NAACP Jena Branch President Rev. Brian L. Moran was joined by representatives of other civil rights organizations and members of the U.S. Department of Justice on Capitol Hill yesterday to testify in a hearing before the full Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Led by committee Chairman John Conyers, the hearing focused on the Jena 6 case, the racially charged climate in the Louisiana town and the role of the federal government in local hate crimes investigations.
“The injustice dealt by Judge J. P. Mauffray and District Attorney Walters over the past year must be atoned,” Moran said before the committee and the overflow audience in the committee’s chambers. “Justice must be done for our community to heal. Even our school board has a double standard for blacks and this whirl wind of events merely touched the surface.”
Moran said the incidents surrounding the Jena 6 are part of a long history of violence against African Americans in the town including the death of Bobbie Ray Smith, who was killed and thrown into an oil pit by a group of young white men, there was no investigation into his death; and the stomping death of Billy Hunter by a white man, who received only two years in prison.
“When we think about what happened to the 6 boys last year at Jena High, these stories are always at the back of our minds,” Moran added. “We know what can be done, and we know what hasn’t been done…’justice’. Jena can be a great town, but right now it is a town where two systems of justice exist, and that is simply un-American, and we believe it is no longer acceptable.”
Currently, the federal government is allowed to intervene in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes only if they occur on federal property or if the victim was participating in one of six very specific activities, such as voting, going to school or religious meeting.
With the support of the NAACP, on Sept. 27 the U.S. Senate passed strong hate crimes legislation. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives did the same. The “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act” would expand existing hate crime prevention and protection laws and allow the federal government to assist the local authorities in the investigation and prosecution of crimes motivated by hate, regardless of what the victim was doing at the time the crime occurred. It would also expand the definition of a hate crime to include those motivated by the victim’s disability, gender or sexual orientation and it would provide resources to states to develop hate crime prevention programs.
The two bodies must now hammer out the few differences between their bills before sending a final version to President George W. Bush, for his signature. Unfortunately, the President has threatened to veto such legislation calling it “unnecessary.”
On Sept. 20, more than 20,000 came to Jena, La. to participate in activities seeking fairness for Mychal Bell and five other teens who faced overly aggressive prosecution and extended incarceration for fighting with a white classmate in their community last December following a series of racial incidents including the hanging of nooses in a tree at the local high school.
Prior to the Sept. 20 march and rally, NAACP officials presented petitions to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen B. Blanco with 195,000 signatures symbolizing those concerned with the unequal treatment of the Jena defendants and the disturbing climate that led to an escalation of racial tensions in the town. Further discussion with the Governor led to the District Attorney not challenging an appellate ruling that sends the case to juvenile court, helping pave the way for Bell’s initial release.
The NAACP will continue to urge federal intervention in the cases to ensure justice and secure the safety of the defendants’ families throughout the process.
The NAACP, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern University Law Center, has provided additional legal support and resources to the defendants’ attorneys and remains committed to the defense of the remaining young men.
The NAACP also called upon the Department of Justice to deploy its Community Resource Services to assist town officials and citizens in calming racial strife exacerbated by the most recent series of incidents.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.