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  • October 03, 2007

    A more thoughtful Jena 6 response

    Posted by: Chris

    I promised in an earlier post to publish a more thoughtful response I received to my Jena 6 posts, considering all the noise with so little light that we've seen on the subject.  The response comes from Darryl! L.C. Moch, who despite the unusual first name (that exclamation point is no typo) is a longtime black gay activist from Atlanta (and now Washington) whose views I definitely respect.

    I've posted all of his email, which he's given me permission to publish, in the jump to this post.  But I'll respond to the gist of each point.

    • First you trivialize the need for the "gay" community to be actively involved with the issues at heart with the black community.  It is more than back scratching it is about building a stronger more diverse movement.

    Guilty as charged.  The post wasn't intended to be my overall view on the Jena 6, and a number of folks who took me to task for not telling "the whole story" or short-handing too much treated it as if it were.  I thought (naively) that by saying I understood and agreed with the broader issues being raised by the Jena 6 that I could focus on the narrow issue of whether a gay rights group should get involved.

    I do think the gay community should support issues important to the black community when they align with the issues we are fighting for in our movement.  I don't believe so much, however, in support that's merely the result of scratch-your-back politics or white guilt.  It's important for black gays not to pander or guilt white gays into supporting them.  If you respect us, then you should make your case and hear what we have to say in response.  Real dialogue goes in two directions.

    • The LGBT community has a lot of work to do in really seeking to understand the magnitude of pain (historically from generation to generation) that Black and other communities of color feel in response to systemic and institutional racism and discrimination.

    I know this wasn't intended to be patronizing, but that's how it is received.  I have done a great deal of "work" in my life to educate myself about racial discrimination. Far, far, far more than the average black heterosexual has done to understand my own victimhood.  Do you honestly believe that the average white person is going to go running to the encyclopedia in response to an exhortation like that? There is racism among whites and blacks both in the gay community, and I confront it everywhere I see it, including in myself.  For the most part, however, there is far less racism among gays than among straights.

    One thing I'm pleased to see is that many African Americans seem ready to move past this history, now that the laws in the U.S. have been equalized for a generation and so much has been done to eradicate racism.  They realize there are lingering issues, including those raised in the Jena 6 case.  But they also recognize that victimhood is a big ole trap that sucks out energy that could be spent making a new future.  That's why Barack Obama is so popular and such a breath of fresh air.  He speaks in a positive way about the future without wagging the figure about white guilt for the past.

    And just since we're being real here, it is a bit tiresome to hear young black folk who were born long after Jim Crow was dismantled complaining about slavery and generations of discrimination.  I heard the same thing in law school, from black fellow students who came from far greater economic privilege than me and still benefited from affirmative action (in college, law school, and hiring and promotion afterward).

    • We all want to see justice done and served for everyone of them; but we want that justice to be dispensed fairly and appropriately.  How often in this country do you hear people being charged with attempted murder during a high school fight?

    I have heard that but it's always said in passing.  And when it's said in a way that dismisses the Jena 6 beating as "a high school fight," then I frankly don't believe it.  How often does "a high school fight" involve six guys blindsiding, beating and kicking the other unconscious and sending him to the hospital? That never happened in my high school!

    What happened in Jena was also not a "fight," and here's where I'd like Darryl! and others to really listen.  This is the heart of what set me off.  It's not "a fight" when six guys surprise and beat up one.  It's an attack, and in Jena, it was a very violent attack.  Not attempted murder, I agree, but then that charge was dropped.  But not "boys will be boys" scuffle either.  To say so doesn't just diminish what happened in Jena, it is a slap in the face to gay teens and adults who've experienced similar cowardly beatings by jock-types. Including me.  Understand now?

    • I also want to say that I think Donna Payne was where she needed to be doing what we both expected and needed her to do.  Stand for us and represent us.  I think again you threw her name into your article and glossed over her purpose and representation.  Do you or have you gotten to know her perspective on this issue?

    Donna wrote her op-ed piece on Advocate.com and said what she said mischaracterizing what happened at Jena.  I didn't attack her personally; I responded to what she said.  In response to the email from Darryl!, I asked Donna to share her views.  Like others at HRC, she chose not to even reply.

    (The complete email from Darryl! is available at the jump.)

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    October 02, 2007

    Racial condescension and the Jena 6

    Posted by: Chris

    Jena_6 Through almost 15 years of involvement in the gay rights movement, I've frequently heard black and white leaders alike talk about the critical need for "real dialogue" on racial issues. But what follows, in my experience, is a one-way conversation full of condescension and nothing approaching anything "real."

    That's because the white liberals who generally speak up feel so burdened by accusations of "white privilege" that their primary goal is simply to say whatever it is they think will most please their black listeners. The only time things get heated is when they guess wrong, much like Bill Richardson mis-pandered when Melissa Etheridge asked him whether being gay is a "choice."

    But look what happens when a white person does attempt "real dialogue" on racial issues in the gay rights movement. He is rewarded with additional heaps of condescension from black and white alike, along with the usual unfounded accusations of racism. I'm talking of course about the reaction to my posts about the decision by the Human Rights Campaign to defend the "Jena 6" -- six (black) high school football players who beat and kicked unconscious a fellow student.

    As a victim of a violent hate crime myself, I had argued that the gay rights movement should not take up the cause of schoolyard jock bullies who beat up a defenseless fellow student; it mirrors too closely the violence that gay teens and adults already face. I agreed with the Jena 6 protesters that in general the criminal justice system is unfair to African Americans, through not just prosecutorial abuses but from lopsided jury verdicts and harsher sentences. I also pointed out that by arguing the Jena 6 were acting in some racially retaliatory strike, HRC had only succeeded in turning a senseless schoolyard attack into an actual hate crime motivated by race.

    Every one of those points was completely ignored by most of those who responded to what I wrote. Instead, they just piled on the condescension and, in some cases, insinuated that I was a racist. Some "real dialogue" huh?

    Alexbio_2 The worst offenders were on the so-called Bilerico Project, a vanity site for Bil Browning (whoever he is) out of Indiana that appears to be an "experiment" in how fun it would be if gay and transgender liberals sat in a virtual circle and nodded and shook their heads in unison. First there was Alex Blaze, a mouthy white 20-something with zero credentials who channels Dana Carvey's Church Lady by wondering, without any support, why in the world I would dare to part from the party line on the Jena 6. Could it be -- could it be, yes it is -- racism!

    Sounding a similar note was Michael Crawford -- a Washington, D.C. based black gay blogger who goes by the name Bloggernista. Crawford is a regular comment contributor to this blog and his comments are often thought-provoking and interesting.

    BloggernistabioBut over on Bilerico, Crawford just can't help himself, and instead compares me to Bill O'Reilly in response to my post that questioned the timing of vocal black support for the gay hate crime bill, coming right after HRC joined in the Jena 6 rallies. Rather than address what I actually wrote, Crawford condescends to lecture me on how black leaders have historically supported gay rights issues. Well, duh. I've written many times about black support for gay rights issues and certainly don't need Crawford to lecture me on the subject.

    Then there is Rev. Irene Monroe, who kindly forwarded me an op-ed she wrote for the Advocate's website that also disagreed with my position on the Jena 6. Monroe was nice enough in the email to thank me for supporting her early op-ed work while I was editor of the Washington Blade, and her column was thankfully free of condescension. She wrote, in part:

    Chris Crain, the former editor of the Washington Blade and the man behind the popular blog and syndicated column “Citizen Crain,” balked at HRC’s president, Joe Solmonese, for appearing at the rally.

    “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,” Crain wrote. “But ... why pick the Jena 6, … 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?”

    Irene_monroe Wow -- she's responding to what I actually wrote! Is there actually hope for real dialogue? Read on…

    When your identity, like mine, is the intersection of these two marginalized groups, the question is moot.  Crain’s question is similar to the mindset of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, who said gays never had to sit in the back of the bus. …

    Crain’s question, however,  cannot be summarily dismissed, because it is an important one. But his question should be hurled at the Goliaths leading the Jena 6 protest and not at the Davids who followed African-American leadership.

    For a different reason than Crain’s, I too, ask a question: “Why a rally in support of these six black boys but not the seven black lesbians who defended themselves against an anti-gay attack and were charged with beating and stabbing a white filmmaker? The filmmaker instigated the violence by threatening them and actually trying to choke one of them in the Greenwich Village in August 2006?”

    I don't quite get why the question is moot for Monroe, or why she's comparing me to a virulently anti-gay member of the King family, except that for Monroe identity politics trump everything. If that were really true for me, then as a white Southerner I should disagree with the whole point made behind the Jena 6 protesters. But as noted above, I agree with their broader criticisms, just not their selection of these particular civil rights "heroes."

    The really unfortunate thing is that you won't read even Monroe's effort to engage what I actually wrote if you see the column on Advocate.com. That's because the editors there decided to paraphrase the five paragraphs above in one sentence:

    This is clearly evident in white gay blogger Chris Crain's attack on HRC and its associate director of diversity Donna Payne, a black lesbian, for “inventing a hate crime” in Jena 6.

    Mmm, I love the smell of political correctness in the morning. Don't you?

    I feel no need to apologize or condescend on racial issues. I have fought for racial equality when it wasn't popular for me to do so. As a freshman at conservative, mostly white Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, I was one of the co-founders of the Racial Environment Project, which was formed in response to some racist slurs found on the walls in student dormitories. Through REP, I lobbied for years for scholarships to improve the racial diversity on campus.

    As editor of the Vanderbilt school newspaper and later its magazine, I wrote editorial after editorial criticizing the segregation of fraternities and sororities, which essentially controlled the school's social life. It wasn't until my junior year that for the first time a white sorority pledged a black student. My columns  angered the Vanderbilt administration and alums, alienated many Greek friends, and I even wound up moving off campus after receiving threatening phone calls that called me a "nigger white" and a "nigger lover."

    I don't write this because I expect a prize or a lot of sympathy, but to explain why I feel no need to apologize to anyone about being white or taking a stand on issues of race. I do believe there's value in real dialogue, and I am ready to listen to substantive responses to what I actually wrote. (I did receive one by email that I'll write about later.)

    Until then, I won't hold my breath.

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    September 27, 2007

    A bit more Jena 6 scrutiny

    Posted by: Chris

    Jamie Kirchick chimes in on the Jena 6, hitting many of the same notes I did, in a column for Advocate.com:

    It says much about the state of the American civil rights establishment when its foremost organizations recast a group of brutal thugs -- the “Jena 6” -- as heroic victims persecuted by a racist judicial system. And it says even worse things about the country’s preeminent gay rights group when it somehow contorts that dubious cause into its own.

    But that’s what happened with the Human Rights Campaign’s endorsement of the movement to free the Jena 6, a group of black teenagers who beat and stomped a 17-year-old white boy into unconsciousness last December.

    Likewise over at Gay Patriot, Gay Patriot West (that would be Dan), takes things a step further, making an interesting point about HRC's use of the Jena 6 beating to draw hate crime analogies:

    The alleged injustice here was not the absence of such legislation, but the presence of prosecutorial misconduct. But, I guess that’s irrelevant to Joe when he has a chance to join his fellow leftists in attacking Bush. (If anything, a hate crimes law might justify the prosecutor’s alleged excesses if he believed that the Jena 6 assaulted the white teen because of his race.)

    I'm in favor of hate crime laws, though I've made the point previously that the prevailing apologist explanation for the Jena 6 beating actually elevates it from a senseless beating to a race-motivated hate crime. It's nice to see others reaching some of the same conclusions and asking more questions that HRC will probably never deign to answer.  Stay tuned…

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    September 22, 2007

    Meanwhile back at the movement

    Posted by: Chris

    Hrclogos While the Human Rights Campaign is busy defending schoolyard bullies who blindside and stomp unconcious defenseless students, the "nation's largest gay lesbian bisexual transgender rights organization" is MIA in the actual fight for equality.  In addition to completely ignoring the hate crime murders of gay men in Alabama and New York, HRC has avoided like the plague the gay marriage debate heating up in two states.

    Maryland's high court last week rejected a challenge to the state's hetero-only marriage law, crushing local and national activists who had hoped for at least a New Jersey-style civil union compromise. HRC's idea of a response was a press release. Meanwhile, gay Marylanders rallied on their own to build momentum for marriage or civil union legislation. But when the state Senate president threw cold water on the idea and the governor reneged on private promises to support full marriage equality, HRC was struck dumb — silent, that is.

    Meanwhile out in California, the Republican mayor of San Diego held an emotional press conference to announce that his relationship with his own lesbian daughter had caused him to reverse course and support a lawsuit there challenging the exclusion of gays from marriage. HRC — you guessed it — issued a press release

    The mayor's powerful appeal comes as gays in the nation's most populous state are trying to pressure Gov. Arnold Schwarzegger to back away from threats to veto a gay marriage bill passed (for the second time) by the California Legislature. When Arnold renewed his veto vow last week, HRC'ers didn't even manage a press release in response, though they did manage to let us know the cast of "Ugly Betty" will be making an appearance at the org's ubiquitous black-tie dinner.

    How can HRC get energized about the Jena 6 but remain ho-hum about gay marriage? Easy -- it's all about the politics. Democrats like HRC -- that's Hillary Rodham Clinton -- are loathe for gay marriage to emerge now as a hot political issue, so HRC does nothing to stoke the flames in Maryland or California.  Maryland is especially dangerous territory, since the Senate president and turncoat governor are both Democrats.

    It's mind-blowing to think of the sums wasted in support of this behemoth gay group, which spends more energy broadcasting morning news reports and a satellite radio show -- that one gets its own website -- than it does actually rallying suport for gay rights.

    (Credit to The Malcontent for the HRC "less than" -- or rewind -- logo.)

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    September 21, 2007

    HRC invents a hate crime?

    Posted by: Chris

    An update on my post on "Joe and the Jena 6" from yesterday:

    A reader points out that Donna Payne's column in the Advocate alleges Justin Butler was targeted by the "Jena 6" for a beating in response to an incident in which Justin attacked a black student.  Payne wrote:

    In one notable incident an African-American student was assaulted and hit with a beer bottle at a party attended mostly by whites. In return, six African-American students beat unconscious the white student who had allegedly taunted the victim at the party. But although the white student was sent to the hospital and released the same day, the six African-American students -- who have come to be known as the “Jena Six” -- were arrested and charged with attempted murder. Five of the six teenagers were charged as adults.

    I haven't seen any legitimate news source report this serious allegation that Justin, the beating victim, is himself guilty of a hate crime.  Forgive me if I don't take the word of Payne, HRC's associate director for diversity, who is hardly a model of credibility.

    Donnapayne_2 For one thing, she writes in the same column that she's horrified that "five of the six teenagers were charged as adults." What she doesn't mention is that four of those five actually are adults. Only 17-year-old Mychal Ball, who police said instigated the attack on Justin and delivered the blindside knockout blow that began the beating, was an actual juvenile tried as an adult.

    The prosecutor, who has loads of credibility problems himself, claims he tried Ball as an adult because he considered the Butler beating serious and because Ball had a record. The Louisiana Appeals Court overturned Balls' conviction, not because he has a colorable claim of innocence, but because  it disagreed with that decision to try him as an adult.  (Another fact conveniently omitted by Payne.)  The appeals court may well be correct, but is this what makes him a civil rights hero?

    I'm struck by how Payne seems untroubled tossing around an unsubstantiated allegation of a hate crime, even at someone who's been the victim himself of a beating.  (Blame the victim, anyone?)  But her careless accusation backfires, more than she realizes. Because if she's right that the Jena 6 were retaliating against a Butler, a white student, because they believed him a bigot — well, then, they're guilty of a hate crime as well.

    Hate crime laws cover any crime motivated in part by the protected categories, in this case "race" not "black."  So if the black students targeted the white student, they're ever bit as guilty of a hate crime as he allegedly was.

    Just remember that I'm not the one saying the Jena 6 are guilty of a hate crime. Donna Payne is.

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    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.

    Solmonese_2I 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.

    Hate_2 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?

    JustinbutlerblogWhen 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."

    Mychalbell 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?

    Scottyweaverblog 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.

    Michaelsandy_2 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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