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Protesters Stand Up For Jena 6 and More

A Black West Virginia woman was sexually assaulted, stabbed and tortured, with one of her White abductors telling her, “That’s what we do to niggers around here.” Hate crime charges are yet to be filed in the case because the penalty isn’t as stringent as state-level kidnapping, assault and rape charges.

Genarlow Wilson, a Georgia teen, was convicted of rape and received 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with another teen. The state law was later changed to make the crime a misdemeanor and a federal judge ordered Wilson freed, but the now 21-year-old remains in prison today.

Six Black teens in Jena, La., were arrested and charged with attempted murder for what amounted to a school-yard fight that resulted from months of racial tension that built up after Black students sat under a “Whites-only” tree at the town’s high school. Most of the charges have been reduced, but the teens still face years behind bars if convicted.

This isn’t the 1950s, these events all happened in the past year.

What is happening in Jena is not an anomaly, says Dr. Gregory Carr, assistant professor of Afro American Studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Many Whites believe that ‘the system’ is color-blind, which is true,” he says. “It cannot see beyond its own invisible whiteness.”

Meanwhile, several conservative court decisions coupled with the federal government’s anemic enforcement and unwillingness to bring forth race cases have set back civil rights advances and protections, advocates say.

In June, U.S. Supreme Court justices limited the use of race in school desegregation plans. Last summer these same justices made it harder to prove discrimination in voting rights cases. And at the moment, the constitutionality of the newly reauthorized Voting Rights Act is already being challenged; its future, if it lands before a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court, might be in jeopardy.

The judicial system most certainly is not color-blind, adds Angela J. Davis, a professor of law at American University. Davis also wrote about Genarlow Wilson’s case in her new book, Arbitrary Justice.

For Davis, the injustice visited upon Genarlow Wilson and the Louisiana teens, more commonly referred to as the “Jena Six,” raise a more profound question about the abuse of prosecutorial power, she says. “In the Jena Six case alone you have a district attorney who prosecuted African-Americans for behavior that he didn’t prosecute Whites for,” Davis says. “That’s race-based selective prosecution.”

At first glance the casual observer may view the Jena Six and Wilson cases as having nothing to do with the savage torture of a Black woman in West Virginia. Some may even say that they are an unfortunate series of isolated incidents. But those who follow race issues in this country more closely will say that they are all interconnected. In fact, many of the estimated 10,000 marchers who plan to peacefully protest in Jena today at least have a sense that there is something much greater at stake — overcoming a legacy of racism and unequal justice, not only in Louisiana, but also across the country.

“We have seen in the last 10 years a roll-back and a retreat from strong enforcement and prosecution of race crimes. It’s looking pretty grim,” says Julie Fernandes, senior policy analyst and special counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

“At the same time we’re seeing a series of bad court decisions that make it harder to get into court and harder for people to prove that they are victims of racial discrimination,” she says. “It’s a double whammy.”

In addition to faulting the Bush administration for not acknowledging that racism is still a problem in America, Fernandes blames the U.S. Justice Department for not prosecuting high-profile race cases and Congress for not enacting legislation that will help prevent and punish racist acts. To make matters worse, she says, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown little to no interest in protecting civil rights.

In response, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is working to get an enhanced federal hate crimes law authorized that will include additional protected groups, such as homosexuals. President Bush has vowed to veto the legislation. The organization also wants to see a federal racial profiling law and renewed civil rights act passed, Fernandes says.

Both pieces of legislation have been languishing in Congress since 2001 and 2004, respectively.

“This isn’t about politics,” Fernandes sums up. “It’s about civil rights and court fights that impact our everyday lives.”

For now, people like the marchers in Jena will have to raise their voices and their dollars to help right the wrongs perpetuated on Wilson, the Jena Six and the woman victimized in West Virginia.

Howard University’s Dr. Carr put it another way. He said protesters aren’t going to Jena, La., in hopes of changing hardened racist views. There are bigger expectations, Carr said.
“There is no reason to expect that these hard-crafted racial attitudes will be softened by any pleas to a common humanity,” he added. “That, in fact, that is not what African people should be aiming for anyway.
“We have to support the Jena Six because any of those boys could be any of us, and that they are lending financial support and going to Jena on September 20th to bear witness to a higher moral standard,” Carr continued. “That African-Americans have never pled for our humanity to whiteness, but rather have called this country to be better than its racist history and thereby reach a standard of humanity that  Africans brought with us on the boats that brought us here.”

– Tracie Powell

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