Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hog Heaven Deli: Get Your Baloney Here

Reed Walters, the prosecutor in the Jena 6 matter, will accept the ruling of the appeals court which overturned Mychal Bell's conviction as an adult. The appeals court appropriately returned Mychal Bell to the jurisdiction of juvenile court, as he was a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Wednesday that the prosecutor in one of the so-called "Jena 6" cases has decided not to challenge an appellate ruling that sends the case to juvenile court.

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters had earlier said he would appeal the state appeals court's decision that 17-year-old Mychal Bell's second-degree battery conviction be set aside. The court ruled that Bell could not be tried as an adult.

Blanco said she had spoken with Walters and asked him to reconsider pushing to keep the case in the adult courts system. She said Walters contacted her Wednesday to say he had decided not to appeal the ruling.

"I want to thank him for this decision he has made," Blanco said.

Well, finally. Although this does not guarantee that Mychal Bell will get a fair trial as juvenile. It may not be possible for him to get a fair trial anywhere in Louisiana. Or maybe the whole of the South. Or maybe in the United States. More about that to follow.

It is interesting that Walters changed his mind, given his statement in the New York Times today:

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. . . .

. . . There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon — the definition of aggravated second-degree battery. Mr. Bell’s conviction on that charge as an adult has been overturned, but I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record.

People can say anything. Here Walters gets to lay out his own platter of baloney, and it sounds almost reasonable (except for the obviously biased tone) until you remember that the "dangerous weapon" was a pair of tennis shoes; the victim was well enough to attend a social function at the school that evening; and if Walters is so concerned about enforcing the laws that exist, why wasn't the white student who used a weapon to threaten several black teen-agers prosecuted?
A white student brandished a shotgun in a confrontation with three black students. (He claims self-defense; they claim he was unprovoked.) The black students then wrestled the gun away from him and were later charged with theft, while the white student was not charged with a crime.
Richard Thompson Ford, who criticizes the protest and its purpose and focus in Slate, only lightly brushes past the real foundation of the protest on his way to make little digs at Reverend Sharpton:
So, the demonstrators have plenty to be upset about: racial segregation; racially disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration rates; and a pervasive societal racism that is passed from generation to generation. But because none of these sadly common racial injustices have a discrete cause, none are likely to respond to the type of quick and specific reform that a demonstration can demand. As a result, the march on Jena was a bit unfocused.
(By the way? What condescension: "plenty to be upset about." No one I spoke with or marched next to or rode with seemed "upset." They did, however, seem to believe strongly that what was happening in Jena was not justice.) From this description, I can only assume that Ford was not there. The protest at which I was present was calm and highly focused and purposeful. (The crowd was not, as reported by the Washington Post, "raucous." Jesus. How do reporters get away with it.)

Ford implies that the progression of the march from the courthouse to the high school proves that the crowd was milling about and didn't know what to do:
It's telling that the demonstrators moved between the courthouse where Bell was tried for an offense no one denies he committed and the site of the "white tree" that, with all-too-fitting symbolism, has since been cut down.
"Telling" how, exactly? What the progression actually tells is that people purposefully and with determination made a point of visiting the place where it all began, where the white tree had stood and had been mowed down because that place has symbolic value and meaning:
Oh, wait! The tree! It started with that tree on the school grounds whose shade zone was deemed a “Whites Only” area. Yeah! The tree! We nearly forgot about it. can forget about it. Because rather than let the tree stand as an example of the potential flowering of race relations in the “New South”—America, really...

The school superintendent had the damn thing cut down.
And then of course, the speakers were in front of the courthouse, so we all had to gather there. There was no milling. No "telling" unfocused wandering.

Unlike Ford's thoughts in the article, which hop about in such a disconnected fashion that at first I accused myself of being too tired to read it; after a second read, I reminded myself that, you know, not to blow my own horn or anything, but I am sort of an expert on reading comprehension, I mean, studying it has been part of how I've earned my living for lo, this many years, and this gave me the confidence to say: O, my, what a bunch of baloney.

Let me count the cold cuts:
1. "The Wrong Poster Children: Why the Jena 6 Protests Have Gone Awry": Um. Have they really? It does seem that the protests have gotten significant results, including but not limited to forcing state and federal legislators to wake up and smell the racism. Kind of lazy writing, too, in that I think Ford should describe how he thinks the protests have gone awry, instead of just assuming everyone will take his word for it. And to take the long view, at the very least, the protests show that people will show up in great numbers to protest what they perceive as injustice. That is a great thing, particularly as we near elections.
2. "When more than 10,000 people converged on the small town of Jena, La. . . .": I am heartily sick unto death of the underreporting of the numbers because it seems to be an attempt to erode the credibility and the show of strength of the demonstrators. Most of the sources I have seen report there were at least 20,000 people:
USA Today: "tens of thousands"
L.A. Times: "Organizers said the crowd swelled to 50,000; state police said it was too spread out to count. "
Washington Post: "Police declined to estimate the size of the throng at the rally, other than to say it numbered in the "tens of thousands."
2theAdvocate: "By the State Police’s estimate, 15,000-20,000 demonstrators poured into this town"

As I said before, the organizers estimated 50-60,000. Even if you control for optimism and enthusiasm, certainly 30,000 would be a conservative estimate. Brother, please. You could check your facts. (Unless the "more than 10,000" was a sneaky way to be letter-of-the-law truthful and cut the legs off the protest at the same time?)

3. "Rev. Al Sharpton called their march the beginning of the 21st-century civil rights movement. He may be right. And that's just what's worrisome.": Worrisome? Worrisome? I'll give you worrisome. Worrisome is that Black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty, and even more if the victim was white than if the defendant was not Black. Worrisome is that "the rate of increase in black offenders imprisoned for drug offenses was more than four times greater than the rate of increase for white offenders." Worrisome is that Black defendants are locked up 7.66 times more than whites. And that's just the overstuffed backpack of criminal injustice worries. In the education disparity backpack, we find that Black students are suspended far more frequently than white students ("No other ethnic group is disciplined at such a high rate, the federal data show. . . Yet black students are no more likely to misbehave than other students from the same social and economic environments, research studies have found") even though they do not misbehave more frequently. No wonder the drop out rate is almost twice as high for Black students as it is for white students. Or we could take on healthcare, as Blacks receive lower quality care and are more likely to die from heart disease and strokes.

4. "The marchers gathered to protest criminal charges brought against six African-American high-school students, the "Jena 6." But the racial problems facing this town—and many others—are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer. The mismatch between the complex and layered racial tensions in Jena and the one-issue rallying cry of "Free the Jena 6" suggest that the tactics of last century's civil rights movement may be an anachronism for today's racial conflicts." Here, you see, Ford thinks he is the only person in the world to understand the complexities of racism in America today. Huh. The other rallying cry, the one that Ford didn't notice, was just as common as "Free Mychal Bell", and that cry was "Enough is enough." It was on T shirts and posters, and was the real underlying motivation for the rally.

5. Ford says, "The injustice here is not that they are being prosecuted for their crime. . . " That's a given. And everyone I spoke with at Jena would agree. The injustice is the disparity between whether and how Black and white defendants are prosecuted.

6. "When you think about it, the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students." He accuses the demonstrators of launching a "racial vendetta." Not once did I hear such a thing from anyone. No one! Again, every single person I talked with believed that the young men should receive punishment if convicted (in a fair trial). (And that the charge should accurately reflect the actual offense, not no trumped-up tennis shoe murder weapon crap charge.)

(There's more baloney, but counting the cold slimy slices is a task that quickly loses its charm.)

Can it be that Ford is so simple-minded (or that his mind is of such a literal turn, is perhaps a more charitable way to frame it) that he does not see that, in the immortal but out of context words of the Spinners, sparks turn into flames? The fire has got to start somewhere, and any kind of change always, always, always starts with a symbol.

There was injustice in the Jena 6 cases, particularly in the case of Mychal Bell, injustice that continues, as he remains in jail even though his conviction has been overturned. But the chain of events that led up to Mychal Bell's prosecution gave this particular instance of injustice even more meaning. What happened in Jena is symbolic of the injustice endured by Black defendants, by Black students, by Black job applicants or hospital patients or apartment-hunters, and the thing to do is to lift that symbol, write about it, talk about it, analyze it, figure it out, press all of the meaning out of it so we understand what is happening so we can use the symbols to light our way to the truth, and the truth will set us free.
"This is much bigger than Jena," said M.K. Asante Jr., an English professor at Morgan State University. . . .
That the young men may not have been pillars of the community doesn't matter. That they may not be perfect poster children for civil rights doesn't matter. What matters is that it appears that their civil rights may have been violated. What matters is that there was injustice, and, in the immortal words of Dr. King, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

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