The important thing here should not be a battle between extremes, but rather the search by all people of good will for a just way to handle the situation. Im not asking that nothing happen to those accused. Im asking that they be treated in an even-handed manner.
I would also note that “Free the Jena 6” has never been my slogan. Why? Clearly these young men committed crimes. The problem that I see is that the treatment is not even-handed. The way the authorities involved are trying to respond to that is with a kind of “trust me” approach. They haven’t found anything wrong, so all us ignorant folks should just shut up. But that is not the proper way to respond to bad behavior in government in a bureaucracy. If something looks bad, I’m going to call attention to it. If the official in question has an explanation, he or she can bring that up. But trust them? Absolutely not.
If I were a public official I would expect to be accountable. In fact, I would demand that my actions were seen and reviewed by others. That doesn’t mean that secrets are not occasionally necessary, but they are not necessary nearly so often as authorities would have you believe.
But the more important issue is this: We aren’t looking for, nor do we need poster children for civil rights. Carter says:
. . . When we are willing to exonerate murders in the name of “civil rights” it shouldn’t be surprising that thousands of Americans can excuse the actions of these six young, cowardly thugs.
The problem here is that it may be fun to promote civil rights for victims who are innocent or even heroic. Perhaps the civil rights movement of the 1960s has given us the false impression that civil rights is about protecting heroes and the innocent. We like to have such issues portrayed in clear, moral lines. Then we can rally for the good guys and against the bad guys.
But in fact civil rights are most important in the marginal cases. Whatever these young men did and whatever their record was they should have been treated in a manner that was similar to the way others were treated. They should be given justice. The excuse of the authorities and their defenders is that some had criminal records and that the crime they committed was terrible. But none of the above removes the need for those in authority to behave in an even-handed and fair manner. Those in the rally were wrong with the cry “Free the Jena 6,” but they respond to the other crowd all over the country that says, “We see nothing wrong here.”
Further, none of it removes the need to eliminate the underlying racism that allows such situations to escalate, and that even provides the cause. That some official from the justice department says the events weren’t related isn’t even remotely convincing to me. It just suggests that there are many people out there who would like to pretend that everything is fine.
Civil rights doesn’t need a poster child. Poster children aren’t the ones in the greatest need. It is the folks who face the courts with limited hope for justice and no means with which to defend themselves. This is about the non-poster children.