At some point, most of the young men in Jena, Louisiana, get a part-time or summer job planting trees, cutting trees, or hauling trees to saw mills and paper mills. Cutting down trees is almost second nature to us. The treasures of the harvested trees from our pine forests are probably in your home and business. Of the untold millions of trees that have fallen in the history of these forests, perhaps none has been more significant than the little shade tree that has stirred so much controversy at our local high school. Three nooses hung from that tree, located in the commons area of the High School, sparked a series of events that have brought the eyes of the world to our forests where signs of racial tension have emerged from its shadows.
With the opening of school quickly approaching, something needed to be done to restore a sense of peace and security in the wake of last term when six black students attacked a single white student on campus on December 4, 2006. An unknown arsonist had just torched the school, which is the center of our town, in late November. The District Attorney charged the young men with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit the same. With controversy swirling in Jena over the Mychal Bell trial and the subsequent trials for the remaining boys charged in the incident, a decision was made to do what we do best around here: Cut down that cursed tree!
One local school board member stated that leaving the tree standing there in the middle of the school would be divisive; it would be a constant reminder of the racial tension of last term. The school, needing a fresh start for a new term, wanted to move forward from the headlines that have, either fairly or unfairly, painted Jena as the most racist town in America. The fact that the tree will have to be removed to rebuild the gutted high school will be lost in the shuffle of sophistry and symbolism. Though some desire to move past the controversy, still others have only begun to fight. For some, cutting down the tree serves as an act of removing the symbol of separation that divides our town. For others, it is a feeble attempt to hide the dark truth discovered in the shade of that felled tree: That the prejudice and bigotry will simply find other shadow in the forests of our town.
Many in the white community do not understand why so much attention has come our way. Many in the black community wonder why it’s taken so long. It’s not as though Jena is the only place where racial tension exists. Those who argue that many places in America and around the world have it worse than us. There is certainly reason to suggest that Jena is not even the most racist place in LaSalle Parish or Central Louisiana. The fact remains, however, that the spotlight is on us. What will we do?
Already, anger is rising in the white community as demonstrators are shipped in from New Orleans and beyond to condemn our town. For the most part, despite media reports to the contrary, Jena has seen very little support from the black or white community here to “free the Jena Six,” outside of the families of the young boys who are facing trial. Rumors swirl in the black community about conspiracies in the district attorney’s office, the school board office, and the police department. The United States Department of Justice held a forum to address some of these issues in an attempt to bring some unity to the community. Their conclusions were listed in the Alexandria Town Talk and the Jena Times.
The tree is gone. Nobody is naïve enough to believe that the controversy has gone with it. But as another school year approaches, my hope and prayer is that the children of Jena, Louisiana, can return to a little bit of normalcy, even as these trials continue to play out before an international audience. Robert Frost contemplated the woods, dark and deep, that captured his attention one day. The leaders of our community need to step up for these children who dwell in the piney woods of Central Louisiana that have captured the attention of the world. We have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.