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As everyone notes, it's hard to get information on the case, which is trickling out and heavily influenced by where you got your facts. My understanding so far is that the Wikipedia entry is pretty authoritative, and the basic facts are as follows:

  1. Jena is a town with racial issues. There was a special tree at the high school that white students sat under to read.


  2. A black kid, who may or may not have been new to town, asked permission to sit under the tree. The principle said "of course you can sit anywhere you want.


  3. The next day, everyone came into school to find three nooses hanging from the tree.


  4. Three kids were identified and expelled. The school board overrode the expulsions and gave the kids three-day suspensions.


  5. In the resulting ugly atmosphere, there were escalating interracial fights at school. The DA came in, and spoke in a manner that was perceived by the black kids as directed mostly at them. The black kids tried to bring their concerns to the school board, but were ignored.


  6. The school building was burned down by unknown perpetrators. The burning is believed to be related to the racial tension, and both sides accuse the other.


  7. In December, the end of football season quelled much of the solidarity that had kept the nastiness in check. At a mostly-white party on December 1st, five black kids tried to gain entrance, and a fight broke out with a group of white men who were not students. Eventually, one of those men was identified, charged with battery, and given probation.


  8. The next night, a white student who'd been at the party ran into that group of black kids in a convenience store, and an argument broke out. The white kid ran to his pickup truck and got a pistol-grip shotgun--he says because he was afraid they would attack them, they say unprovoked. They wrestled it away from him and drove off with it, resulting in a theft charge.


  9. Two nights after that, six students, now dubbed the "Jena Six", got into some sort of verbal altercation with a white kid named Justin Barker, who they claim was taunting them about the assault of three days earlier. He was hit in the back of the head, and fell unconscious either then or after hitting the ground. The six continued kicking him after he was unconscious; Barker's father says, in the head, which could have been fatal. However, Barker was up and around later that night, so his injuries do not appear to have been anything near life threatening, and there's no evidence that the kids intended deadly assault.


  10. The Jena Six had the entire library thrown at them: attempted murer bargained down to assault with a deadly weapon. The pattern of leniency on whites and harsh punitive measures on blacks has enraged people throughout America.


This is why I'm not sure how you even things out; without other witnesses, it's hard to know whether the kid with the shotgun was acting in self-defense or not, and if he is telling the truth, I'm libertarianish enough to regard waving a shotgun at people who have threatened to jump you as a legitimate use of force. (On the other hand, the fact that they didn't jump him after they'd separated him from the shotgun weighs against this interpretation.) The assault at the party has already been tried, and an inadequate sentence handed down; you can't try him again in order to match his offense to the other, and moreover, the sketchy facts of that case do not include six guys kicking one unconscious one. I'm happy to agitate for hanging sentences on deserving white kids, but which ones, who have not already been tried, do you want to punish?

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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