A Nation of Jenas

Seven guards, one nurse, and a 14-year-old boy in a Florida juvenile detention center. In a trial last fall, video evidence showed the guards beating the boy and forcing him to inhale ammonia as the nurse stood idly by; the boy died the following day. An all-white jury took just 90 minutes to conclude that no crime had been committed—not manslaughter, not even child neglect. They decided the death of Martin Lee Anderson was caused by a combination of an undiagnosed sickle-cell trait and physical stress. The stress was ruled to come not from excessive force, but from a business-as-usual drill to get an uncooperative youth to comply with authority.

Three nooses on school property, one schoolyard fight, and six black boys charged with attempted murder in Jena, Louisiana, last winter—and now we are at the forefront of the “new civil rights movement,” according to the news media. Really? As a young black woman, I struggle to see what is “new” about racial injustice within our legal system. Anderson’s death and the circumstances surrounding his trial bear an uncanny resemblance to the death of another 14-year-old American boy half a century ago. Remember Emmett Till?

So I stood on the U.S. Capitol lawn in September at a Jena Six protest—surrounded by thousands of black people asking, “Why is the criminal justice system our closest tie to the government?” and “Why aren’t the nation’s procedures for rehabilitation as strong as those for punishment?”

The Jena Six protests are not so much the start of a new movement as they are the next phase of an ongoing painful struggle for equitable treatment and opportunity. If anything, Jena is another example of the underlying tension in how our society dances around the “problem of the color line” as it relates to our democracy.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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