Scenes from America, circa once upon a time.
White men taking sledgehammers to the door of the jailhouse in Marion, Ind., intending to murder three black prisoners. The sheriff orders his men not to interfere.
White men hearing testimony tying two white defendants conclusively to the kidnap, torture and murder of a black boy in Money, Miss. The jury takes less than an hour to set them free.
White men with badges arresting three civil rights workers for an alleged traffic violation in Neshoba County, Miss. Forty-four days later, the workers' bodies are dug out of an earthen dam.
There are other examples - literally thousands - but let three suffice to make the point. Which is that blacks have frequently found the justice system to be about anything but justice. From the day slavery ended, that system has often been its surrogate, a tool used specifically for the suppression and control of black people.
There was no artifice about it. This conspiracy of beat cops and county sheriffs and DAs and judges and senators and attorneys general operated openly and with impunity. Everyone knew there were simply different rules, different enforcement and different punishment for blacks.
Maybe your impulse is to seal all that off in a mental box called history, interesting, lamentable, but hardly relevant. In which case, what will you say about Jena?
Meaning, of course, the tiny Louisiana town now infamous for a series of events that began a year ago when a black high school student asked the principal if it was OK for him to sit under a shade tree white kids claimed as theirs. The principal told him yes. But the next day, nooses were found hanging in the tree.
The principal wanted the white kids who did it expelled, but the superintendent overruled him, briefly suspending them instead. Expulsion, he felt, was excessive for this "prank."
There followed weeks of racial brawls and even an arson fire. A black student, Robert Bailey, was hit in the head with a beer bottle by a white kid who was later charged with simple battery and released on probation.
After a white student, Justin Barker, supposedly taunted Bailey about it, six black kids allegedly jumped him, kicking and stomping. Barker was knocked out and had a black eye. He was treated and released at the hospital and felt well enough to go out that same night.
Yet the DA called it attempted murder.
Yes, charges against five of the six were eventually reduced. Yes, an appeals court just overturned the aggravated battery conviction of the only student whose case has been adjudicated.
But it is hard to be sanguine. This unjust justice is hardly unique. Consider Genarlow Wilson, 17, sentenced to 10 years for consensual sex with a 15-year-old. And Marcus Dixon, 18, who drew 10 for having sex with an underage white girl. And Shaquanda Cotton, who shoved a white teacher's aide and got seven years from a judge who had earlier given probation to a white girl who burned down her family's house. A 2000 study co-sponsored by the Justice Department codifies the obvious: people of color receive starkly unequal treatment in the "justice" system.
Where blacks are concerned, it seems, that system often still exists not to enforce law and protect order but to intimidate and compel. But at least they care enough about appearances these days to lie.
"Race? This has nothing to do with race. Oh, no." Prosecutors justifying the unjustifiable. Utterly convinced of their own blamelessness.
One might ask why it is that black justice so seldom looks like real justice, even today.
The answer is that history does not fit in a box. And once upon a time is now.