This story was cobbled together from stories written by Mary Foster of the Associated Press. It is a kind of “town divided” story, similar in many ways to the kind of cautious coverage the Tulia story received early on.
The most significant comment comes from the father of Justin Barker’s girlfriend. He notes (correctly, I assume) that there haven’t been any school fights at Jena High School since the Jena 6 were arrested. I have heard this argument from the editors of the Jena Times as well. I suspect the entire string of violence leading up to the assault at the high school could have been avoided if local authorities had simply lynched one of the young black men who initially protested the hanging of the nooses. That would have nipped things in the bud.
Alternatively, the district attorney and the school superintendent could have avoided this mess by responding to the “noose incident” like the hate crime it was. If the white students who hung the nooses (and their numerous supporters) had been informed that overt acts of racial terror were not acceptable at Jena High or anywhere else in LaSalle Parish, a new day of racial harmony might have ensued.
Unfortanately, the DA and the Superintendent weren’t at liberty to take that kind of stand because it would have put them at odds with too many prominent white residents. So Reed Walters was brought in to wave his pen at the student protesters and issue his now infamous threat: “With a stroke of my pen I can make your lives disappear.”
These public servants could have provided some principled leadership; instead they chose to respond with craven cowardice and backwoods bigotry. In the process, Reed Walters surrended the moral authority to prosecute the Jena 6.
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Questions of racism arise in Louisiana
Black teens’ trials in beating of white classmate have small town on edge
07:29 AM CDT on Sunday, July 8, 2007
JENA, La. – It’s not yet 8 a.m. but there’s a line of men waiting for a $10 haircut at Doughty’s Westside Barber Shop.
BILL HABER/The Associated Press
Marcus Jenkins (left) and Melissa Bell (right) discuss the trial of their son, Mychal Bell, with Felicia Howard. Mychal is one of six black teens accused of beating a white classmate.
The conversation usually runs to hunting and fishing.
At the end of June, the first trial took place for one of six black teenagers accused of attempted murder, aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy after a white classmate was attacked.
“I don’t think we’re racist here,” barber shop owner Billy Doughty, 70, said. “People work together, go to school together. We never talk about race.”
But Mr. Doughty does not cut black men’s hair.
“That’s the thing about working for yourself,” he said. “I don’t do shaves. I don’t do shampoos. I don’t cut black hair. I don’t think it’s racist. I just don’t do it.”
And that, many black people say, is the key to race relations here – you’ll get along as long as you don’t want much.
“This is a good town to live in for things like no crime, it being peaceful,” said Caseptla Bailey, whose son is facing attempted murder charges. “But it’s very racist, and they don’t even try to hide it. ”
Last fall, racial tension built at Jena High School.
Tempers rose after a black student sat under a tree on campus where white students traditionally met. The next morning, three nooses – symbols of lynching in the old South – were hung in the tree.
“That was just a prank,” Mr. Doughty said. “They had those nooses from a football rally. They had used them to hang the mascot from the other team. There wasn’t anything racist in that.”
School officials suspended for three days the students who hung the nooses.
Black residents saw the incident differently.
“When a black person sees a noose, he doesn’t laugh,” Ms. Bailey said. “They don’t stand for anything funny for us.”
On Dec. 4, six black students allegedly jumped Justin Barker, 18, who is white, beating and kicking him.
A motive for the attack was never established, but two witnesses during Mychal Bell’s trial said they heard one of the attackers shout that Mr. Barker had been “running his mouth.”
Mr. Barker was treated at a hospital emergency room, and pictures shown during Mr. Bell’s trial showed him with cuts on a swollen face. He was released after three hours, he said, and that same evening went to a school function. But he said he took pain medicine for about a week and a half.
Mr. Bell, a star athlete, was tried on reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He was found guilty and could face as much as 22 years in prison. Sentencing is set for July 31.
Trials for Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones and Theodore Shaw, all 18, who still face attempted murder and conspiracy charges, and an unidentified juvenile have not been set.
There was immediate outcry by black residents when the attempted murder charges were filed. The group was charged for what was essentially another school fight in which the victim was not even hospitalized, Ms. Bailey and others said.
“I’ll tell you one thing, when the DA filed attempted murder charges against them, the fights at school stopped,” said Tommy Randall, whose daughter, Kari, is Mr. Barker’s girlfriend.
Such charges are a “vast overreach,” said David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana. He felt the bond set for the youths – $138,000 for Mr. Bailey, later reduced, and $90,000 for the other defendants, was likewise out of line.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been in town since March monitoring the case. The group is also trying to obtain records from District Attorney Reed Walters to see if black and white suspects are charged differently in similar cases.
“We want to see what charges have been filed so we can look and see if there is a pattern of charging blacks differently from whites,” said Tory Pegram with ACLU of Louisiana.
The ACLU has also helped residents form an NAACP chapter.
Life in Jena
Jena has about 3,000 residents, and only about 350 are black. Many residents know each other by name, and outside the courthouse, black and white citizens exchanged friendly greetings, hugged each other and chatted.
It’s a great place to live in many ways, said John Jenkins, father of Carwin Jones.
“I work with white people, play baseball with them, coach their kids,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Before this happened, I can’t say I really had a problem. Not that we really hang out together. Whites and blacks don’t really socialize.”
Cleveland Riser, 74, a former assistant superintendent of schools, believes an underlying tension pervades Jena High School.
Of more than 100 teachers in the parish schools, only five are black, Mr. Riser said. That, and what he calls a sense that the school belongs to white residents, has left black students feeling alienated.
“People have not bought into their having to educate their kids at home, at school and in the community to respect each other,” he said. “White people here feel the way things have always been is the way they’ll always be.”
Mary Foster, The Associated Press