Jena Six

For one of my graduate classes, we're doing a lit review, which is a major pain-in-the-ass, time-consuming paper that basically consists of picking a topic and reading all the research on said topic, and writing an extensive review of the research. When I write my dissertation, doing a lit reviews lets me examine where there are gaps in research so I can find where new research needs to be done. I've been working on mine since August and it's due October 1st. My topic is disproportionate minority contact in juvenile justice, specifically at the disposition (sentencing) phase. That is gibberish that means I'm examining why youth of color are confined to adult prison or secure juvenile facilities at higher rates than their white counterparts. This is a crazy problem, and I don't think I could find a better way to illustrate this phenomenon than the Jena 6.

For those of you who have been in your basements for the past two weeks (really, the past year or so), the Jena 6 are six high school students from tiny Jena, LA. Long story short: some white kids put nooses up in a tree after black students tried to sit under a tree that mostly white kids sat under. Principal tried to expel involved students, board of ed revoked expulsion. This escalates race relations in the school and community, culminating in six black kids jumping a white kid. White kid's injuries are not severe; he is released from hospital two hours later. Black students who beat him up are all charged, as adults (except for one 14-year-old), with attempted murder. All those tried as adults have bail set at $70,000 or more. The DA goes on record saying if convicted, he would seek the maximum penalty under law. You can read an extensive timeline here or here; it includes more incidents that happened during this time that provide insight into the climate of the community during this time.

I won't get into the legal details, but one kid has been in jail since December, and the others are about to go on trial for attempted second degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and two are about to go on trial for aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. One student, Mychal Bell, was tried and convicted, but appealed on the grounds that he should have been tried as a juvenile, yet he is still in prison. Bottom line: these kids are facing years, years, and years in prison.

This is significant. This is huge. But this is not isolated. Shit like this happens everywhere, all over the country, and it goes unnoticed by major media outlets. The only reason Jena broke out is because the black blogosphere would not let it die and the black community rallied behind these kids. Disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) exists in all fifty states. African American youth with no priors were six times more likely to be incarcerated in public facilities than white youth with similar backgrounds. DMC was even found to increase in years when minority arrests decreased. African American youth are more likely to be recommended for formal processing, while white youth are more likely to be referred to diversionary programming. I have read too much research in the last month that proves to me that the Jena Six are not alone, but represent the widespread phenomenon of locking up our youth of color more often that white youth who commit the same crimes.

Some people argue that these kids did beat someone up and should be punished. I agree fully. However, the punishment should fit the crime. The injured student has no lasting injuries, was released from the hospital the same day, and even attended the ring ceremony at Jena High School that same night. You want to put six young men in prison for twenty-two years for that? These charges indicate the court's belief that for whatever reason, these young men are unable to be rehabilitated, effectively saying their lives are worthless. I don't believe any youth should be condemned for that long for this crime. If you look at it in that context, you see that this is a human issue, not a race issue.

But it is a race issue. It's a race issue because there are thousands of black (and Hispanic, and Asian, and American Indian) youth who lives are seen as disposable, who are pigeonholed as criminals, who are irrationally feared, because of the color of their skin. And we help them live up to our stereotypes through bias, through a lack of alternatives to incarceration, from driving while black, from irrational drug policy (despite the fact that more whites use drugs than any other race), from a myriad of other daily injustices that many white people don't think exist because they don't have to deal with them.

The silver lining of this is that the black community has rallied, and rallied in spectacular fashion. Paulo Friere, the seminal voice of critical pedagogy, says that the oppressed will not be freed by the oppressors, they will be freed due to their own efforts to overcome oppression, and the response to Jena seems like those kind of efforts the black community needs when faced with this total bullshit. It frustrates me to no end when I hear people say, "I thought we were past this," or "This isn't about race."

No comments: