in the schoolyeard traditionally reserved for white students. Though he wasn't prevented from doing so, the next day three nooses were placed on the tree.
That incident heightened racial tensions in the school, culminating with a fight in which six black teens beat a white youth. The black teens were arrested and charged with attempted murder -- a crime which could result in decades of time in jail and which activists have said was too harsh.
The news of these struggles in the small town of 4,000 have spread -- first through black oriented media and now, with a march organized by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, mainstream media outlets.
The story has stood as a litmus test for race issues: black activists have cited it as evidence of unequal treatment under the legal system; others have said it is an example of criminals trying to escape punishment for black-on-white crime.
Rocker David Bowie has given $10,000 to the Jena Six's legal defense fund. It has even become a political hot potato for presidential candidate Barack Obama, who Jesse Jackson supposedly criticized for not speaking out sooner on the issue -- only to take back his words once they were broadcast nationally.
The question I have: Will all this media attention add up to any greater understanding of what happened? Or is it just going to be a lot of conflict regurgitated for the world press?
Here's what CNN is planning tonight:
CNN anchor Kyra Phillips reports on racial tensions within Jena, a small Louisiana town where whites and blacks have existed in the sort of separate, yet civil existence typical of many rural Southern towns. One of the places where whites and blacks do come together on a daily basis is Jena High School. In August 2006, a black student asked the school administration if he and his friends could sit under what was known as the "white" tree on the school grounds. Although he was told that he could sit anywhere he wished, a day later, nooses were seen hanging from the tree. The intimidating reaction touched off a series of racially-charged incidents: in December, a large section of the school was destroyed by fire. Whites blamed blacks, blacks blamed whites and the crime remains unsolved. Action and reactions continued to escalate: a black student was hit in the head with a bottle by a white student at a party; a white student brandished a shotgun at three black students he said were menacing him. When a white student was badly beaten by a group of black students, six were arrested, five of whom were charged as adults with charges that included attempted murder which may result in years – perhaps decades – of incarceration. The prosecution of the so-called “Jena Six” has inspired outrage among those who see lesser charges for the white students as evidence of a racially-motivated prosecutor and judge.