The headlines screamed that the cruel history of racial inequality and oppression was on trial at the LaSalle Parish courthouse in Jena, Louisiana, last week. The world would proclaim the verdict on our town concerning the case against the so-called “Jena Six,” the six young black boys who are accused of beating a young white boy at Jena High School last December. Unfortunately for Mychal Bell and his family, hyperbole and symbolism are not evidence in a court of law. The first to stand trial for charges in the assault, Mr. Bell was found guilty of the reduced charges of aggravated second–degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. He will be sentenced on July 31.
What did we learn from the trial? First of all, we learned that, despite the media’s characterization of the attack that day as a “fight,” Justin Barker was the innocent victim of a violent assault by several boys, including Mychal Bell. Not only did Mr. Barker not participate in an exchange of violence that day, he did not even have the opportunity to defend himself as he was attacked from behind and immediately knocked unconscious, while several boys, undeterred, continued to kick and stomp him as he sprawled lifelessly on the ground.
We learned that the hanging of three nooses from a tree in the center court area of Jena High School was an attempt at racial intimidation, despite the willingness of many in the white community to initially accept the lame excuse that the nooses were simply a prank aimed at a rival football team. No one wanted to believe that sons of Jena High could resort to such racially motivated hatred; the black community knew it right away. The white community should have.
We learned that the charge leveled at Mr. Bell of attempted second degree murder by District Attorney, Reed Walters, was indeed unfair and unfounded. One can only assume that the charges were reduced because the evidence did not support the accusation. We are left with another question: Why charge him with attempted second degree murder and why wait so long to reduce the charges? Only Mr. Walters can answer that question. What is clear is that Mychal Bell was convicted of the lesser charge and awaits sentencing.
We discovered that dozens if not scores of witnesses, both students and teachers, were interviewed and implicated Mr. Bell and the five other black students arrested in the assault on Mr. Barker. The “Jena Six” may not be attempted murderers; they may not be career criminals; but they aren’t heroes either. At least one of them, Mychal Bell, has now been convicted for beating a defenseless young boy. Outside of thirty or so members of the family and close friends of Mr. Bell and the five other boys accused in this beating, the black community has not rallied en mass against perceived racial injustice concerning this particular case. These events did not happen in a vacuum. Intimidation isn’t limited to white students. Jena is a small town; there aren’t many back alleys and shadows here. The outcry desired by representatives of the NAACP and ACLU has been tempered by previous events concerning those involved and accused in this case. The December beating was administered in a very public venue. Not much was left for speculation. Even if the young black boys were motivated in December by events from September and felt anger concerning the hanging of the nooses, we do not allow vigilantism in the United States of America anymore. We don’t allow Jews to beat those who would wear a Nazi swastika; We don’t allow Christians to beat those who desecrate a cross; We don’t allow veterans to beat those who burn the American flag; Neither do we allow beatings for those who hang nooses, even if Mr. Barker had been one of those three white boys who hung the nooses: In fact, he was not.
We learned that the parents of the “Jena Six” love their children. They are doing everything in their power to defend them. Anyone with a child of his own can empathize with the anguish and pain they must be suffering. The specter of losing their children to the criminal justice system for any length of time is agonizing. They have reached out to whomever and whatever will help them find support for their children. They are to be commended for their dedication to protecting their children. But for the grace of God, it could be you facing the prospect of seeing your child’s life destroyed right before your eyes.
We learned that bigotry, prejudice, and racism exist in our community on a scale broader than most wanted to admit. White citizens seem unaffected by the residue of racial injustice in Jena; by asking black citizens of our community, we have learned that they are affected by it. Many blacks still feel like they are on the outside looking in. There is racial tension in Jena: If many whites don’t notice it, many blacks do. If black members of our community feel that injustice in their lives is the result of racism, by definition racial tension exists here. We need to bring light to their concerns and discuss it.
We learned that the media loves headlines and photo opts: The story is secondary. Some reporters have been perplexed by the refusal of many of Jena’s residents, both white and black, to interview on camera. Off camera, the people of our town express their thoughts generously, but they do not like how the national and international media have portrayed them. They are reluctant to be misquoted or misrepresented on camera concerning members of their community who they know and love. We care about all the children involved in this fiasco: both those who hung the nooses and those accused in the beating. These kids represent us in sporting events and attend Sunday school. We care about the families of the accused and the families of the victims. They are our neighbors. The District Attorney’s office, law enforcement, and school officials go to church with us, eat at restaurants with us, attend little league with us. This community is close-knit. One reporter told me that only one side of the story is being told: That representatives of the race-based organizations are eager to be interviewed and are very persuasive with their arguments while the white community is silent, leaving the impression there is something to hide. Perhaps the media has itself to blame for that reality. The town of Jena didn’t marginalize these media corporations. The national media marginalized themselves long ago when the decision was made to spice up the news with stories that sell: By making the call to cut into boring newscasts concerning the war in Iraq and Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans with breaking news on Anna Nicolle Smith and Paris Hilton. The sad fact is the same media attention wrangled by the race-based organizations concerning the case of the “Jena Six” could end up costing Mr. Bell in the long run. Every week, the local judge in Jena is consistently lenient with first offenders that come before him. Case after case comes before him where a sentence is given, then suspended. Probation is often given to encourage the young men and women of our town who take a wayward path to toe the line and walk the straight and narrow. Commendably, the judge would err on the side of giving young offenders every chance to set their lives on a productive path, both black and white. With the international spotlight that now shines on Jena, will Mr. Bell receive such accommodation?
There are many questions left to be answered, not the least of which is the outcome of the trials concerning the other five boys accused in the December beating of Justin Barker. Will the town of Jena come to grips with its issues of bigotry and prejudice? Will the three white boys who committed the bigoted, unconscionable act of hanging nooses in a tree to intimidate black children ever see the hatred in their hearts? Will those black boys who violently assaulted an innocent fellow student ever see their own prejudiced hatred? Will the parents of all reprimand their children for their aberrant behavior or will they excuse it and thereby perpetuate it? Will a change of venue be granted for any of the trials concerning the “Jena Six?” Will members of the black community report for jury duty when the call goes out for the trial of the next member of the “Jena Six?” Will the District Attorney reduce the seemingly harsh charges of attempted second degree murder against the other boys involved? Will the judge, under the scrutiny of the world, be forced to offer a sentence acceptable to all: A compromise between those who want the maximum and those who desire the minimum? Will all this attention end up hurting or helping Mychal Bell?
Finally, when the trials are over, will the citizens of Jena, Louisiana, listen to the cry of their neighbors and seek healing so history is not repeated in our community? So our children will see our commitment to the Golden Rule: To do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Comment on 9-14-07: An appeals court threw out the conviction of Mychal Bell as an adult. He now awaits the District Attorney to file charges against him in juvenile court.