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Hearing of the House Committee on the Judiciary- Jena 6 and the Role of Federal Intervention in Hate Crimes and Race-Related Violence in Public School

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Location: Washington, DC


Hearing of the House Committee on the Judiciary- Jena 6 and the Role of Federal Intervention in Hate Crimes and Race-Related Violence in Public School

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REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D-CA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I was wondering if there's a discordant two themes that sort of run against each other in this. I'm wondering if you could, Mr. Washington perhaps, or Professor Ogletree or Mr. Cohen, Reverend Moran, just resolve this for me.

On the one hand, we hear about all the efforts going on now for dialogue and reconciliation, the work of the Community Relations Service. And at the same time, we hear that the people of Jena and the leadership of Jena thinks of this as childish pranks, not something fundamentally indicative of racist views and feelings.

Professor Ogletree talks about the benefit of people learning the symbol of this noose, the history of lynchings in the South, the full implications of what that meant. Are these efforts at dialogue dealing with that? And if these dialogues are taking place, why is this view held that the people of Jena don't and the leadership of Jena don't fundamentally feel there's anything wrong?

I'd also like to hear from the people involved in coordinating this effort.

MR. WASHINGTON: I'll make just a brief comment, and it reminds me of Harriet Tubman, who was responsible for freeing so many slaves from the South to the North. And her famous statement was, "I could have freed a lot more if they realized they were slaves." And I think that tells us something about what's going on here. There is the unconscious bias that people don't realize there is a problem.

And I think that what's going on is good, but I would actually look forward to this committee's support to joining Mr. Washington in Jena and other places to have a dialogue and talk about the history of lynchings. That's not the children. It's the family. It's the community. And if you don't recognize you have a problem, you can't begin to address it, which is one of the major aspects.

And the second part is that I agree that there's a victim in this case who was brutally beaten, that the individuals who have been charged aren't saints or martyrs. They're young kids who were involved in conduct that needs to be addressed.

I think the fact that we have ignored the community's problems is what created this opportunity for disagreement. And I think what Richard Cohen and others are doing, I think that we can do something that we have expertise in to teach people how to think about race in ways that they probably have never thought was necessary. It's not just Michael Bell scoring a touchdown on the football field, which they all applaud, but seeing him as a young man who is more than the sum of the crime with which he's been charged.

REP. BERMAN: Mr. Washington.

MR. WASHINGTON: Yes, sir. The conflict of which you speak is, of course, not new. It exists all over the country, in my humble opinion. What we told the Jena folks in our first education forum earlier this year was that in these kinds of things, good people have to stand up and do the right thing and articulate very clearly what is right and what is wrong.

What didn't happen in the Jena community, when the nooses were hung, was just that. And so now we move forward with this idea of how do we solve this -- how do we go back in time, which we can't, but how do we, if this happens again, get people to say these kinds of things are wrong?

So I think Professor Ogletree is exactly right, that we have to keep talking about it, keep pushing with it. We can use the criminal justice system to a degree, but at the end of the day it is the blunt instrument which is really not appropriate for a long-term resolution in communities like Jena. And so this is going to be a little bit of an experiment for us, at least in my office and in the Civil Rights Division, but not in the CRS, I don't think.

REP. BERMAN: Let me just ask you; I have to interrupt. I only have another few seconds.

MR. WASHINGTON: I understand.

REP. BERMAN: Put aside the issue of juveniles. In your view, is the act -- is this act of hanging the noose a hate crime?

MR. WASHINGTON: Yes, it is a hate crime.

REP. BERMAN: Under existing federal law?

MR. WASHINGTON: Under existing federal law.

We have -- I think we stated that publicly. And we've not all been in agreement as to how strong the evidence is to support the elements to move forward. But yes, hanging a noose under these circumstances is a hate crime.

REP. BERMAN: Thank you.

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