SAN DIEGO — When I first heard of the "Jena 6" — African-American teens in a small Louisiana town charged with beating a white classmate — my instinct was to side with those screaming for justice.
There was always the chance that the case was all about race. The high school that these kids attend appears to be boiling over. A few months before the beating, in an incident a U.S. attorney found had nothing to do with the attack, a group of white students strung nooses from a tree in the schoolyard.
The screams for justice are getting louder. The criminal case has become a cause celebre with liberal bloggers, celebrities and black radio hosts. It's also become an issue in the 2008 presidential race.
Last week, thousands of protesters descended on the town to show support for the six defendants. And since there were television cameras there, the demonstrators included — surprise — those perennial grievance merchants, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
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But even if my heart went out to the defendants, my head told me to take a closer look. Now, I feel like screaming. Neither the authorities nor the activists come off particularly well. The former treated the defendants as if they were public enemy No. 1; the latter went so far in the other direction as to depict the young men as victims.
I wouldn't call them that. The real victim is Justin Barker, the teenager who was beaten and stomped unconscious and taken to a hospital with injuries to both eyes and ears. Even though he was treated and released the same day, his injuries weren't exactly minor.
Everyone likes to play the victim. But don't blur the lines between those who were wronged and those accused of committing the wrong.
Still, none of this lets prosecutors off the hook for the aggressive way in which they handled this case. For allegedly taking part in the attack, the teens were tried as adults and charged with attempted murder.
At worst, this was assault. And given that the victim was white and the assailants were black, it could be called a hate crime. But it's not exactly a homicide gone awry.
Tell that to the jury that convicted the first young man to come to trial in this case — 17-year-old Mychal Bell. Make that, the "all-white jury."
That's a no-no, especially in the South with its rancid history of white jurors exonerating whites accused of crimes against blacks and railroading blacks accused of crimes against whites.
If the Jena 6 are guilty of the crime for which they've been accused, they ought to be ashamed — and punished. But Bell deserved a jury of his peers, and an all-white jury doesn't cut it.
Recently, an appeals court overturned Bell's conviction — not because of the jury's racial makeup but because, the court said, he should never have been tried as an adult. Since the judge's ruling, the charges for three of the other defendants were reduced to aggravated battery.
But there is another side to this coin. Many of the activists supporting the teens haven't behaved much better. For some, even the lesser charge is too harsh. I'm part of a panel of commentators on National Public Radio's "Tell Me More with Michel Martin," and, when we've discussed the Jena 6, an African-American colleague suggested that the appropriate punishment be community service.
What? Why not just drop all charges, buy them a steak and call it a day? Students at Morehouse and Spellman — traditionally black colleges in Atlanta — held a rally and declared an affinity with the defendants. Some held up signs saying: "I am the Jena 6."
Well, not if you've never been part of a mob-style beating you're not. Those college students obviously made good decisions to get where they are. The Jena 6 made a bad decision, and that's why they are in trouble with the law.
And then there's Jackson, who called the case a "defining moment" and compared it with the 1965 voting rights struggle in Selma. Jackson has also criticized Barack Obama over what he considers the presidential candidate's tepid reaction to the case and — according to a South Carolina newspaper — accused Obama of "acting like he's white."
This was an ugly episode from the start, but shame on those who are — through words and deeds — making things even uglier now.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE