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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Jena, Louisiana

In early December the case of the "Jena Six"--the six African-American high school students in Louisiana accused of viciously beating a white classmate in 2006--collapsed dramatically with a felony guilty plea by one of the defendants. As something that was going to trigger "America's next great civil rights movement" (to quote National Public Radio) and grassroots protests against the "new Jim Crow" and the systematic discrimination against blacks in the criminal justice system, this was quite a letdown. The Jena Six were supposed to be the new Scottsboro Boys, the nine black youths railroaded to death sentences by all-white juries in 1930s Alabama on charges of raping two white women.

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.