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September 21, 2007

The Second Battle of Jena

Roy Meachum

On his way to the unsuccessful attempt to take Moscow, Napoleon knocked the Prussians out of the war at the Battle of Jena, almost exactly 201 years ago (October 14, 1806).

In my native Louisiana, all things connected with Bonaparte's legacy once received veneration. In New Orleans there is a series of streets named for the Corsican's victories.

And that is how a town slightly north of Alexandria, where my father rests in the national cemetery, happened to be called Jena - not pronounced as the spot in north Germany but Jen-na, sounding like Aunt Jemima. More famous for her picture on pancake boxes. But not at the moment.

Yesterday afternoon the NAACP and other militant civil rights advocates gathered a demonstration on Frederick County's courthouse steps. They came together to protest the total lack of justice in the town named for a Napoleon victory but stuck in the middle of pine forests.

The ground around would not allow 19th century cotton plantations, so at emancipation there was not a horde of freed slaves pouring into town, looking to show they were really human beings. Those who insisted on making the point moved on. At the last census, African Americans accounted for less than 13 percent of Jena's approximately 3,000 residents, which meant elected officials could appeal entirely to white voters to stay in office. Of course, that's what District Attorney Reed Walters did.

On the other side of the Old South, in North Carolina, District Attorney Mike Nifong dealt with a situation that slanted the other way. According to the last census, Durham reported whites made up only 45 percent of the population against 43 percent African Americans. The rest scattered among several demographics: Latinos or Hispanics' nearly 10 percent was growing fastest.

Moreover, buttressed by Duke University's faculty and students, encouraged by battles won during the civil rights wars, the black community was both active and aggressive. They are nobody's house pets. They were known to take on African Americans among them for not being supportive enough in all issues that brought collision with whites.

So when a black woman charged she had been raped by white members of Duke's champion lacrosse team, Mr. Nifong leaned over backwards, even to the point of concealing evidence that led to dismissing charges he had wangled through a grand jury. The university showed its solidarity with the district attorney and the African American community, early, by firing the lacrosse coach. Presumably the coach's compensation was heavy; we haven't heard about a high-sugar lawsuit against Duke. He would surely win that one too.

In a story repeated vigorously in the media over the past month, which led to yesterday's demonstration, Jena's district attorney consistently absolved whites from legally justifiable punishment. When faced with even less allegations, black high school students were prejudged as deserving their young adult years spent in prison, which, in my home state, still means brutalization and beatings.

Accustomed to blacks' silence and whites' cheering at his approach to every racial incident in the recent past, Mr. Walters set about his usual methods of "keeping (them) in their place." For over six months, as Mike Nifong did, the Louisiana official got away with it. Cooked up allegations against a number of black students kept them behind bars for some five months.

Faced with a court's decision that the primary defendant had been convicted on a totally improper basis that had to do with age, Mr. Walters kept the young man locked up while he filed an appeal. Until Saturday, that is, when his family and friends (from all over the world) posted a hefty bail that opened his cell doors.

While North Carolina's Mike Nifong lost in court and spent a token day in jail for abusing America's judicial process and its bedrock presumption on innocent until proved otherwise, Reed Walters continues to defy the process and the presumption. He acts like a prosecutor in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union: you must be guilty because you are in court.

Racism was not the issue in North Carolina anymore than it is in Louisiana. Both cases baldly demonstrate justice in the United States of America rests on soggy, treacherous ground.

Mike Nifong lost because his manipulations became too obvious: he meant the lacrosse incident to float him into another term; that's an extreme version of playing politics as usual. Because his motives were so transparent that does not make his judicial abuse less serious. In the court of public opinion, he has been found bottom-of-the-barrel stupid. He deserved losing his law license.

At this point in the history of this republic, Reed Walters was particularly stupid, however isolated his hometown Jena. He went away for college and law school, so he must be aware of "rumors" the Klan lost all strength within the system.

As a leader, he neglected informing the community the Civil War's long gone. He must resign right away. His continuing presence in the official structure is an abomination to whichever God that strikes his fancy. He cannot be Jewish, Muslim or above all Christian.

His treatment of the community's weakest violates every single principal taught by Jesus Christ and Muhammad and Moses. If Mr. Walters fails to go, every religion offers a means to throw him out into an eternal abyss.

From where I sit, yesterday was already too late for the second Battle of Jena!

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