October 19, 2007

Commentary:

The Jena 6 and the Latino Community

By Tlecoz Huitzil/Efren Paredes, Jr.

The Jena 6 case created a call for the Latino community to examine the handling of injustices against members of our community in courtrooms across the nation.

We have much to learn from the events that recently occurred in Jena, Louisiana, where thousands of people mobilized to help the young men and bring attention to the injustice done to them.

The efforts of the organizers were valiant, and they will be more than a mere footnote in the history of this nation. The protest earned its rightful place in the memory of the social injustice struggle.

The urgency of this is underscored by the alarming statistics that were released last week about Latino incarceration rates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 2.7 Latinos living in prison cells compared to every one Latino living in a college dorm.

Unfortunately the Latino community has remained relatively complacent as a whole when members of our community receive unfair and disparate treatment in courtrooms. Last year the immigration rights marches eclipsed many of the protests in recent years. Besides mobilizing around this issue with such large numbers, however, there are no other examples we can reference of that magnitude.

And, since the protests transpired, there have been numerous debates about how they were organized.

Take for instance the various social networking web sites being utilized by millions of people globally. Thousands of Latino people supported the Jena 6 groups that were created, while Latino-related groups about social injustice are largely overlooked or eschewed.

It is imperative that we share our victories and successes. It is also essential that we share our challenges and defeats. This will foster our continued growth and development. It will also ensure no one segment of the community is crushed by the weight of any challenges they encounter.

If there are people struggling in the Latino diaspora we should support their campaigns. Our struggle is a shared one that must be confronted as a unified body. And, the key to accomplishing this is through the development of strong networking. What affects one person in our community affects us all.

This is not an indictment on these individuals, but rather an illustration of things that need to be openly discussed. We can never be afraid to address areas where we are remiss. Combating social injustice isn’t a pleasant or easy task. It isn’t an act of romance.

When it is necessary for those who are serious about fighting for the rights and improved conditions of Latino people to revisit their agenda, it is the duty of each member of the community to create the dialogue that will result in this paradigm shift. Activists are vanguards of the community and their role is to lead and be in the forefront of the struggle.

There are numerous cases of Latino youth being disproportionately sentenced, having their trials held by all- or nearly all-white juries, etc. There are also cases where innocent Latino youth have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and sentenced to death or life in prison with no possibility of parole. Some have been exonerated after serving lengthy sentences, and others remain incarcerated after many years.

Racial profiling and inordinate sentences have become the norm in our community, and we have nearly succumbed to this shameful reality. They have paralyzed us rather than evoke a strong response to counter the vicious attacks on our liberties and well-being.

The Chicano Power Movement of the 1960s learned many lessons about mobilizing and protesting from the Black Power Movement during that time. And, like we learned lessons from the Black community about combating social injustice then, we can learn a lot from the recent events surrounding the Jena 6 case.

If we desire to see Latino people respected in courtrooms, and justice meted out in a fair and impartial manner, we need to get more involved and keep a watchful eye over the criminal justice system. We can’t expect the system to police itself or treat us fairly if we do not demand fair treatment. We can also not expect a broken system to correct itself.

When the U.S. Constitution was written, and courtrooms were established in the U.S., there were no rights for Blacks or Latinos in this country. It has taken decades for us to achieve some semblance of equal treatment and justice in the eyes of the law. But that fight continues because we have largely been remiss in waging an effective battle for our rights.

The injustices being perpetrated against members of the Latino community must be confronted as a united front. Opposing forces have manipulated us for years and fostered a divide among our communities to keep us embroiled in insignificant debates over superficial titles and territories.

It is long past time to lay these machinations to rest which were designed to take our sights off the real issues at hand. It is time to recognize these puerile tactics for what they are and work together to surmount the barrage of legal injustices we face daily to avert future recurrences.

We toss around the term “hate crime” when something physically occurs to a member of our community by a member of another community. But we haven’t yet had the courage to call the injustices occurring to Latinos in courtrooms what they are — “hate crimes” as well.

Sentencing someone to prison and unlawfully robbing them of their freedom based on the color of their skin, religion, or national origin absolutely constitutes a “hate crime.” People can play semantics all they wish, but the truth is what it is.

The protests, involvement of political and civil rights leaders, and global exposure of the Jena 6 case produced results. The family of Mychael Bell, the youth who was being illegally imprisoned, met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Two days later their son was released from prison after posting a reduced bond, and U.S. Congressman John Conyers vowed to hold congressional hearings on the case.

The shade tree in Jena, Louisiana where the three nooses hung has since been cut down. While people have attempted to erase the symbol that has come to represent the injustice that occurred, the memory will forever remain in the minds and hearts of the global community.

The alarm has been sounded. The question is, how is the Latino community going to respond to the thousands of criminal justice system-related inequities prevalent in our community?

Efren Paredes, Jr. has served over 18 years in prison for what he believes is a wrongful conviction.

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