The case of the amazing disappearing hate crime.
Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
But the best known of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, appeared with his team of lawyers at the parish courthouse in this tiny Central Louisiana town of 3,000 on December 3 and pled guilty to second-degree battery, to intentionally inflicting serious bodily injury on another person. In doing so, Bell--who will turn 18 this month and who had repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack--admitted that on December 4, 2006, he hit 17-year-old Justin Barker from behind, slamming Barker's head against a concrete beam outside the gym at Jena High School and knocking him unconscious, and that he then joined a group in stomping and kicking Barker in the head. Bell agreed to serve 18 months in juvenile custody for the offense and to "testify truthfully" concerning the involvement of the other five members of the Jena Six should their cases come to trial.
Three months before the attack on Barker, on the morning of August 31, teachers and administrators at Jena High School had discovered two crudely constructed hangman's nooses made of nylon rope hanging from an oak tree in the center of the campus. The nooses were promptly cut down so that few students of any race actually saw them, and the perpetrators, three white male students, were identified and disciplined--fairly severely, school officials later revealed, with nine-day suspensions during which they had to attend classes at an alternative school off-campus and go to extended counseling sessions with their families.
The August incident was the first of a wave of highly publicized noose-sightings on campuses and business premises across the country. But the three Jena High perpetrators said they had no idea that nooses hanging from tree limbs could be interpreted as symbols of white-vigilantism and the lynching of black men in the post-Reconstruction South (in Louisiana alone there were more than 200 lynchings) or as a warning to blacks to know their place. Given the current state of historical illiteracy among young people, such ignorance certainly is conceivable. The three students maintained that the nooses were a school spirit-prompted prank directed at a rival school's Western-themed football team (the youths said they were inspired by a hanging in the 1980s television miniseries Lonesome Dove).
This explanation, although belittled by Jena Six supporters, does not seem entirely implausible. The nooses were in Jena High's school colors--one black, one gold-- high-school football is a major fall event in the rural South; and inter-school pranks, such as draping rival campuses with toilet paper, are frequent. Still, the tree in question was one under which members of Jena High's overwhelmingly white student population customarily sat (some called it the "white tree," although blacks sat under the tree, too), and the day before the noose incident, a black student had jokingly asked at a school assembly whether blacks were allowed to sit under the tree (the answer from a school administrator was that blacks could sit anywhere they liked). It is thus possible that the nooses were intended as a joke (although certainly in appalling taste) aimed at the previous day's joking comment. The high school's principal recommended expulsion for the three students involved (their names have never been made public), but the school board for LaSalle Parish settled on the lesser punishment on grounds that the three youths had no prior disciplinary records and seemed genuinely remorseful.
No one who subsequently investigated the noose incident--and that included sheriff's deputies for LaSalle Parish and the U.S. attorney for Central Louisiana, -Donald Washington, who is black himself and led a behind-the-scenes FBI probe of the Jena nooses within days of their discovery--found any connection between the nooses and the attack on Barker in December. Nonetheless, the nooses--and the supposedly unduly lenient punishment meted out to the boys who hung them--became the causal linchpin of the twin demands of the Jena Six cause: that the noose-hangers be criminally prosecuted for hate crimes and that all criminal charges be dismissed against the six defendants in the attack on Barker. Catrina Wallace, sister of a Jena Six member, summed up the reasoning at a rally in front of the Jena courthouse on July 31: "For them to say it was a prank left those kids to do only one thing: defend themselves." This interpretation gained wide currency among Jena Six sympathizers. One of them, rocker John Cougar Mellencamp, released a recording in early October with the chorus, "Jena, take your nooses down." The video accompanying the song includes footage of 1960s civil rights marches, police beatings from that era, and sheet-draped Ku Klux Klanners.
So it was that the attack on Barker--which, viewed from any other angle, was simply a brutal and potentially lethal six-against-one pile-on at a high school--became a civil rights cause célèbre. The Jena Six affair generated more than seven months' worth of national news headlines and scolding op-eds; became a pet cause of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the rapper Mos Def, the Congressional Black Caucus, and dozens of black bloggers, commentators, and talk-show hosts (one notable exception was the black contrarian sportswriter Jason Whitlock); provoked a September 20 march through Jena by some 20,000 people (setting a record for a post-1960s civil rights demonstration); and inspired a BBC documentary titled Race Hate in Louisiana; and catapulted Jena into the dubious standing of "the most racist town" in America. Jackson called the charges against the Jena Six a "miscarriage of justice," while Sharpton labeled Bell "a fine young man" and vowed to keep returning to Jena until "the charges are dropped on these young men and until Mychal walks out of that jail." A strange logical inversion had occurred in which Barker became the aggressor in the December 4 incident and his six alleged assailants the victims.
Bell, the Jena Six member who pled guilty last month, was the focus of the efforts because he remained in jail for all but a few weeks of the time between his arrest shortly after the attack and his guilty plea a year later. Most of the other five were released within a few weeks of their arrests: One of them, Jesse Ray Beard, age 14 at the time of the attack, was back in school, while the other four--Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, and Theo Shaw, all ages 17 and 18 at the time and thus legally adults under Louisiana's criminal-justice laws--had made bail. Bell's parents, however, could not or would not raise the necessary 10 percent cash deposit on his $90,000 bail (later reduced to $45,000), and so he remained in custody. And, according to Bell's father, Marcus Jones, the incarceration and subsequent expulsion from school of his son, who had been a star running back on the Jena Giants football team, ended Mychal's hopes of winning an athletic scholarship to any of the numerous colleges that his father said were courting him.
Adding to Bell's list of grievances was the fact that he had been charged under a Louisiana statute that permits juveniles over the age of 15 to be tried as adults for certain crimes. Bell and the four adults among the Jena Six were originally charged with one of those listed crimes: attempted second-degree murder. The theory was that the repeated kicks to Barker's head could have killed him had not students--white and black--and teachers at Jena High managed to pull the assailants off him. The prosecutor, LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters, ultimately dropped that charge just before Bell's trial.
Walters also offered Bell the opportunity in June to plead guilty as an adult to second-degree battery--a deal nearly identical to the one that Bell would accept in December--but Bell, against the advice of the public defender representing him, turned down the offer. On June 28, after a three-day trial, an all-white jury (the lack of blacks on the jury was another miscarriage of justice, according to Bell's supporters, although it was due to the fact that only 50 of the 150 residents of LaSalle Parish who had been summoned for jury duty actually appeared and none of those who showed up were black) that was supposedly tainted by the presence of jurors with ties to the prosecution (which consisted of the fact that five of the six jurors were acquainted with some of the witnesses, as was inevitable in such a small community) found Bell guilty of aggravated second-degree battery. This was a more serious felony than the one he had declined to plead to, involving the use of a "dangerous weapon," in this case the sneaker Bell was wearing when he kicked Barker in the head. Jesse Jackson afterwards made fun of the idea that a sneaker could be a "weapon of mass destruction," as he called it, but a ruling by the Louisiana appellate court had made it clear that a sneaker, like any other ordinary object, can constitute a "dangerous weapon" under Louisiana law if it is used to inflict serious bodily injury. The jury also found Bell guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.
The public defender, Blane Williams, called no witnesses, limiting himself to cross-examining the 17 prosecution witnesses, who were drawn mostly from the two dozen or so Jena High School students who had seen the attack and given statements to sheriff's investigators. Bell's supporters branded Williams as incompetent, although a reading of the trial transcript suggests that Williams, who is black himself, was doing the best he could with a slam-dunk case against his client, with the hope of winning a reversal on legal grounds on appeal. Had Williams put Bell on the stand, for example, the defendant's handwritten witness statement, in which he asserted that the lights had gone out in the hallway shortly before the incident so that he could not see who attacked Barker, would have provided rich impeachment fodder for Walters, since none of the other students or teachers at the scene had reported such a blackout. Bell's imaginative statement also asserted that Barker had used the "N-word" shortly before the attack--a detail found in no other witness statements, including those of other Jena Six defendants.
Immediately after Bell's battery and conspiracy convictions, which exposed him to the possibility of a 22-year prison sentence, he fired Williams and hired a team of four private-practice lawyers from Monroe, in northeast Louisiana, who signed on to his case for no fee and promptly blitzed various courts with motions. In early September, the LaSalle Parish's district judge, J.P. Mauffray, vacated Bell's conspiracy conviction on the ground that Bell had been improperly tried as an adult as Walters had dropped the attempted-murder charge before the trial. Then, on September 14, a week before Bell's scheduled sentencing hearing, Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the battery conviction, ruling that this charge did not belong in an adult court, either. With no convictions hanging over his head, Bell was released from jail on reduced bail on September 27. The rulings, however, merely paved the way for a second trial of Bell as a juvenile, which would have started on December 6 had not Bell's guilty plea rendered it moot.
It is hard to say how much Bell's legal team accomplished for him in practical terms. The plea offered him in both his adult and juvenile proceedings was the same: second-degree battery (Bell's mother told a reporter that the adult-court plea bargain that Bell rejected would have had him serve a four-year sentence, with three years to be suspended and credit given for the time Bell had already spent behind bars). In addition to serving 18 months in juvenile custody as part of his December 3 plea bargain and agreeing to testify in the trials of the other five of the Jena Six, Bell promised to pay $935 in court costs and partial restitution to Barker's parents for their son's medical expenses. Emergency-room treatment for Barker's head injuries cost at least $5,000. Barker's parents have asserted that the total medical expenses for their son, who said he lost the sight of one eye for three weeks and suffered permanent damage to both his vision and his hearing, were upwards of $19,000. The day after Bell's plea, Barker and his parents filed a civil lawsuit against the adult Jena defendants, the parents of the minors, and the LaSalle Parish school system seeking full compensation for their losses.
What is clear is that some of Bell's new lawyers' ostentatiously aggressive representation backfired. A bail-reduction motion the legal team filed for Bell while the appeal of his June 28 conviction was pending resulted in an August 24 hearing (pertinent parts of the transcript can be found online) revealing that Bell was not exactly the innocent victim of racist prosecution that his supporters had made him out to be and a credulous national press had duly reported. (For example, the Washington Post's Darryl Fears had asserted in an August 4 article that Bell had "no prior criminal record" and had looked "frightened and numb" in his jail cell, asking, "Can they really do this to me?")
The August 24 hearing revealed that Bell was in fact already on juvenile-court probation for four previous convictions of violent offenses--two involving battery and two for intentional destruction of property--all committed between December 2005 and September 2006. The records of those earlier juvenile proceedings are sealed, but it is widely believed in Jena that the victims of all four crimes were black and that the victim of the first battery, committed on Christmas Day in 2005, was a 17-year-old girl.
These new disclosures made it reasonable to wonder why, if Jena was such a racist town, school officials allowed Bell--and his co-defendant Carwin Jones who had an aggravated battery charge on his record--to continue to play football despite a criminal history that would automatically disqualify a student-athlete at most high schools. The disclosure of Bell's full criminal record also suggested that the supposedly incompetent Blane Williams, who had represented Bell in all four prior matters, had done an admirable job of keeping his client out of jail as the convictions mounted.
Mauffray ruled on August 24 that the sum total of Bell's convictions for acts of violence--five in less than two years, counting the Barker case--constituted sufficient grounds to let the youth's bail stand. Then, on October 11, with Bell now free and back under juvenile jurisdiction after the Court of Appeal's ruling, Mauffray revoked his probation entirely and sentenced him to 18 months in juvenile lockup (under the plea bargain reached on December 3, he is to serve that sentence concurrently with his 18-month sentence for the Barker attack).
Suddenly the story of the Jena Six was starting to look more like "Thug4Life" than "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." According to a story in the Town Talk--a Gannett-owned daily newspaper published in nearby Alexandria (pop. 46,000), the largest city in Central Louisiana--both Bell's parents and the parents of the other members of the Jena Six expressed visible "shock" and "unease" in the courtroom when Bell accepted a plea bargain in which he admitted his guilt and agreed to testify, if called upon, against his five co-defendants. They had all repeatedly asserted their sons' innocence and insisted that they would accept nothing less than complete exoneration.
But, by the time of the plea bargain, Jena Six supporters were already tiptoeing away from the case, as revelations about Bell's criminal history and the lack of any connection between the attack on Barker and the nooses began to filter into the press. The September 20 demonstration, far from marking the beginning of a massive grassroots movement actually marked its high point. Even that rally drew fewer than half the 50,000 attendees that had been expected. (Mos Def delivered a rambling excoriation of the large number of his fellow rap musicians who had failed to join him at the protest.)
A call for African-American students to stay home from school on October 1 as a show of solidarity with the Jena Six fizzled. A "National Black Out Day" scheduled for November 2, on which African Americans were supposed to keep the Jena Six momentum going via a nationwide spending boycott, attracted little noticeable response and almost no press coverage. An anti-hate crimes rally on November 3 in Charleston, West Virginia, drew only a few hundred demonstrators (Sharpton did not make a promised appearance), even though the triggering incident in West Virginia--involving a black woman allegedly kidnapped, beaten, and sexually assaulted by six whites--smacked far more of interracial wrongdoing than anything in Jena. Only about 5,000 people showed up on November 16 for a March Against Hate Crimes at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., despite a relentless nationwide publicity campaign by the same bloggers and radio hosts who had urged African Americans to flock to Jena in September. Even Jesse Jackson, who had accused black Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of "acting like he's white" for failing to condemn the Jena Six prosecution sufficiently, quietly disappeared from the scene in the late fall.
Nearly all the symbolic themes--hate crimes, Jim Crow justice, rogue prosecution, and the ghosts of the Old South that were supposed to be alive and well in Jena--that attached themselves to the Jena Six case as the months rolled by can be traced to the work of a single man: Alan Bean, a white American Baptist minister who operates an organization called the Friends of Justice in Arlington, Texas.
During the late 1990s, Bean and his group drew press attention to a criminal-justice scandal in Tulia, a town of 5,000 in the Texas Panhandle. Forty-six people, most of them black, had been convicted of various drug crimes on the sole basis of the uncorroborated testimony of an undercover police officer whose dubious credibility, troubled law-enforcement career, and unorthodox methods did not come to light until after the trials and guilty pleas. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and a judge all agreed in 2003 that 38 of the convictions should be overturned. Ever since, Bean has been searching for another Tulia. He thought he had found it in Jena, which he visited in early 2007.
The attack on Barker, the arrest of the six defendants, their expulsion from school, and the efforts throughout December 2006 by Jena's black and white pastors to calm racial tensions with a series of prayer services had all been thoroughly reported in the local papers: the weekly Jena Times and the Town Talk. Some of the national black media--notably syndicated radio talk-show host Tony Brown, who coined the phrase "Jena Six"--had already taken up cudgels for the defendants. As had the ACLU's Campaign Against Racial Profiling and the New Orleans chapter of Sharpton's National Action Network. Caseptla Bailey, mother of Jena Six defendant Robert Bailey Jr., set up a LaSalle Parish branch of the NAACP in March with herself as president (a position she no longer holds) and her daughter Catrina as secretary-treasurer.
Bean decided that it was his job to fire up the interest of the mainstream press in the story by connecting the hanging of the nooses and the attack on Barker in a coherent and dramatic narrative whose overarching themes were institutional racism and systematic injustice. "I knew the nooses were going to be the selling point," Bean told me in a telephone interview. "All I did was put the facts together in a way that a journalist would understand. I think people in the press followed it because it was the most common-sense interpretation of the facts."
Bean's narrative, in both a long and a short form so as to cater to reporters of varying attention spans, appears on the Friends of Justice website. It is a dramatic tale that was clearly based--as Bean readily admits--almost solely on interviews with the defendants and their family members, chiefly Caseptla Bailey and Mychal Bell's mother, Melissa Bell. (Bell's father, Marcus Jones, who later proffered to reporters his own colorful versions of Jena events, is not married to Melissa Bell, has not lived with her or his son for seven years, and did not return to Jena from his residence in Texas until February 2007.) Many of the elements of Bean's narrative appear in no contemporaneous news reports about the Jena events or in any court records pertaining to the case.
For one thing, Bean's narrative inflated the noose incident into a major civil rights confrontation at Jena High School with a peaceful "protest" (Bean's word) under the tree by black students on September 6, 2006, followed by an appearance at a school assembly by the district attorney, Reed Walters, at which Walters (according only to Bean) specifically warned black students that "additional unrest would be treated as a criminal matter." Walters was supposed to have looked directly at some black students during the assembly and said, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen." If there was such a protest under the tree, no teacher or administrator at Jena High School recalls it. More significantly, the Alexandria Town Talk, which covered the noose incident exhaustively, failed to report any demonstration on campus the next day, or any other day. After U.S. Attorney Donald Washington finished his investigation of the case, he told the Town Talk that there was no evidence of a protest by black students under the tree.
What the Town Talk did report was a series of five race-related fights on campus during the first week of September 2006--the week after the nooses incident. As for Walters, he testified under oath at a June 13 hearing on a motion filed by Robert Bailey's lawyer to have him recused as prosecutor (the motion was denied by Mauffray for lack of evidence and upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal), that he had attended the school assembly, not in connection with the tree, but at the request of a sheriff's deputy. A student had struck a teacher, and the deputy invited Walters to the school to help calm the tension after the fights. At the June 13 court hearing, Walters testified that he told the entire assembly, not just the black students, that the campus violence had to stop or he would do everything in his power to make it stop. Walters told the students (according to the transcript), "I hope to be your best friend, but I can be your worst enemy if you don't behave yourself."
Again, if reports in the Town Talk are accurate, Tracy Bowens, the black mother who spearheaded the effort by black parents to have the noose-hangers expelled from Jena High, made no mention of Walters or any alleged anti-black threats by him when she appeared before the school board on September 18 to urge it to reconsider its decision. The Town Talk reported no further incidents of violence at Jena High School, racially instigated or otherwise, during the three months between the meeting and December 4, although Melinda Edwards, the LaSalle Parish school system's child welfare administrator, later revealed that two members of the six had been sent to the principal's office more than ten times apiece during those three months and one had been summoned before the school's expulsion committee but given a reprieve.
Bean's task in shaping his narrative was not just to connect the nooses to the assault on Barker, but also to cobble an overarching theme of race-based unequal justice out of several incidents that occurred in Jena in the days before the assault. On the night of November 30, a Thursday, the main academic building at Jena High School was completely destroyed by fire. The fire, which was clearly the result of arson (it appeared to have started in three different places), had nothing to do with the nooses or racial tensions. On December 27, 2007, after an investigation lasting more than a year, the LaSalle Parish sheriff's department announced that it had arrested three adult men, none of whom were related to the Jena Six, and three juveniles in connection with the crime. The suspects' motive, sheriff's spokesmen said, seemed to be an effort to destroy records of bad grades. Bean's narrative, however, cast the fire as a precursor to "a stream of white-initiated racial violence" (his words) that weekend in 2006.
On Friday, December 1, one of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey Jr., attempted along with some friends to crash a party at the Fair Barn, a for-rent social hall in Jena. The hostess and the majority of the guests were white, but some of the guests were black ("mostly white" is the way the party became typically described in the press). While Bailey was seeking admission, Justin Sloan, a 22-year-old white guest at the party, emerged from the festivities and, according to Bailey's own victim-impact statement made to the district attorney's office, hit Bailey in the face, knocking him down. Sloan was arrested, pled guilty to misdemeanor simple battery, and apologized to Bailey as part of his probation.
Bean's narrative raised the stakes on Sloan's act considerably, stating that Bailey "was assaulted by white students wielding beer bottles and was punched and kicked before adults broke up the fight." These details were not in Bailey's victim-impact statement, nor was a subsequent claim, aired at the June 13 hearing on Bailey's lawyer's motion to have Walters recused as prosecutor, that Bailey had gone to a hospital emergency room for stitches. (No medical records have ever emerged regarding Bailey's claim of emergency-room treatment.) The beer bottles served a narrative purpose, however; they made Bailey into the victim of a race-based group attack that could be seen as nearly as serious as the attack on Barker--except that Bailey's assailant had walked away with only a slap on the wrist.
The next night, Bailey (apparently recovered from his alleged injuries of the previous evening), fellow Jena Six member Theo Shaw, and 17-year-old Ryan Simmons--another black student at Jena High School--encountered Matt Windham, a young white man, outside the Gotta Go, a convenience store/gas station adjacent to Jena's black neighborhood. The matter has not been adjudicated, and the parties involved have told conflicting stories about what happened. But Windham claims that Bailey and his companions attacked him outside the Gotta Go, whereupon he reached for a shotgun in his truck that was subsequently wrested away from him by the three blacks, who beat him and fled the scene with the gun. As Bean told the story, Windham, without provocation, "pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black high school students as they exited the Gotta Go." The three were arrested shortly afterwards in possession of Windham's rifle and charged with second-degree robbery, theft of a firearm, and disturbing the peace. Two witnesses, a cashier at the Gotta Go and a customer, corroborated Windham's side of the story, but both witnesses, as reporters seemed never to tire of pointing out, were white.
The charges against Bailey, Shaw, and Simmons were more evidence, in Bean's view, of "ethical lapses" and a loss of "professional objectivity" on the part of the district attorney. One of Bean's stated aims was to get Walters removed from all Jena Six-related cases. Bean seemed to be trying to paint Walters, a veteran prosecutor who had served for 16 years as LaSalle Parish's district attorney, as another Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor disbarred last year for knowingly pursuing false rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players. Bean claimed a connection between the two incidents of the weekend and the attack on Barker the following Monday--a connection beyond the persistent presence of Bailey. According to Bean, Windham had been involved in the claimed beer-bottle bashing at the Fair Barn, and Justin Barker had taunted Bailey at school about that episode the following Monday (a claim that Barker denied in his testimony at Mychal Bell's trial).
Bean told me that his next step after composing his narrative was to contact three journalists whom he deemed likely to be sympathetic and supply them with the names and telephone numbers of his sources. The three were Wade Goodwyn of National Public Radio; Tom Mangold, a BBC producer who had made a documentary about the Tulia case; and Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune. Witt, the Tribune's Southwest bureau chief, had written a series of sympathetic stories about Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl in Paris, Texas, who had been sentenced to an indefinite stay in juvenile hall in 2006 for pushing a 58-year-old teacher's aide to the ground. Cotton's teachers both black and white had testified to a string of prior disciplinary infractions committed by the girl, but her supporters portrayed her as a victim of a racist criminal justice system because a 14-year-old white girl who burned down her parents' house had merely received probation. Cotton was released in April 2007 after pressure from civil rights advocates, although a Texas appellate court upheld her conviction, observing in a footnote that although the case had been characterized in the media as involving racial discrimination, neither the girl nor her lawyers had raised any claims of discrimination in the appeal papers. Witt, in an interview posted on the Dallas South blog, took credit for having created a "civil rights beat" for himself via the Cotton and Jena Six stories, and for firing up black bloggers' interest in what he called in one of his news stories a "civil rights protest literally conjured up out of the ether of cyberspace." Witt told Dallas South that "there was a lot of unseen nastiness going on in small southern towns."
Mangold's documentary, Race Hate in Louisiana, and Witt's first Jena story, "Racial Demons Rear Heads," appeared nearly simultaneously in late May. The film interspersed footage from the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning--about the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964--with clips from Jena blacks claiming social ostracism by whites, and interviews with white Jena residents that, they later complained, were edited so as to make them look like racist dolts. In a May 20 article in the London Observer titled "Racism Goes on Trial Again in America's Deep South," Mangold (who did not respond to an email requesting an interview) described Jena "as an example of the new 'stealth' racism" and predicted that Jena would go down in history "alongside the bad old names of the Mississippi Burning Sixties such as Selma or Montgomery, Alabama." His article painted a lurid picture of Jena as a town where whites lived on wealthy "Snob Hill" in the company of their SUVs, while blacks were relegated to shacks and trailers along rubbish-strewn streets. Witt's reporting was more temperate, but his own May 20 story used some of the same images: "Old South racial demons" and "a pattern of uneven justice in the town."
Both Mangold's documentary and Witt's stories hewed closely to Bean's original narrative: the hanging of the nooses as the pivotal event, Walters's alleged threats directed at black students at the assembly, the allegation that Barker had been "taunting blacks" (as Witt wrote on May 20), and a claim that black youths had been "targeted . . . for some unusually harsh treatment" (as an ACLU official told Witt) with the attempted-murder charges. The reports seemed designed to elicit sympathy for the Jena Six (Mangold called them "schoolboys") and to minimize the injuries to Barker, who "spent only a few hours in the hospital" (Witt's words) and had participated in a class-ring ceremony at a church that evening (at which he looked dazed and which he left early, the Jena Times reported).
Bean's narrative, though, contained an interesting factual error: It stated that there had been three nooses, not two, hung from the tree at Jena High School. The error was not material, and the truth did not exonerate the perpetrators (one noose would have been too many), but to an observer examining the numerous stories about the Jena Six that flooded newspapers, radio, television, and blogs, the three nooses, which appear again and again, are a kind of journalistic dye-marker signaling a tendency on the part of the reporters to rely on Bean's narrative, his handpicked sources, and the reporting of Witt--whose frequent stories appeared nationwide in Tribune Co.-owned papers like the Los Angeles Times--instead of doing their own legwork by consulting court records and other documents, or even the Alexandria Town Talk, which accurately reported the number of nooses from the very beginning.
The beer-bottle attack on Bailey similarly appeared--sometimes in the form of a single bottle, sometimes multiple bottles--over and over, despite the evidence in Bailey's own victim-impact statement strongly suggesting that it had never occurred. Reporters seemed to throw aside the skepticism that is supposed to be their stock in trade and accepted at face value the uncorroborated word of criminal defendants, their relatives, and their lawyers. Witt, for example, told me in a telephone interview that he had learned about the beer-bottle attack directly from Bailey himself, who "showed me his scar."
Reports by National Public Radio's Goodwyn and stories from the Associated Press, the McClatchy News Service, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all listed three nooses. The Post's Darryl Fears, in his August 4 story about Mychal Bell, channeled the claim by Bailey that "a white man broke a beer bottle over his head after jumping him at a party, but there was no immediate investigation." He also reported Walters's supposed threat to black students at the assembly and described the attack on Barker as "a schoolyard brawl." (ABC News also called it a "schoolyard brawl," one that left "a white teenager with a black eye and concussion," while the New York Times preferred a "confrontation outside the school gymnasium.") Goodwyn, in a July 30 story on National Public Radio's website, similarly took at face value Bailey's version of the Gotta Go episode, termed Barker's injuries "superficial," and, in a unique interpretation of the events, described the three incident-free months between the noose discoveries and the beating of Barker as a "truce" arrived at between black and white students because it was football season and blacks were among Jena High's star athletes.
A September 23 op-ed piece in the Washington Post by Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, also included an incident unreported elsewhere: that Walters, at the school assembly, had told Jena High's black students to stop complaining about the "innocent prank" of the noose-hangings. Furthermore, Tatum wrote, the Jena Six had been "treated much more harshly than white teenagers who beat up a black student in the town." Her article was accompanied by a large photograph of angry white adolescents protesting integration at a Little Rock high school in 1957. A September 2 op-ed by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mary Mitchell declared that the charges against the Jena Six were "trumped-up" and asked readers to send money to a defense fund that had been set up by the parents of the defendants.
A noticeable feature of all the news stories about the Jena Six was the almost-complete absence of interviews with any black residents of Jena beyond the Jena Six and their family members. Both the Jena Times and the Town Talk reported that few Jena blacks who were not related to the Jena Six attended a series of courthouse protests that preceded the September 20 demonstration. This suggests that Jena's black population was not so enthusiastic about the Jena Six as their out-of-town supporters (some black Jena ministers, for example, refused to let Sharpton preach at their churches), and, possibly, that Jena blacks feared reprisals--the criminal history of Bell, for instance, was well known locally. One of the Jena High School students who said in her witness statement that she saw Bell deliver the knock-out blow to Barker was a black female who refused to give her name. It certainly suggests that the case of the Jena Six might not have been all the national press hoped.
Sparsely populated Jena, clustered around the intersection of Louisiana State Highways 84 and 127 amid the bayous and pine forests of Central Louisiana, has a culture that can seem quite alien to journalists from the urban and suburban North. For one thing, very few blacks live in Jena or elsewhere in LaSalle Parish, whose population is 86 percent white and only 12 percent black. The reason is geographical: Very little of the land in LaSalle Parish is suitable for agriculture, so the parish, unlike much of the rest of the South, never had a plantation economy. Residents of the area were once known as "piney woods people," living off hunting, fishing, and logging, and practicing an austere Christianity. Traces of that culture persist in the ubiquitous Baptist and evangelical churches and the fact--which would undoubtedly horrify the ACLU and others on the pro-Jena Six left--that public meetings often begin with a Christian prayer. Northerners whose sole exposure to Louisiana might have been booze-soaked Bourbon Street at a pre-Katrina Mardi Gras would be further surprised to learn that, although beer can be bought at convenience stores in Jena, it is impossible to order an alcoholic beverage to accompany a plate of barbecue or Gulf shrimp at any of the family-run buffets along Highway 84.
Also certain to horrify genteel northern liberals, for whom gun control is an article of faith, is the fact that practically everyone in Jena owns a rifle and also a pickup truck for transporting what they shoot. During the fall hunting season, the pickups roar down Highway 84 as early as 4 A.M., headed for the duck blinds of nearby Lake Catahoula, and parents proudly display photographs of their school-age children clad in hunting camouflage standing with their guns next to the deer they have killed. The fact that Matt Windham had a shotgun in his truck--or that Justin Barker was expelled from Jena High School in May 2007 after a loaded rifle was found behind the seat of his pickup--can convey sinister racist messages to northern journalists, but is nothing out of the ordinary for locals.
Jena is not a wealthy town. "Snob Hill" is at best comfortably upper-middle-class: housing high-school teachers as well as bankers and lawyers. LaSalle Parish, whose total population is only 14,000, has lost about 20 percent of its residents since 1980 due partly to the shrinking of the logging industry. Many LaSalle residents work at Wal-Mart or at blue-collar jobs in nearby oilfields, and only about 37 percent of high school graduates go on to college. The median household income, according to the 2000 census, is only $27,000--just 60 percent of the U.S. median.
Jena, like the rest of the South, was once officially segregated, and there are remnants of racism. There is a white part and a black part of Jena, although in this respect, it is scarcely different from any other part of America, whether city or suburb. (The racial self-segregation at Jena High School, in which white and black students tend to hang with members of their own race, is similarly indistinguishable from the racial self-segregation practiced at nearly every other high school and college in America.) But Jena's black community, huddled on the south side of Highway 84, does look distinctly shabbier and isolated. It is also plagued like many poor communities with fatherless families. Its modest wooden churches contrast with the imposing brick First Baptist Church in downtown Jena whose congregation is nearly 100 percent white.
"There definitely is racism in Jena," said Eddie Thompson, white pastor of the evangelical Sanctuary Family Worship Center in Jena. "It's an unconscious racism, something that most white people here aren't even aware of. You see it in income disparities, the fact that blacks live in a lesser part of town and are a lower socioeconomic group. For the black community, there's been a lack of ownership, a feeling that they weren't part of the town."
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that Jena officials might have averted the tarring their town has taken. The notion of prosecuting the high-school noose-hangers for hate crimes was at best far-fetched. Louisiana's hate-crime statute comes into play only when a violent crime--murder, battery, sexual assault, or arson, for example--accompanies the manifestation of racial or other hatred. There are also serious First Amendment problems with turning a symbol into a hate crime: a noose, like a swastika in Skokie, that is not directed at a specific individual may simply be an ugly display of free expression that the Constitution protects along with other unpopular speech.
And Walters's initial charge of attempted second-degree murder against the Jena Six was probably prosecutorial overkill--although it was not an entirely unreasonable charge given that repeated kicks in the head by shod feet can result in death. Jena High's administrators could have called an assembly at which they explained why hanging a noose was deeply offensive to blacks and warned that further incidents of that nature would result in expulsion. Had they done this, much tension in Jena's black community could have been averted.
Finally, many of the whites in Jena, including school officials, refused to talk to the press, especially after the airing of Mangold's documentary. This allowed wrong impressions to fester: that the noose-hangers had gotten off with just "a few days' suspension," for example, was widely reported. The silence made it seem that Jena's white residents had something to hide.
But the fact remains that the Jena Six case climbed to its rickety position as a national symbol of racial injustice largely because a lot of people, some professional activists and many members of the press, wanted it to do so.
As time passed during the fall of 2007, even some of the black bloggers who had initially rallied to the cause of the Jena Six became less enamored of their poster children. It did not help when Witt filed a story on November 11 pointing out that at least half of the $500,000 that supporters had sent to the Jena Six defense fund--controlled by the parents of the Jena Six--and similar funds set up to cover the group's legal expenses could not be accounted for. A photograph posted by Robert Bailey Jr. on his MySpace page showing him with wads of $100 bills stuffed in his mouth did not help, nor did an appearance by Jena Six members Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis in full rapper attire as presenters at Black Entertainment Television's Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on October 18. "Seriously, what the hell are you people thinking?" complained the black blog Cincy Report as the facts about Mychal Bell's past criminal history began to air. In a post on BlackAmericaWeb titled "Jena Six, My Foot," Gregory Kane wrote, "Some of us even went overboard, comparing what happened to the Jena Six to what happened to the Scottsboro Boys."
The Congressional Black Caucus, which in September had called for a Justice Department investigation into the Jena Six case as a "shocking" example of "separate and unequal justice," sent a request just before Christmas to Louisiana's outgoing Democratic governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to have Bell released and to pardon the Jena Six, not on grounds that they were innocent, but because they had "suffered enough." (She demurred.) Al Sharpton, for his part, is maintaining that a federal investigation into possible tax fraud amounted to government retaliation for his role in the Jena Six and other cases.
The greatest dread of Jena's citizens right now is a planned march through the town by members of the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist group based in Learned, Mississippi, on January 21, the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. (On January 3, the group filed a federal suit against the town alleging that some of the conditions of its parade permit--that its members not bring along firearms, for example--violate its constitutional rights.)
Meanwhile, Jena's mayor, Murphy McMillin, has appointed a multiracial community relations committee to help heal the black-white rifts in Jena, staffing it partly with--more horrors for the ACLU--prominent black and white ministers in the town. A November 18 service at the First Baptist Church presided over by a team of black and white ministers drew an overflow crowd that was, amazingly for Jena, 40 percent black. "We're a Christian community here in Jena, and I think we can bring about healing on our own," one of the participating ministers, Jimmy Young, pastor of the black L&A Missionary Baptist Church, said in a telephone interview.
Even Bean, who could be said to have organized the whole debacle, expressed some regrets, maintaining that his Jena Six publicity campaign had never intended to minimize either the injuries to Barker or the enormity of the crime committed against him. "When we said, 'Free the Jena Six,' we only meant that they should be free on bail and should get a fair trial," said Bean. "But I warned people in Jena that once the media got hold of this case, I couldn't control what they said about it, and they were going to give Jena a black eye." "What happened in Jena was a Greek tragedy," he said.
A Greek tragedy indeed, but one in which the hubris that precipitated the town's downfall was largely on the part of Bean himself and the many in the media who wanted so badly to believe that the version of the events he fed them was true.
Charlotte Allen, a writer living in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Human Christ.