The Rev. Al Sharpton descended on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to assist Rep. John Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in scheduling hearings about the so-called Jena 6 and a schoolyard beating in Louisiana. He appeared on the Hill with the parents of Mychal Bell, who remains in jail charged with participating with five others in the beating of a white boy. Is this an investigation of justice perverted, or another assault on the Bush Justice Department? Or is Mr. Sharpton attempting to shift blame for the violence away from Mychal Bell and the other teenagers in on the beating, to focus on inequities he sees in the justice system?
The defendants — all teenagers and all black — are charged with various violent crimes. A jury convicted Mychal in June, but a judge threw out the conviction because he said Mychal should not have been tried as an adult. He is awaiting a new trial.
The Jena incident has rubbed raw wounds old and new. Race in America remains a national preoccupation, inflaming passions, and there are, sadly, ample precedents of racial injustice. But Jena is no Selma. The facts of what actually happened in Jena are in considerable dispute, but Mychal Bell, who has been arrested before for assault, clearly is no Rosa Parks.
Mr. Sharpton is drawn to demagoguery and race-baiting like a moth to a flame. Mr. Conyers, who has had several bones to pick with the Justice Department over the years, including the firing of the U.S. attorneys, has taken the bait. He should know better.
Mr. Conyers sees a mantle of moral respectability hovering over the Jena defendants where there is none. Mr. Sharpton’s record as a troublemaker, inflaming whatever wound he can find, is beyond dispute. If he can’t find an injustice, he will create one.
It’s not clear just what legislative remedy Mr. Conyers and his congressional colleagues can bring to whatever ails Jena. Mr. Conyers wants to hold a hearing early next month, with the attendant publicity and media exploitation. We think Sen. Barack Obama gets it right with his assertion that the Jena incident is not “a matter of black and white,” but “a matter of right and wrong.” The congressman, egged on by the reverend, is getting it wrong.