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The Whole (Jena 6) Story?

by Sean Gonsalves

I spent my kindergarten and first-grade years at Glassbrook Elementary School in Hayward, Californ8ia - where two playground incidents, colored by racial taunts and retaliatory violence, left their mark on my impressionable mind.

My class was all-white, except for this Vietnamese kid named Q. And me. We were playing kickball in gym class and Q wasn't very good. About a half-dozen of my classmates started taunting an extremely meek and seriously scared Q with chants of "gook." Now that I think about it, Q had probably immigrated to America with his family after his people were "liberated" by soldiers like my (step)father who had voluntarily served with a USMC tank battalion in Vietnam several years before our little scapegoat game on the playground.

I don't know if the biblical prophets I began learning about in church had already started to influence me but like Jeremiah, I had a fire shut up in my bones, burning in defense of Q. I told my classmates that if they didn't stop calling Q a "gook," I was "gonna kick they ass."They didn't stop and I delivered on my threat.

But I didn't get charged with attempted murder like the Jena 6. I didn't even get in "trouble;" at least, not by-the-book "trouble." Instead, karma came back to me - hard. Not long after the Q incident, we were playing softball. I was catching, standing too close to the plate, and one of the kids I beat up in the name of Q caught me with his backswing - right in the jaw. (I can still see that green wooden bat today).

I went to our gym teacher moaning about the nurse's office. "I told you to back up. That's what you get. Now, go over there and sit down," he said.

Too bad my gym teacher isn't the District Attorney in Jena, Louisiana. He might not be the ideal man for the job but at least he allowed my classmates to learn a real-world lesson in the wrath that white supremacy evokes while sparing me certain school (and maybe legal) discipline. He also saw the poetic (and painful) justice of me getting cracked in the jaw by a kid who had been a victim of my retaliatory violence.

The Jena 6 were initially charged, as adults, with attempted murder for a playground butt-whoopin' after a series of racial incidents that included the ugly American spectre of nooses. Predictably, the story has quickly devolved into one that pits two polarized camps arguing about "justice."

One side, many of whom I'd bet are purveyors of "color-blindness," can only see black criminality in this case, while downplaying (or ignoring) the existential threat nooses represent to black folk. The other side - rightfully calling attention to a clear-cut case of white-skin privilege - wrongly sees the Jena 6 as the beginning of 21st century civil rights movement.

Of course, both camps have a point. The Jena 6 haters, despite their evident historical amnesia of the lynching terrorism African-Americans endured for nearly a century (and that was tolerated by "Christian" America until less than 50 years ago) are right: you can't claim the moral high ground in the struggle for racial justice with a beat-up white kid at the bottom of the pile.

The Jena 6 defenders are also right: sending any of those young brothers involved in the fight to jail, without considering the "mitigating circumstances," would be an injustice that should be easy to see in a so-called Christian country. "A false balance is abomination to the Lord: but a j8ust weight is his delight," declares the book of Proverbs. Certainly, the charges in the Jena 6 case are a "false balance."

It's not just my Glassbrook experience that makes me sympathetic to the Jena 6, my sympathies are also based on the recognition, as Karl Menninger observed his classic analysis of America's penal system The Crime of Punishment, that "in practice, justice does not mean fairness to all parties. To some people the law is an inexorable, inscrutable Sinai - the highest virtue is to submit unquestioningly. But to others law and the principle of justice should...'embody the plasticity and reasonableness that Aristotle praised in his famous description of equity."

"He said: 'Equity bids us to be merciful to the weakness of human nature; to think less about what he said than about what he meant; not to consider the actions of the accused so much as his intentions, nor this or that detail so much as the whole story..." Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com.

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