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The Jena Six
Louisiana Lynching

Jena High School's "white" tree, before the saw

It’s the sort of story that should be front-page news and fodder for a national discussion: Six black adolescents railroaded by an all-white justice system in a small Louisiana town where terrorizing blacks is still in a day’s entertainment. Instead, between the follies in Iraq, the crack-pottery in the White House and the latest starlet sightings in rehab or in prison or in the buff, the story has barely made the major news organizations’ agenda. There’s been some good reporting in the Washington Post and its affiliates, a few rare mentions on ABC and NBC news programs, and longer reports on NPR and Britain’s BBC. That’s about it. The New York Times, CNN, CBS and Time have yet to devote a word to it even as the usual civil rights showboats — Al Sharpton, the Nation of Islam — have tried to give the story bigger play. Meanwhile, the lives of six young black men are being ruined as the old stereotype of the young black male as presumptive threat regains currency.

Jena is a mostly white town in central Louisiana, population about 3,000. Jena High School (“Student Learning Is Our Top Priority”) serves the town and surrounding communities. It has about 500 students. There was a tree on campus whose shade supposedly belonged to whites only. Last fall during an assembly, a black student asked an administrator whether he could sit under the tree. To some whites in the assembly, the question never should have been asked. The question alone defied the autocratic understanding that commands the power structure of certain environments.

To more civilized people in the assembly, the question never should have been asked because the days when people could command anything by the color of their skin should have been gone, at least regarding something as immaterial as the shade of a tree. That the question had to be asked — and that the administrator dignified it with a straight answer (“You can sit anywhere you like”) rather than detect in it the chasm that enabled it — is indication of how much some places as familiar as the local high school can still be no more enlightened than a madrassa in Karachi.

Several black students soon joined white students under the tree. The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, hung from the tree, an obvious reference to that old pastime of good ol’ Southern towns — lynching. Just as the administration had been blind to the meaning of the question in the assembly, so it was to the meaning of the nooses. It took it as a harmless prank and suspended three offenders for a few days. Blacks didn’t see the nooses as a prank but as a provocation brass-knuckled in not-so-distant history. Tensions immediately rose. The administration made things worse when it invited Reed Walters, the district attorney, and several police officers, to threaten students at will, which he did: “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters told the assembly (as quoted in Newsweek), with a focus on black students: “With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.” Just like old times.

Walters made good on his threat, selectively. When Robert Bailey, a black student who tried to attend a mostly white party, was beaten, his white assailant was charged with simple battery, no jail time. A few days later at school, Justin Barker, a friend of the noose-hangers, supposedly taunted Baker, then was assaulted from the back, knocked to the ground and kicked by a group of six black students, several of whom dispute that kicking took place. According to a Washington Post account, Barker was taken to the hospital, treated for a concussion and a swollen eye, and released. Within hours he was at a class-ring ceremony. For the assault, Reed Walters charged the young black men, now known as the “Jenna Six” — Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theodore Shaw and Jesse Beard — with attempted murder. None had a prior record.

Bell was convicted in July by an all-white jury on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it. He faces 22 years in prison. The others are awaiting trial. Their case isn’t unusual for the severity of the charges against them. They’re young and they’re black, which means they qualify for that other unspoken rule of America’s shaded justice system: charges and punishment to the hilt. Several recent similar cases abound across the country: Georgia’s Genarlow Wilson, sentenced to 10 years in prison for consensual sex with a 15 year old when he was 17; Georgia’s Marcus Dixon, 19, also a 10-year prison sentence for having sex with an underage white girl; Texas’ Shaquanda Cotton, 16, serving up to seven years for shoving a white teacher’s aid. All those convictions were overturned on appeal. But the individuals’ records remain. Even Bunnell recently had its own rash of young black men harassed and needlessly arrested by the local police department, on charges that didn’t make it past the State Attorney’s smell test. Prison and jail demographics, including Florida’s, further testify to the travesty.

Back at Jena High School, the tree should have been the symbolic heart of any attempt at bridging racist hatreds. Let the tree shade on, minus the repugnance—a living memorial of what can be and what mustn’t be. Instead, the administration a few weeks ago cut down the tree, as if the problem could be sawed off and burned. That’s no solution, especially as the fate of the “Jena Six” still hangs by that tree’s spectral limbs.

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