Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Jena 6 -- What They All Missed

Last week, the news was full of stories about the so-called 'Jena 6'. There was a huge march in the town of Jena too. The TV networks were all there. As often happens with such news, there was a predictable outbreak of chatter on blogs about the topic, including the usual predictable drivel from the usual suspects.

There are a number of important points that the mainstream media and the bloggers all missed. I will fill this lacuna here.

Yes, the story of the Jena 6 is clearly about racism. Yes, it is horrific to hear such things can still happen in this, supposedly, more enlightened age. Yes, the situation is intolerable and something should be done about it. This is not exactly news. These observations have been repeated again and again to the point that they are now platitudes. What few have considered less is that there are underlying causes over and above the manifest racism.

Here is a question: Why were the police and the authorities involved in these incidents that occurred at a school at all? When I was in school, there were occasional fights. Sometimes a person would get hurt in these fights. Back then though, nobody felt a need to call the police, when a fight occurred. Nobody wanted to put a cop into the school, because of such incidents. Yet, in this day and age, this now seems to be a reflex action.

Do not get me wrong, there were serious incidents at my school occasionally. On one famous occasion, a student pulled an air pistol on a teacher. Even then though, nobody felt the need to call in the SWAT team. The head of the department was called. He took the gun. The student was punished (severely). That was the end of it.

The police have enough to do, without being given responsibility for acting as referees in school yard spats. To make matters worse, cops are not trained to deal with school kids. Yet, they are invited in, with all their tools (pepper spray, guns, handcuffs, dogs, etc.), for the most minor infraction that occurs in a school. This policy is now a favorite amongst school boards, who wish to be seen to be being tough, but it seems to me to be counter-productive. 'Zero tolerance' may make a fine election slogan, but it makes very poor policy. Let me cite a couple of examples I know of, that occurred in Louisiana.

A child was found with a lighter. Shock horror! In my day, nothing would have happened to them, although the child would have been under suspicion of being a smoker. A lighter is not a deadly weapon. Indeed, lighters have legitimate uses (lighting candles, finding a key hole in the dark and so on), yet in this case the mere possession of the lighter was treated like the child had been in possession of a loaded weapon. S/he was charged and even had to go to court, all for having a lighter. What a waste of time and resources. This might be called 'zero tolerance', but to me it sounds like zero common sense.

On another occasion, a child was found in possession of a (roll the drums), a drum stick! It turns out the child was bringing the drum stick to a friend who had left it behind after a sleep over. What happened to this hardened drum stick wielding 'criminal' though? They were charged with possession of a weapon by the ever so wise cops who attended in response to a call from the Principal. They were then expelled from the school. How much sense does this make? I would say none. Perhaps I missed something -- are drum sticks the latest terror weapons deployed by al Qaeda?

You see, the reported events concerning the Jena 6 occurred in a context in which paranoid thinking is considered normal. Had a wise teacher or administrator handled the whole initial set of incidents in a sensible manner, my bet is that this issue would have never reached the point where it made the news. However, in a climate which is suffused with the insanity of zero tolerance, this common sense approach would be denounced as irresponsible.

This kind of climate breeds certain kinds of madness. In some senses, it is a bit like the silly people who spend their lives claiming that they are being verbally abused, by anyone who disagrees with them, or detecting putative abuse, when there is none. It is some societal version of crying wolf. To make matters worse, adding the emotionally charging effect of the police into such situations can only make matters worse. Furthermore, when the police get involved, they are trained to deal with hardened criminals and they too are likely to have an effect of increasing the trauma. Now, if the small town police officers are themselves none too bright and are perhaps a little racist, then the results are predictable. Once matters have gone this far, the local prosecutors are going to wish to play their part too. It is for these reasons that the events in Jena are not really a surprise.

In fact, there is clearly plenty of blame to go around. If the initial events are typical of the kind that happen in most school yards, then none of the students will be entirely without some guilt. Antagonism between groups, be they cultural groups, racial groups, or whatever, often leads to ill considered actions by teenagers. The teachers at the school could have handled the matter in a low key manner, but instead decided to get the authorities involved. They had the option not to ('just following orders' is not a sound defence). The school board, who by their policies may have forced the hand of the teachers also have some culpability. The police, the prosecutors, all have some role in creating the horrific situation that has played out now in the public eye. No group can be entirely without blame.

Thus, despite all the rhetoric about race and the Jena 6, there is a deeper cause that needs to be recognised too. In saying this, I do not mean to diminish the culpability of the racists. Hopefully, they will be exposed and punished. My goal rather is to draw attention to the combination of Neanderthal attitudes and policies that lie at the root of the whole sad situation. Just one person, very early on, could have prevented the escalation that has resulted in ridiculous charges and at least one child spending over nine months in jail, when that child should have been completing their education. It is a damn shame that no such sensible person was available in Jena.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As evidenced by the last 2 posts, glad you are back putting a sharp beacon on what is occurring - not leaving us to the news snipets to form our view about what is right or wrong action. I believe that you are on point with the Jena 6 in so many ways. While we would hope educated people would lead the way, clearly the fact remains that racism and bigotry will arise even among the “educated”. I am not sure what the answer is - simple-minded or educated, but I would hope that there is occasion for each one of us to reason out what is right action when attempting to treat each other with respect and understanding. We obviously have a long way to go and have not come as far as we would hope or desire. A wise teacher I once had led me to ancient words that still have a genuine ring today (apologies in advance to Aristotle if recited out of context) “…human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with excellence” and “…excellence then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching…while none of the moral excellence arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature… but excellences we get by first excerising them...” CP continue to make us deliberate and not sit idly by in the comfort of our own circumstances - removed from what is going on every where else.


8:14 AM  

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