From USA Today:
An African-American pastor and civil rights leader from Jena, La., testifying before Congress about racial tension at a local high school, charged Tuesday that the town has two systems of justice and that is “simply un-American.”
Rev. Brian Moran was testifying before the House Judiciary committee about the “Jena 6” case in which six black teenagers were charged — initially with attempted murder — for the beating of a white student.
Racial tensions began rising in Jena in August 2006 after a black student sat under a tree known as a gathering spot for white students. Three white students later hung nooses from the tree. They were suspended but not prosecuted.
“What this is about is democracy now,” said Rep. John Conyers, D.-Mich., chairman of the committee, in convening the hearing.
He said the goal was to address a question “that has unfortunately been a stain on our history of race relations, namely racial violence and hate crimes.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., the ranking member on the committee, said he welcomed the hearings and praised witnesses for seeking “healing solutions.”
“What we do not need is stoking racial resentment,” Smith said.
Moran, pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Jena and head of the local NAACP chapter, said the unrest in the central Louisiana town of about 3,000 had historical roots.
“There is a great deal of racial indifference that seems to have festered for many years,” Moran said. “This indifference has caused a good many of our citizens — black and white — to have harsh and mixed emotions toward each other.”
He said the noose incident “did not help things at all.”
Five of the six black teens were initially charged as adults over the beating, but the conviction of Mychal Bell, 17, was thrown out by an appeals court that said he should be charged as a juvenile. Bell, who initiated the attack on the white student, had been denied bail and spent 10 months in jail.
Bell, who was freed following the appeal courts ruling, was later sentenced to 18 months in jail after a judge determined he violated the terms of his probation for a previous conviction.
More than 20,000 demonstrators gathered recently in Jena to protest what they perceive as differences in how black and white suspects are treated.
“Jena can be a great town, but right now it is a town where two systems of justice exist,” said Moran. “And that is simply un-American, and we believe that it is no longer acceptable.”
Asked whether the federal government helped local officials to try to keep the situation from getting out of hand in Jena, Moran replied: “From my understanding, partially.”
“There is a cry for peace, love and harmony,” he said, “but not justice.”
Richard Cohen, president of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told the panel that hate was behind the incidents in Jena, but that local authorities had mishandled the case. He said the filing of criminal charges against the black teenagers was not an appropriate response.
“What happened in Jena is a textbook example of what shouldn’t happen when hate comes to your school,” Cohen said.
Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Western District, testified that the Justice Department was “actively engaged” in the case. But he said the department decided not to pursue hate crime prosecution of the white students over the noose incident because the school had already disciplined them and because they were juveniles.
Some Democratic lawmakers, many of them black, blasted federal authorities for allegedly staying out of the local prosecutor’s case against the six, particularly that of Bell.
“Shame on you,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said to Justice Department officials, directing most of her fury at Washington, the first black person to hold the position of the U.S. attorney for the area.
“As a parent, I’m on the verge of tears,” Jackson Lee said. “Why didn’t you intervene?” she asked repeatedly, raising her voice and jabbing her finger in the air as some in the audience began to applaud.
Conyers called for quiet before Washington spoke. “I was also offended, I too am an African-American,” Washington told the panel. “I did intervene, I did engage the district attorney. At the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do.”
Following that exchange, Conyers pointed out he had invited the local district attorney, Reed Walters, to testify, but he declined. At that, some in the audience yelled out, “subpoena him!”
Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize the protest march, was among the witnesses and said the different way the white and black students were treated by authorities was a cause for concern.
He complained about a system “set up where you are too young to be charged with a bias crime, but you’re the same age and can be charged as an adult for attempted murder …”
The civil rights activist was late to the hearing because of airline delays in New York. Before Sharpton arrived, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., tossed a barb at the activist in what he called a personal statement: “If I were compiling a list of witnesses to encourage the diminishing of racial disharmony, I don’t know that Mr. Sharpton would make the cut.”
In an aside after his arrival, Sharpton told the panel: “I note Mr. Coble’s welcoming of my presence.”
Since the Jena case began attracting national attention, there have been a number of other nooses found in high-profile incidents around the country — in a black Coast Guard cadet’s bag, on a Maryland college campus, and, last week, on the office door of a black professor at Columbia University in New York.