The Magazine

Jena

The case of the amazing disappearing hate crime.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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.