Racial justice and demagoguery: the case of the Jena Six

Justice is not man’s deepest longing — for better and worse. Yet it is the form in which our powerful and selfish desires most often disguise themselves, in operations obscure even to ourselves. There will always arise ambitious leaders ready to exploit our confusion about justice, and in a democracy the most dangerous such leaders are the demagogues. They are professional anger-mongers and indignation-peddlers. By flattering injustice with the cloak of righteousness, they make it all that more terrible. They hunger for an incident like the Jena Six, and do all they can to stoke the hatreds and trigger an explosion.

Demagogues like Castro or Chavez are the most common path by which democracies turn into tyrannies. They are usually found in countries where the poor and uneducated form the majority and appear at first as their servants and attack dogs. But even prosperous and better educated countries, particularly when facing a major crisis, can be swayed by a Huey Long or Hitler.

The poor tend to resent and fear those who have more, and the uneducated have little distance or check on their passions. For example, they are much more likely to believe in various absurd “conspiracy” theories — such as the 36 percent of Americans who believe the government supported the Sept. 11 attacks. The belief that there are mysterious and powerful forces bent on one’s ruin is flattering to one’s self-importance and gives one an object for blame — and cause for hope. The followers don’t see a demagogue’s self-interested and grasping character. They mistake tyrant for saint. They are also more likely to hate their political opponents, for the selfishness or injustice they are blind to in themselves.

Al Sharpton is one of the most successful demagogues in America today, thanks to his ability to exploit almost every major racial controversy, real or contrived. He blazed to power in 1987 by daring to make himself manager of Tawana Brawley’s fabricated abduction and rape charges against six white men, including the assistant district attorney. He solidified his position in 1991 by inciting anti-Jewish riots that culminated in the mob murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. But it is not when a demagogue fans his base, as in the Duke lacrosse case, but when he also commands the sympathy of the majority, as in the Jena Six controversy, that he is most able to corrupt a country’s attachment to law and justice.

Thanks to our susceptibility to the rhetoric of a Sharpton, we might almost have forgotten that the Jena Six, whatever might be thought to excuse them, committed a serious crime. In the presence of dozens of witnesses, six black teenagers attacked a 17-year-old white student, Justin Barker, at school. One of them struck him in the head, knocking him unconscious, and then the group kicked him repeatedly as he lay there helpless. True, Barker has apparently not suffered any serious permanent injuries, but it is hard for the naïve observer to see why the Jena Six should be freed, still less why they should be acclaimed as heroes, or what amounts today to the same thing, victims.

For that is the demand of a strong political wind now unleashed over Jena, La., or as Sharpton and Jesse Jackson put it: “Drop all charges!” Tens of thousands have descended on this small town of 3,000. A protest petition has been signed by hundreds of thousands. President Bush has expressed his sadness. David Bowie, Mos Def and John Mellencamp have weighed in.

This pressure has not been without effect. Charges have been reduced from attempted second-degree murder to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. One juvenile who had been charged as an adult and convicted, Mychal Bell, had his conviction as an adult reversed, and the governor has ordered the district attorney not to file appeals. Trying juveniles as adults is a common practice in many states, and not particularly surprising, given that Bell was only one year shy of adulthood and already had a criminal record. His three “priors” include punching a teenage girl in the face. Most of the defendants have extensive juvenile records that include destroying property or intimidating and beating other students.

But their misdeeds suggest they may not have received enough justice as children, not that they should escape it now. It is true that there have been ugly racial incidents in Jena. In the one most widely reported, three white teenagers hung nooses on a school tree that was a popular place for white students to socialize. The three-week suspension they received was far too light. Yet they did not jump on someone and beat him senseless.

Will it serve the cause of racial harmony in the long run to so politicize the law that violent criminal acts get excused? The simple laws that teach us right and wrong and form a decent society should never be casually set aside; they are not as strong or lasting as we might expect. It does us no good to hold up thugs as heroes; it doesn’t even do the thugs good.

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