Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was everything that they want you to think it was and nothing more.

I have before me two stories. One might even think that they are two entirely different events in entirely different places. But they are both one and the same occurrence, yet with oddly divergent conclusions. They both take place in a small town in Louisiana called Jena.

I'll begin with the story that was told on Fox News, which basically portrays the incident as such (greatly abbreviated, look to the link for the full story):

A black student sits under the "white kid's" shade tree in the high school courtyard. In an obvious reference to strange fruit the white students respond by hanging three nooses in the tree. It was decided by the school that it was merely a prank, and so they received in-school suspension.
Six black students beat a white student. He was beaten unconscious but was not permanently injured. The black students were charged with second degree assault and the white students were charged with nothing. Thousands of people have gone to Jena to protest the trial of one of the students, including Martin Luther King III, and Al Sharpton. They call this the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

"It is not and never has been about race," he said. "It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions."
-District Attorney Reed Walters
If you're like me, (and I'm going to be painfully honest here), you're going to come to certain conclusions based on the information above. Here's my bias. This is going to sound ridiculous - but I'm not racist. Though, I am a white guy raised in white culture. I feel uncomfortable in black culture. I often think that those who populate the stereotypical black or "rap" culture are loud, obnoxious, say and do stupid things, expect special treatment because of their race, and are overly aggressive. This of course makes me defensive and much more likely to jump to certain conclusions. This also gives me a tendency to be less patient and be overly aggressive and judgmental towards them. But, of course, I could say the same thing about quite a few rednecks I knew in the south, as well as some of the kids I've seen here in Brooklyn (of various races). But I think that admitting my prejudices (which we all have in some capacity) helps me to work through them. See, I try not to let my actions be influenced by my prejudices because I see them for what they are.

However, given my biases which I have painfully pointed out to you, I am extremely accepting compared to many people I know including family members that I dearly love. Someone not very different from myself might think that the white boys got off too easily, but they at least didn't brutally beat anyone. Someone not very different from myself might conclude from the story on Fox that this is just another mole hill made into a mountain by a culture that just can't let go of what someone else's great-grandparents (not mine) did to their great-grandparents, which doesn't effect us much anymore. Someone like me would say: Get an education, get a job, don't attack people - this will solve your problems. (Yes, berate me, I'm insensitive!)

But there's more! On July 30th, the story was aired on NPR which I like to listen to while I paint. Like any other day that I'm working in my studio, I was listening. I suggest you read the entire story in the link above.

Of course what I heard outraged me, but what outraged me even more was realizing the extent to which Fox News omitted extremely crucial information. Even a purely white-bread like me realizes injustice when I see it. Here's the kicker:

"With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear."
- District Attorney Reed Walters
This, he said while allegedly looking at the black students who were in a peaceful, silent sit-in under the shade tree. (I have skipped some parts in the interest of brevity, but please do read the original article on NPR)

The next night, 16-year-old Robert Bailey and a few black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. When Bailey got inside, he was attacked and beaten. The next day, tensions escalated at a local convenience store. Bailey exchanged words with a white student who had been at the party. The white boy ran back to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip shotgun. Bailey ran after him and wrestled him for the gun.

After some scuffling, Bailey and his friends took the gun away and brought it home. Bailey was eventually charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.

The following Monday, Dec.4, a white student named Justin Barker was loudly bragging to friends in the school hallway that Robert Bailey had been whipped by a white man on Friday night. When Barker walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by a group of black students. The first punch knocked Barker out and he was kicked several times in the head. But the injuries turned out to be superficial. Barker was examined by doctors and released; he went out to a social function later that evening.

Six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. But District Attorney Reed Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder. That provoked a storm of black outrage.

I don't know about you, but if someone pulls a gun on me and I take it away, I don't think I could show such reserve and just walk away. I would probably beat him senseless. Pulling a gun is an overtly life threatening gesture. In such a case, one is protected by the law, in that you may kill in self defense. I'm not saying I would kill the guy, but he certainly wouldn't forget what happened and I would feel entirely just in my actions.

In short, there are two Jenas here: one in which a minor racist action lead to an over-reaction, and one in which a great disregard for justice spreads like a cancer all the way to the top officials of the town.

I typically reserve this forum for art related events. But this is something that I simply cannot overlook. Further, I do not wish to overshadow the injustice of this event, but we need to get to the root of why this is an issue in the first place. People are influenced greatly by the media, and if the media condones such actions, so will many people.

I encountered almost the same exact story on all the network news stations. I have known that the media has been misleading, mis-characterizing, and acting as political propagandists for years. But the degree to which this has been allowed to go is absurd! For Democracy to function, the people must be informed - if not in an unbiased way, then at least with all the basic information. This is not just an issue about racial injustice (which is terrible and obviously the case), this is about the media lying to us about the food we eat (growth hormones, GMO's, trans-fats, pesticides, antibiotics), the medicines we buy, and the wars that our leaders wage. This is about them robbing us of our families, our money, our lives through obfuscation- and clearly because the media is owned by the same corporations that stuff the pockets of government officials. I for one will no longer stand for it. If there ever was a time for a revolution of truth, the time is now!

The Truth Shall Set You Free.


Rich said...


That the district attorney has only brought charges against the black students seems blatantly biased. I wanted to comment on one of your statements, regarding self-defense. This is where the black kids got unlucky.

If someone attacts you, you can stop them by defending yourself. But you have to stop defending yourself the minute the threat is ended. Once that occurs any subsequent action on your part is considered another, separate assault.

So if I slap you, and stop, you have no legal right to respond physically. If you did then we would have two cases of assault.

It seems unquestionable that those black kids are getting railroaded by the DA, and that only one set of "crimes" is getting investigated.

New York City said...

I see your point.
However, legal or not, I don't think I could stop myself from giving a few swift kicks in the ribs to someone who just pulled a shotgun on me. Though I'm not typically a violent person.

In a legal vacuum, I see it as perfectly reasonable that if a man threatens my life with a weapon, I can beat the shit out of him but refrain from killing or even threatening to kill him.

A slap is a different thing altogether (not in a legal sense, but for me). It's not a threat on one's life which I could overlook.