September 20, 2007
Joe and the 'Jena 6'
Posted by: Chris
Shame on you, Joe Solmonese. Whatever moral authority you had to lead a gay rights group, much less the movement, you squandered today.
I usually skew toward being the lawyerly type, focused on policy and legal rights and such. Rarely do I read or see stories that cause in me a visceral emotional reaction. But the Joe Solmonese speech about the racial strife in Jena, Louisiana, kicked me square in the stomach.
I met Joe Solmonese on a spring afternoon two years ago in Washington, D.C., after he accepted my invitation to a get-acquainted lunch. He had recently been appointed to run the Human Rights Campaign, and I wanted to introduce myself as editor of the Washington Blade.
But unfortunate timing meant this was no ordinary lunch. I had recently returned from Amsterdam, where I had been spat upon, kicked and beaten by seven men who attacked me for holding hands with my partner in the street. My nose was still in a cast, my eyes still bruised and bloodshot.
Joe was very solicitous and sympathetic at the time. And event though he had not been particularly active in the gay rights movement up until then, but he certainly seemed, at least on that spring day two and a half years ago, to "get it."
I don't think he "gets it" now. If he ever did, then he certainly lost it today.
I understand the politics of why HRC became involved in the campaign to "Free the Jena 6." African-American and other civil rights leaders have been very supportive on the issues we say are important to us, and now HRC is being supportive on the issues they say are important to them. It's scratch-your-back and no doubt for some based on a genuinely felt bond among civil rights groups.
Still, why pick this case? It doesn't involve discrimination of the type suffered historically by gay Americans. I would agree completely that there is racial discrimination in this country, and that the criminal justice system suffers from prosecutorial abuse, biased jury verdicts and lopsided sentences based on race.
But if these injustices are as common as Joe and I both believe they are, then why pick the "Jena 6"? Why pick a case of six bullies who beat, kicked and stomped a defenseless teen unconscious in a schoolyard -- as the one for the GLBT movement to take a stand?
When Joe spoke today at a Washington, D.C., rally to "Free the Jena 6," here was the head of the nation's largest GLBT rights organizations standing at a podium comparing the senseless beating of Justin Butler at Jena High School to a hate crime. But he wasn't comparing victims. Oh no. He was invoking the image of James Byrd no less to side with the six macho bullies who punched and kicked Justin unconscious on the ground.
I'm sorry but that just goes too far. Way too far.
Solmonese tried to explain the presence at the rally of HRC, and by extension gay people generally, by saying, "We are here because we know about bigotry. We know about hate. We know the pain in high school of standing apart. Of being taunted. Of standing up, only too often, to be shut down."
We certainly do, Joe. We know what it's like to be punched and kicked to the ground by teenage jocks filled with macho bravado. And that's exactly what the "Jena 6" were arrested for doing to Justin Butler.
Football player Mychal Bell (pictured) blindsided Justin as he left the school gym with a punch to the head that knocked Justin to the ground unconscious. There the "Jena 6" commenced to kicking and stomping on him like he was a bug, causing injuries so serious they required hospitalization. If not for the intervention of an uninvolved student, things could easily have been even worse.
I understand the broader racial issues here, and that tensions were already high because some ignorant, bigoted white students at the school hung nooses around a tree they stupidly claimed was their exclusive social property. But no one has suggested Justin was connected to the nooses or even that his beating was racially motivated, as if that would somehow excuse it.
The "Jena 6" are the type of macho bullies (of all races) who victimize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students (of all races) every day outside school gymnasiums across this country. You remember those victims, don't you Joe? They're the ones you're supposed to be defending.
For the head of HRC to claim to stand up on behalf of gay people and compare the perpetrators of this kid's brutal beating in any remote fashion to the experience of those of us who have actually been victimized by hate crimes, whether because we are black or gay or from any other group, is deeply misguided, politically craven and downright shameful.
Shame on you, Joe. And shame on you, Donna Payne, HRC's associate director for diversity, for dismissing the severity of the "Jena 6" beating by noting that Justin was "sent to the hospital and released the same day." Gee Donna, I was never knocked unconscious and was treated and released from the hospital in several hours. Does my hate crime even count with you?
If the two of you really need to be reminded what a hate crime actually is, then why don't you drive the few hundred miles from Jena, Louisiana, to Bay Minette, Alabama. If you did, maybe you'd learn that just last week, the last of three people pled guilty to beating, stabbing and mutilating Scotty Joe Weaver because he is gay. That's where you ought to be leading a rally, calling out the local media for claiming "there's no such thing as a hate crime in Alabama." That's where you ought to be drawing comparisons to James Byrd.
But there were no HRC press releases about Scotty Joe Weaver; no big speeches from Joe Solmonese or poignant op-eds by Donna Payne. They haven't even spoken out this week, as three men go on trial in New York City for the hate crime murder of African-American gay man Michael Sandy.
Instead, Joe is in Washington and Donna is in Jena, standing up for less serious sentences for violence against the defenseless. Far too many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths are tormented by bullies just like the "Jena 6." And quite a few of us have the bruises to show for their handiwork even as adults. The last thing we need is the likes of Joe and Donna standing up on our behalf for the likes of them.
Shame, shame, shame on you both.
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