Race, Violence ... Justice? Looking Back At Jena 6

In this photo taken Aug. 17, 2011, Justin Barker, the student who was beaten by six black schoolmates in Jena, La., in 2006, speaks with The Associated Press at his home in Trout, La. Five years after the events that sparked the biggest civil rights march in recent history, life seems to be back to normal in this little central Louisiana town. i i

In this photo taken Aug. 17, 2011, Justin Barker, the student who was beaten by six black schoolmates in Jena, La., in 2006, speaks with The Associated Press at his home in Trout, La. Five years after the events that sparked the biggest civil rights march in recent history, life seems to be back to normal in this little central Louisiana town. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP
In this photo taken Aug. 17, 2011, Justin Barker, the student who was beaten by six black schoolmates in Jena, La., in 2006, speaks with The Associated Press at his home in Trout, La. Five years after the events that sparked the biggest civil rights march in recent history, life seems to be back to normal in this little central Louisiana town.

In this photo taken Aug. 17, 2011, Justin Barker, the student who was beaten by six black schoolmates in Jena, La., in 2006, speaks with The Associated Press at his home in Trout, La. Five years after the events that sparked the biggest civil rights march in recent history, life seems to be back to normal in this little central Louisiana town.

Gerald Herbert/AP

In August 2006, a black student in Jena, La. asked if he could sit under a tree on campus or if it was reserved for whites. Three nooses hung from the tree the next day. In December, six black boys brutally beat a white student, and five of the suspects were charged with attempted murder. Black talk radio hosts and civil rights leaders nationwide protested the charges. Have the demonstrations helped move the U.S. closer to racial justice? Host Michel Martin speaks with Stanford Law School Professor Richard Ford and radio talk host Warren Ballentine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This week, we've been marking some significant anniversaries in the life of our country. Yesterday, we marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Five years ago today, an African-American high school student in Louisiana asked if he could sit under a tree on campus or if it was reserved for the white students who usually sat there.

The following day, three nooses were hung from the tree. A few months later, six black students severely beat a white schoolmate, and five of the suspects were charged with attempted murder.

Those suspects came to be known as the Jena 6, named for the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, where the incident occurred. You might remember the overwhelming support that the six teenagers received from African-American activists around the country, many of whom believed the charges against them were excessive.

Black talk radio hosts and civil rights leaders held a protest that drew tens of thousands from across the nation. We wanted to know what, if anything, came from the protests, which remains one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in recent years. So we've called upon radio talk host Warren Ballentine, who was among the first to call attention this case. Also joining us is Stanford University Law School Professor Richard Ford, who examines the case in an upcoming book, and he's with us from his home in San Francisco. Thank you both so much for joining us.

WARREN BALLENTINE: Thank you, Michel.

RICHARD FORD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Warren, I also want to mention that you are also an attorney, in addition to being a talk show host. So is that one of the reasons that this case drew your attention? What is it that caught your eye?

BALLENTINE: Yes, it was because I am an attorney, and I thought the charges were excessive, and I also thought it was some misconduct on the part of the prosecutor there in the parish when he told the children that he could ruin their lives with the stroke of a pen.

Once that was made public, that's when I said okay, we need to start dealing with this. So I contacted some friends of mine in the media outside. I was talking about it on my show. I contacted Reverend Sharpton. I contacted Russ Parr and Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner and we - everybody started talking about it on their shows.

And we talked about it from the sense of equal justice, and now I think a lot of people don't understand the march wasn't just about a black or white thing. It was about the legal system itself being equally to protect all involved in this country because Lady Justice is supposed to be blind.

MARTIN: Professor Ford, as we said, you're writing a book about the role of law in the struggle for equality, and this is one of the cases that you talk about. You wrote a piece in Slate magazine, though, that said that the six boys charged in the beating were, quote, the wrong poster children for a civil rights protest. What did you mean by that?

FORD: Well, what I meant by that, the Jena 6 protests were focused on a bad example of a real problem. Now, the real problem was the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which are severe. In 2006, something like one in nine black men between 20 and 34 years old were behind bars. And the Jena 6 seemed to represent this widespread disparity.

Another huge systemic problem involves prosecutorial overzealousness generally, and it's a problem for both black and white defendants or defendants of all races.

But the specific cases, as it turns out, the assault was fairly severe. One person was kind of ambushed by several in a school cafeteria. The charges were excessive, I agree. They were later dropped or reduced. And so the legal system basically worked.

Many of the facts that were first focused on as instances of severe racism were contested and ambiguous. And so a lot of the things that made this seem like a perfect civil rights case actually turned out not to be so - such a perfect example of that as the facts started to be revealed over time.

MARTIN: I want to recall an image that got a lot of attention and I think that perhaps speaks to the ambivalence that some people still have about this case. Back in 2007, two of the so-called Jena 6 teenagers appeared at the BET Awards show. They received a standing ovation from the audience, which is, you know, mostly African-American, as one might expect.

Now, some people look at that and think, you know, what is that about? And Warren, I'll go to you first on that. You know, why applauding teenagers who admitted, for the most part, that they did jump this kid who may or may not have had anything to do with the original incident and beat him very badly. So Warren, could you talk about that?

BALLENTINE: Well, I said on that broadcast day, on my show, I didn't appreciate these young men being at the BET rap awards and being treated like rappers. But I want people to understand the reason why they got a standing ovation. And it's because of the disparities of how African-Americans are viewed in the criminal penal system in this country.

African-Americans have a really distaste in their mouth as far as justice playing out. Now, the professor said that justice played out in this case in Jena. Well, it played out because we came down there and marched. It was because of marching and coming together that the prosecutors had to re-examine how they were charging this case.

So I don't think that justice played out. I think justice was looked upon and shown to the world, and once it was shown to the world, it put pressure on that prosecutor to do the right thing.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think they were applauding? What do you think that audience was applauding? Because that applause did kind of strike some people as being inappropriate. So what do you think people were applauding?

BALLENTINE: I believe the reason why that the crowd was clapping and standing up for these young men is because they looked at the situation and said look, even though you had done something wrong, the prosecutor was overcharging you in this particular case, and I think anybody from a legal standpoint and just from anybody who's had contact with the legal system, as the professor said, we see this all this time, where the prosecutors over prosecute, trying to get convictions.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michael Martin. We're talking about the Jena 6 case. This is the fifth anniversary of the incident that sparked that case that got so much attention.

Our guests are talk radio host Warren Ballentine, who did significant organizing to bring attention to the case and talked about it extensively on his program. Also with us, Stanford law professor Richard Ford, who's at work on a book about the Jena 6 case.

Professor Ford, do you buy that? Warren's analysis is that the audience was what - what would you say, Warren, responding to what?

BALLENTINE: I think they were empathetic towards the young men because of their ages and because a lot of us that grew up in this country has had either personal contact or relatives who've had contacts with the criminal system, and it hasn't been a good connection or contact.

MARTIN: So Professor Ford, so take both those questions on for me, if you would. What do you think about that? Do you buy that?

FORD: Well, I buy the idea that people were sympathetic to the Jena 6 because they were symbols of a larger injustice. I think that's precisely what was going on in this case. And they were symbols of a larger injustice of the disparities in the criminal justice system which are severe and are probably the largest, along with residential segregation, the largest civil rights issue we have yet to confront. That's absolutely right.

I'm not certain that there were very good symbols of that larger injustice, and that brings me to the second question, involving the chain of events. Now, what you find in digging into the facts is that most of these facts were ambiguous.

Take the example of the prosecutor saying I can end your life with the stroke of a pen. Now, the way that was spun was that he looked at the black kids in the audience and said I can end your life with the stroke of a pen, boy. Later, it turns out he's addressing an assembly of the entire school body, every black and white.

And so I'm not saying that none of the things happened the way that they were portrayed by the protesters, but what I am saying is that all of them in context can be interpreted in multiple ways and that made this a case that people feel ambivalent about.

MARTIN: So are you saying that the civil rights community overreacted?

FORD: I don't think that they overreacted to the disparities in the criminal justice system. I do think that people jumped the gun about this particular case, and they did because it's a little Southern town, and it looks like a good symbol.

MARTIN: Warren?

BALLENTINE: I disagree with that wholeheartedly, and I'm going to tell you why. Because even if it was ambiguous as far as how the facts were played out, we're talking about a prosecutor talking to teenage children between the ages of 14 and 18 years. For him to make a statement like that, of course it was made with the symbolism of fear.

I don't care if it was being said to white, black, Hispanic or anything else, and as an attorney, he has more of a duty to talk to these children in a sense of not out of fear but out of responsibility, and he didn't do that. So I wholeheartedly disagree with that argument.

And I really disagree with the fact that it was just in a Southern town because this is about the justice and equality in the justice system that the civil rights movement has always been about.

MARTIN: Well, even having said that, Warren, you recently wrote a piece looking back at the Jena 6 case and your involvement for thegrio.com, which is an online publication that's connected with NBC News. You call the protest a missed opportunity.

BALLENTINE: It was, very much so.

MARTIN: And so why do you say that?

BALLENTINE: Because we had an opportunity to have - spark a real movement in this country as far as rewriting the criminal code in this country and coming together and unifying in this country. And what ended up happening is we turned that movement into a moment.

And that moment ended up being parties down in Jena, some folks in the white media making these young men out to be thugs, some folks in the black media making these young men to be superstars instead of taking that moment and, as President Obama once said, making it a teachable moment to make us come together, to work together, to make it better for not just a few but for all.

MARTIN: Warren Ballentine is a lawyer and host of "The Warren Ballentine Show." Richard Ford is a law professor at Stanford. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

FORD: Thank you.

BALLENTINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And if you're interest in where all the people involved in the case are now, we'll link to articles on our website that tell you about that. Just go to npr.org. Click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, caring for children's physical and emotional needs is demanding enough, to be sure, but what about caring for their spiritual needs? That can be a challenge requiring King Solomon's wisdom, especially for parents who are questioning their own faith.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why I am going to teach him doctrine that I don't even fully believe?

MARTIN: We'll ask a group of parents about how they guide their children's religious faith in uncertain times. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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