April 24, 2014

Elyria
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Black and white fades to gray in the home of the Jena 6

JENA, La. — It’s got all the elements of a Delta blues ballad from the days of Jim Crow: hangman’s nooses dangling from a shade tree; a mysterious fire in the night; swift deliberations by a condemning, all-white jury.

And drawn by this story, which evokes the worst of a nightmarish past, they came by the thousands this past week to Jena, La. — to demand justice, to show strength, to beat back the forces of racism as did their parents and grandparents.

But there are many in Jena who say the tale of the “Jena Six” — the black teenagers who were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy for attacking a white classmate at Jena High School last December — is not as simple as all that.

Black and white, they say that in its repeated retelling — enhanced by omissions and alterations of fact — the story has taken on a life of its own. It has transformed a school-yard stomping into an international cause celebre, and those accused of participating in it into what one major Southern daily came to describe as “latter-day Scottsboro Boys.”

And they say that while their town’s race relations are not unblemished, this is not the cauldron of bigotry that has been depicted.

To Ben Reid, 61, who set down roots in Jena in 1957 and lived here throughout the civil rights era, “this whole thing ain’t no downright, racial affair.”

Reid, who is black, presently serves on the LaSalle Parish council. He reads the papers. He hears the talk outside of church on Sundays about how the Jena Six business is dividing his hometown down racial lines.

He doesn’t buy it.

“You have good people here and bad people here, on both sides. This thing has been blown out of proportion. What we ought to do is sit down and talk this thing out, ‘cause once all is said and done and you media folks leave, we’re the ones who’re going to have to live here.”

Clearly, something bad occurred in Jena, population 2,971, an old sawmill town in LaSalle Parish that, once upon a time, was Ku Klux Klan country. And, as most white and black residents readily agree, there is no good reason for embracing what unfolded here.

But what happened, exactly?

The story goes that a year ago, a black student asked at an assembly if he could sit in the shade of a live oak, which, the story goes, was labeled “the white tree” because only white students hung out there. The next day, three nooses dangled from the oak — code for “KKK” — the handiwork of three white students, who were suspended for just three days.

Much of that is disputed. What happened next is not: Two months later, an arsonist torched a wing of Jena High School. (The case remains unsolved.) Two fights between blacks and whites roiled the town that weekend, culminating in a school-yard brawl on Dec. 4 that led the district attorney to charge the Jena Six with attempted murder. The lethal weapon he cited to justify the charge: the boys’ sneakers.

In July, the first to be tried, Mychal Bell, was convicted after two hours of deliberations by an all-white jury on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it.

(It was widely reported that Bell, now 17, was an honor student with no prior criminal record. Although he had a high grade-point average, he was, in fact, on probation for at least two counts of battery and a count of criminal damage to property. In any event, his conviction was overturned because an appeals court ruled he should not have been tried as an adult.)

There is, however, a more nuanced rendition of events — one that can be found in court testimony, in interviews with teachers, officials and students at Jena High, and in public statements from a U.S. attorney who reviewed the case for possible federal intervention.

Consider:

—The so-called “white tree” at Jena High, often reported to be the domain of only white students, was nothing of the sort, according to teachers and school administrators; students of all races, they say, congregated under it at one time or another.

—Two nooses — not three — were found dangling from the tree. Beyond being offensive to blacks, the nooses were cut down because black and white students “were playing with them, pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them,” according to a black teacher who witnessed the scene.

—There was no connection between the September noose incident and December attack, according to Donald Washington, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department in western Louisiana, who investigated claims that these events might be race-related hate crimes.

—The three youths accused of hanging the nooses were not suspended for just three days — they were isolated at an alternative school for about a month, and then given an in-school suspension for two weeks.

—The six-member jury that convicted Bell was, indeed, all white. However, only one in 10 people in LaSalle Parish is African American, and though black residents were selected randomly by computer and summoned for jury selection, none showed up.

About 225 miles and a world apart from racially mixed New Orleans, Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh) is a throwback.

Here, one refers to elders as “Sir,” and “Ma’am.” Children still pull catfish from creeks; couples court at Jena Giants football games; families rope goats and calves at weekend rodeos.

In a place where per capita income is $13,761, there aren’t any swank, French restaurants, but rather, family eateries such as the Burger Barn, Ginny’s and Maw & Paw’s. Most of Jena’s 14-odd churches stage Easter egg hunts. On summer afternoons, sweet tea and lemonade on a neighbor’s front porch are obligatory.

And there are endearing figures, like the designated town sweeper who mountain bikes around town with a wagon full of rakes, brooms, dustpans and cleaning fluids, stopping only to sweep shopowners’ parking lots or to distribute complimentary bubble gum to grade schoolers.

Not all vestiges of the past are beloved, or quaint, of course.

There are no black lawyers, no black doctors and one black employee in the town’s half-dozen banks. (The employee is male, an accountant who works out of public view.)

Economics play a role in this; with the closure of the sawmills in the ‘50s, the town now relies heavily on the exploitation of oil and natural gas, offshore. There are relatively few good-paying jobs in what is gradually becoming a retirement community, and some point out that African Americans with higher educations tend to leave the parish.

“To a certain extent, that’s true,” says Anthony Jackson, one of Jena High’s two black teachers. “But I know some people who tried to stay here and couldn’t get good jobs. There was, for instance, a gentleman who graduated as a certified biology teacher, but he left because he didn’t want to deal with what’s going on here.”

Cleveland Riser, 75, who began working in Jena as a teacher and then rose to become an assistant superintendent of schools in LaSalle Parish, says blacks have long had trouble getting ahead in Jena.

“In my experience, the opportunity for advancing in my profession was denied, in my opinion, because I was black — not because I was unprepared professionally, or because of my performance.”

Here and across the “crossroads” of Louisiana, there are Klan supporters, to be sure; David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard, carried LaSalle Parish in his 1991 run for state governor. And Jacqueline Hatcher, a 59-year-old African American, remembers when, as a ninth grader in 1962, she saw a large cross burning out front of the all-black Good Pine High School.

“We heard the Klan was meeting in the woods because there was going to be desegregation in the schools and they didn’t want that,” says Hatcher. Still, no one recalls seeing any public lynchings or whites in robes and masks for a half century.

“If I could take you back to 60 years ago, and then fast forward to today, you’d have to say we’ve come a long way,” says Billy Wayne Fowler, a white school-board member who is one of the few leaders with the school administration or local law enforcement who still talks to reporters.

Most townsfolk, he says, interpreted the events of last year pretty much the same way — that a small minority of troublemakers, both black and white, got out of hand, and that the responses from authorities weren’t always on the mark.

The boys who hung the nooses “probably should have been expelled,” Fowler says, and the murder charges brought against the black teenagers were “too harsh, too severe.”

Tommy Farris, 27, an oil driller, and his wife, Nikki, 29, a registered nurse, concur — to a point. “Those boys should have expelled,” says Nikki, who is white. “It was no innocent prank. I think those boys knew what they were starting by hanging those nooses from a tree.”

Tommy, who is black, agrees. But free the Jena Six?

“That’s not going to happen,” he says, adding that he thinks the black teenagers are being given a fair chance to defend themselves against the charges.

Johnny Wilkinson, 44, a platform officer on an oil rig, and his wife, Karen, a 47-year-old director of nurses at the local hospital, are, like many couples in town, wrestling with that question of fairness.

The noose hanging was wrong, say the Wilkinsons, who are white, and the boys who did it should have been more severely punished.

Still, “They knocked that boy out cold and were stomping on him,” Johnny says. “They might have killed him. I believe punishment would have been measured the same way if it had been the opposite way around and six whites had attacked a black kid.”

(The teenager who was beaten, Justin Barker, 17, was knocked out but walked out of a hospital after two hours of treatment for a concussion and an eye that was swollen shut. He attended a school ring ceremony later that night.)

Adds Karen: “A sentence of 15 years is fair, but I do think they should be eligible for parole. Who are we to say they can’t be members of society?”

But to Braxter Hatcher, 62, a janitor at Jena High for 18 years, such punishment would be excessive, and would only serve to reinforce suspicions in the black community that the worst kind of “Deep South justice” still exists here.

“They haven’t always been fair in the courthouse with us,” says Hatcher, who is black. “If you’re black, they go overboard sometimes. I think this was just a fight between boys. I don’t think it was attempted murder.”

A number of other blacks — and whites — have raised similar questions about the Jena Six episode, particularly the manner in which authorities handled a series of racially charged incidents leading up to it.

Why, they ask, wasn’t the noose incident ever reported to police? (A report might have triggered a hate-crime investigation, although federal authorities rarely go after juveniles in such cases.) And when whites and blacks tangled several times before the Jena Six episode, why did authorities charge the whites with misdemeanors — or not at all — while charging blacks with felonies?

Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish district attorney who is prosecuting the cases of the Jena Six, insisted the case “is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”

Huey Crockett, 50, lives with his wife, Carla, 45, in a heavily wooded, predominantly black district just beyond Jena’s limits, an area known as “The Country.” The Crocketts, who are black, have complained to police that Bell and other youngsters were causing trouble in their neighborhood — scratching cars with keys, breaking the windows of parked cars, spraying property with paint.

The authorities, Crockett says, were always slow to respond.

“But as soon as he had a run-in with a white boy, they came down on him like a hammer. That’s not right. If I call the police for an incident here, it may take them an hour, an hour and half to get out here. But they’ll be right out in an instant if a white person calls them.”

What also rankles African Americans in Jena, says Riser, the former school superintendent, is that whites charged with the same crimes as blacks receive more lenient punishment. “What this boils down to is: Why is there a double standard?”

On a road into town, a brick portal welcomes visitors to Jena, touting it as “A Nice Place to Call Home.” But when the national spotlight goes away, will it be that nice place?

A week ago, Eddie Thompson, a white pastor at the Sanctuary Family Worship Center, would have said no. But on Wednesday, as thousands of demonstrators prepared to pour into tiny Jena, religious leaders held a unified church service, attended by blacks and whites.

“We prayed for one another, prayed for all of the boys involved in this,” Thompson says. “We’re not used to the glare, but something positive is going on here. I believe that we’re maybe listening to our neighbors better, when we didn’t listen before.”