Saturday, July 14, 2007
Racism in rural Louisiana
I've been following this story probably longer than most people have been -- it started while I was still working at The Town Talk which was waaaay before it made the international news. The basics of the case can be read here as well as in the Town Talk archives. (If you have time, go read the forums there. Most of the comment threads are under the News listing and you'll see what I mean when I say racism is so totally alive in rural Louisiana. Particularly, I was pissed by the thread What nooses?. Check out this one and this one too.)
I'm not going to talk too much about the specifics of this case, except to say that I believe racism is playing a great huge part in the conviction of (so far at least one) of these boys. I believe it's the reason they were arrested, it was the reason they were charged with such a ridiculous charge and it's why the DA is being so insistant on prosecuting them so quickly. That's not to say that the boys, if they are in fact guilty of assaulting another boy, do not deserve to be punished. But they deserve to be punished no more severely than a white person would be. (In fact, a white person assaulted a black person in the week or so before this incident took place. He was charged with simple assault, which is a misdemeanor. If these boys were charged with the same thing (instead of attempted murder!), this would not be receiving nearly as much attention as it is now.)
This case spiraled out of control, as so many other incidents do in rural Louisiana. (And I'm confining my remarks to La., but that's where I've lived all my life. It's a place I know rather well, although I wouldn't be in the slightest bit surprised to find the same thing happening in other places. I just don't live there, so I can't say for certain.) The second those nooses were hung in that tree, it should have been, and could have been, squashed immediately. Long term suspension of the boys involved, perhaps removal to the local alternative school, could have sent a clear message that this would not be tolerated. Assemblies to address the issue could have been held. A genuine attitude of seriousness from the faculty could have helped. An acknowledgement that, yes, racism does happen and that no, it will not be tolerated at this school wasn't too much to ask.
Or, it shouldn't have been. But this is rural Louisiana. And we've heard it a hundred thousand times. And dammit, no one else can tell us how to behave.
After the fire at the high school (which, to be fair, has not been proved to be linked in any way to these incidents although the possiblity remains), there was still time to step up. After the first student was assaulted at an off-campus party, there was time. There was time up until the moment it exploded. But no one stepped in, or those who did step in were not powerful enough, their voice wasn't loud enough, to stop things. And now we have this mess. Again. I don't hold much hope that the remaining boys will be given reduced sentences, nor do I have much hope they'll get an impartial trial. Their trials need to be moved out of Jena. Their juries need to be racially mixed. And for gods sake, no one on the juries should be related to the witnesses or good friends of the DA!
As for the defense Bell received -- I've covered trials in which his lawyer was on the defense. Yes, Blaine Williams is a black man. Yes, he works as a public defender. And the other trial I saw him cover (a serial rape trial) he also did not call any witnesses or put on a defense. (Although, in that case, the police had a confession, DNA evidence, multiple victims on the stand and items taken from the victims in his home, so their case was decidedly stronger than this one.) To be clear, no defendent is required to call any witnesses or put on any defense. The burden of proof falls squarely on the prosecution. The jury is not allowed to hold the fact that no witnesses were called against the defendent. However, in practice, not calling any witnesses or offering any alternate theories makes people wonder what you're hiding. And while you may not be hiding a damned thing, it doesn't look good. Williams is also, like all public defenders down here, doubtlessly overwhelmed by cases and truely does not have time, nor the funding, to fully investigate each case like it should be. (Which is a failing of the system. We've had problems with the PD system all over the place, most notably in New Orleans.)
Which points out another problem -- these boys are, for the most part, from middle and/or lower class families. (Which isn't saying a whole lot -- most people in rural Louisiana are.) They cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers nor even for bail. And so, the cards are stacked against them. I'd like to believe that Bell's case will be overturned on appeal, but this is Louisiana. Jesus himself could come down and say the guy was innocent and it wouldn't help.
The thing is, most people aren't willing to admit to any form of racism. They don't treat black people any differently than anyone else, they'll say. And mostly, they're right. It's not the actions, so much as the attitude. If a black person is arrested, well of course they're guilty. If a white person is arrested? Well, there may have been a mistake. There could be an explaination. And if they are both guilty of doing the same thing? Well, it makes sense somehow for the black person to get a longer sentence/harsher charge. Why? Because we don't want those other black people to get any ideas, see? But no, no. They're not racist. God, no. They just want order, you see. And everyone knows how Those People are. . .
There are still people here, mostly older, who still refer to black people as Darkies or Colored. (Hell, some of them just stick straight to N-r. Unfortunately, some of them are in my family. Makes me wanna hit 'em with a brick.) And it is worse, from what I've seen, in northern Louisiana. Once you get past eh, Mamou? It's scary. I wouldn't want to be a black person there, that's for damned sure. Even the black people I've worked with, who are clearly educated and /not/ in anyway thugs or whatever you wanna call it, have been harassed in my pressence. Once, at a stoplight, someone pulled up to the care my co-worker was in (he being a black man), knocked on his window and asked him "Where the weed at?". Because, clearly, a black man would know that. Not, ya know, the little skinny white boy dealers that are all over the place. *sigh* And while we laughed about it, and no one was hurt in any way, that attitude is clearly a problem. Black men know where to get drugs. Why? Because they're black! And they know this stuff!
Anyway, I don't think it's possible for these boys to get a fair trial here. Not in Jena, anyway. Not in any rural Louisiana parish. Hell, maybe not anywhere in Northern Louisiana, not now. And I think most people would agree that, if they are guilty, then they should be charged with an appropriate change and pay an appropriate penalty. But kicking a boy with a tennis shoe does not deserve going to jail for 20+ years. (And really...when was the last time a frigging Tennis Shoe was considered a deadly weapon? I mean....steel-toed boots, I'd buy. But a tennis shoe? Come on.)