Witnesses described the schoolyard fight in rural Jena, La., as short but violent, as six black teens beat a white classmate unconscious. Instead of being expelled, five of the six young men – who've become known as the "Jena 6" – were charged with attempted murder.
Although those charges were later reduced for all but one defendant, thousands of protesters flocked to the small town Thursday to march and call attention to what they say is a biased justice system that treats minorities more harshly than it does whites.
There's evidence to back them up. Despite a narrowing of the racial gap in the past decade, the average black juvenile remains far more likely to be arrested and convicted than his white counterpart. But researchers are divided on whether race or other factors, such as poverty, are the driving factor.
With the case inspiring smaller protests elsewhere in the nation, it has become a cause célèbre for everyone from college students to Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, who have all weighed in on behalf of the black men.
The issue of biased justice, especially for young African-Americans, has been a longstanding complaint in the African-American community. And while disparities are less blatant than they were in the era of civil rights marches, they can still touch off mass protest, as Thursday's march showed.
The level of bias in the system is a another matter, however.
"Do we have a criminal justice system that mistreats people on the basis of race? No," says Kenneth Nunn, a University of Florida law professor who specializes in issues of race in the courts. "The principle is not the issue, but the practical application [of law] is where you see the problems."
Nationally, black youths are significantly more likely to be tried as adults than are white youths, according to a January report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The same report states that while black youths make up 16 percent of the general adolescent population, they make up 38 percent of the approximately 100,000 youths being held in local and state detention facilities.
The irony, some say, is that mass outpouring of support in cases like the Jena 6 may, in fact, obscure the real issues, where many criminal-defense lawyers can point to examples of prosecutorial zeal when dealing with black defendants.
"The public at large basically thinks that these cases are aberrations, and that's one reason why so much attention is paid to them," says Professor Nunn. "It's the idea that it's the redneck sheriff doing this and not the way we sort of stack the odds against black criminal defendants. We can point to a few bad apples, say, 'See, it's them,' and the rest of us feel great because we're demonstrating how we disagree with racism."
There has been some improvement for black juveniles. In the late 1980s, they were six times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than whites were, according to a report last year by the US Justice Department. By 2003, they were four times as likely as whites.
While researchers agree that racial bias remains, other factors, such as poverty, also play a role, they say. In one study, sociology professor Robert Sampson said that "social forces that concentrate race with poverty" dictate judicial outcomes more than inherent prejudices by police and prosecutors.
Not everyone believes the case of the Jena 6 is so cut and dried either. It is not about race, but about finding justice for an innocent victim, said Reed Walters, the local parish prosecutor, at a press conference Wednesday. "With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to [the victim] and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote."
In Jena, racial tensions ratcheted up a year ago after white students hung up nooses on a tree at school. Many blacks in town saw a connection between the nooses' appearance and the fact that several days earlier a black
student had asked the principal for permission to sit under that tree, where whites, they said, traditionally congregated. Black parents demanded the perpetrators be expelled. Instead, the white students were sent to
off-campus alternative school for nine days, served a two-week in-school suspension (isolated in a separate classroom), attended discipline court, and were evaluated before returning to school, according to a statement by Roy Breithaupt, LaSalle Parish school superintendent. [Editor's note: The original version failed to specify who in Jena drew the connection between the nooses' appearance and the student question about sitting under the tree, and misstated the disciplinary action taken against the white students who hung the nooses.]
Mr. Walters, the white prosecutor, says the students who hung the nooses could not be prosecuted because there was no law against it. But, he added, "The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town."
In December, the six black teens beat a white student unconscious, although the victim attended a school event that night. One of the teens, a juvenile at the time, was charged as an adult and convicted of battery, a lesser charge. A groundswell of protests on talk radio and the Internet led to the organizing of a protest in Jena to coincide with his sentencing. When an appeals court dismissed the verdict, saying the teen should not have been tried as an adult, the protesters decided to march anyway.
On Thursday morning, buses from St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were lined up for miles on Highway 49 into Jena. The crowd chanted "Free the Jena 6" as the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived at the local courthouse with family members of the jailed teens. Campus activists at schools like Duke, Howard University, and the University of Georgia were planning events to show their support, and rock singer David Bowie pitched in with a $10,000 check for the defense. Musicians including Nick Cannon, Jagged Edge, and Hurricane Chris have banded together for an "empowerment concert" planned for Sept. 29 in Birmingham, Ala.
The case touched a nerve deep within the black community, says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. "There's a sense that parts of the judicial system still remain anchored in the bigoted attitudes of old and that a black person can't get fair or true justice."
And that runs so counter to American ideals that, even though minorities have made great strides since the civil rights era, it causes a reaction, he adds. "You can't get any more basic than equal justice under the law."
Changes, experts say, do come once a sense of unfairness has convinced enough Americans that change is needed.
"The problem in the criminal justice system is the problem generally with the law: You always have great leaps forward and tiny steps backward," says Nunn.