Friday, October 19, 2007

I've been to Jena

I've been to Jena, Louisiana.

Actually, I don't remember ever really going there, but I've been there in my experience of how white folks work out their racism.

We must not be fooled. Race and racism continue to play large roles in the social and cultural life of the nation. And, much of what is still alive and well in our communities is ugly, hate-filled and utterly absurd.

The story of the "Jena 6" remind me of my experiences forty years ago when I was in high school and college. The situation facing these six young men bring back memories of my first church in Shreveport, Louisiana where racism was not only alive and well, but honored in the community and in my church.




No doubt, you've heard and read about the "Jena 6."

Last fall, when two Black high school students sat under the "white" tree on their campus, white students responded by hanging nooses from the tree.

What does a "white" tree look like? God giving out titles to trees now?

When Black students protested the light punishment for the students who hung the nooses, District Attorney Reed Walters came to the school and told the students he could "take [their] lives away with a stroke of [his] pen." Sounds like a great fellow, huh? Champion of justice and reconciliation, right?

Racial tension continued to mount in Jena, and the District Attorney did nothing in response to several egregious cases of violence and threats against black students.

But when Justin Barker, a white student--who had been a vocal supporter of the students who hung the nooses--taunted a black student, allegedly hurled the most offensive of racial epitaphs in the direction of several black students, and was beaten up by black students, six black students were charged with second-degree attempted murder.

Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw and Jesse Ray Beard — were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time of the incident, but were originally charged as adults with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The legal adult age in Louisiana is 17.

The first young man to be tried, Mychal Bell, was convicted. He originally faced up to 22 years in prison for a school fight. On Sept. 27, Bell was released on $47,000 bail after the district attorney said he would not continue to prosecute Bell as an adult. The original verdict was tossed out by the Louisiana state appeals court, which said that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Bell was sent back to jail for violating probation on previous conviction.

A national movement has grown up around the Jena story. Congressional hearings have been underway. Thousands traveled to Jena to protest the community's handling of the matter, especially in the courts.

John Mellencamp wrote a song, "Jena," that drew angry protests from the white mayor. "The song is not written as an indictment of the people of Jena but, rather, as a condemnation of racism," the singer says. []

It's a pattern I've watched now for four decades. Black folks are injured, defamed, imprisoned, upset and organized to stand up for their rights. White folks try to assure everyone that "things are being blown out of proportion."

White people don't understand the power of the noose as a symbol of hate, oppression, death and racism. Nooses recall a terrible and revolting part of our history as a people when an estimated 3,500 (likely a conservative guess) African-Americans were lynched, primarily in the Cotton Belt states, in the period between 1800 and 1968.

Believe it or not, I have a "coffee table" book in my library that presents a collection of postcards depicting lynching of African Americans. Nice way to greet friends, don't you think?

These photos are unbelievable, but speak to the legitimate outrage of Black Americans, as well as any of us who believe that racism is immoral and intolerable. If you're up to it, do a Google search on "lynchings" and see what you find behind the "images" tab.

Don't dismiss this incident as insignificant or isolated. What happens in Jena is important to us all. It should be a wake up call, a reminder of what remains just beneath the surface of all of our lives, even after all we believe we've learned.

I've been to Jena.


Daniel Gray said...

Great post. I remember when I first heard about the story here at WashU over a month ago. I didn't believe it at first, because I was shocked that racism this overt still existed. We had a lot of students go protest a few weeks ago.

I keep thinking about how racism is such a hidden problem now, and yet stories like this remind me that sometimes we haven't moved very far yet.

Stacy Peters said...

I agree with your post 100%. If I could correct one thing. You, I'm sure, were going for kindness when you say, "White people don't understand the significance of the noose." People DO understand it -- that's why they do what they do. It is reprehensible. How can parents foster this kind of hatred?

Justin said...

I think there is something missing in the whole Jena discussion, and that's the fact that regardless of what words this white student called the black student, violence should NOT be condoned by Christians, under any circumstances.

If Jena has the alleged problems (which it appears it does) a non violent response would have been more appropriate (and more in the vein of Dr. King). A non violent response to what was going on might have brought the wrath of the racists in that city, which would have still made national news, and we'd have people in Jena protesting the gross mistreatment of peaceful black students rather than trying to defend 6 guys who beat 1 guy unconscious... and then continued to beat him.

Should they have been charged as adults? I don't know. Should they have been charged with attempted murder? Absolutely. When you continue to beat someone after they are unconscious, there's a problem there.

I wish I heard as much denouncing these 6 boys for their violence as I heard about white racism. How is what they did going to help their cause? Does it not play into the stereotype that black people are violent, often times with little provocation?

I think Jesse and Al's presence, as well as the presence of the protesters, should be trying to help out Genarlow Wilson, rather than 6 boys (at least one, a repeat violent offender) who thought that violence would solve their problems.

Here's the link to Genarlow Wilson's story.

Anonymous said...

Justin... murder, for beating the guy to a bloody pulp? I'm sorry, but that case does NOT constitute attempted murder. Battery/assault maybe...

And what of the white kids. No charges for hate crimes or death threats, etc. These white kids got off the hook. Even if they hadn't been attacked, they still wouldn't have been punished. That's the way small southern towns work -- if you're white, your privileged. If you're black -- you're pushed around and oppressed and there's nothing you can do about it.

Yeah, how Bell and the other guys responded wasn't a good choice. But do you really believe that this would be a national media story had they done nothing? That's a bunch of baloney. Sorry, violence sells -- no violence, no news attention.

I really wonder if you understand the scope of the issue here. I'm guessing you're not black. I'm not either. I don't think you and I can even begin to understand the depth racism and privilege in our society.

Furthermore, I don't see how your factual critique of the case has anything to do with Larry's comments. Does what happened somehow negate the issue of racism or its existence?

Larry James said...

Thanks, Stacy for your correction and your very clear and obviously true point! I suppose I was giving lots of whites a huge benefit of the doubt, as you say. Racists know what the noose means else they would not have used it.

Justin, a couple of things. My post was not intended to be an endorsement of violence, not at all. I wish the black youth had taken a different route. The white youth who was "beaten" was able to attend a school function that evening--so, he wasn't beaten as severely as you would have us believe. What is unreported here is the fact that white students had picked fights and had beaten black kids before the noose incident.

Violence is not right. But school yard conflicts do not constitute attmepted murder. And nooses should not be allowed anywhere. The black student body tried the peaceful protest approach and the local DA's response was to threaten them.

As I say, I've been to Jena before. Forgive me if have little sympathy with the white racists in that town.

scoots said...

Violence takes different forms, and I think that's the point of Larry’s post. Yeah, those black kids were violent when they beat up the white kid, but the courts were *just* as violent by trying to take away these kids’ entire young adulthood.

When white kids get in fights like this, white society tends to understand it as immaturity, and the goal is to rehabilitate––and they typically grow out of it. Sticking someone in prison from age 16 to 38 is not rehabilitation, it’s forcibly reinforcing a messages that if you are a young black man, you had better watch your step if you have a disagreement with someone who's white.

The problem is, white folks get to pretend that the latter kind of violence is justified, since it's carried out by legal authorities -- and we can cite Scriptures that give legal authorities power to use violence.

But we also have a long prophetic tradition that speaks very clearly about political authorities who abuse their power. There is nothing Christian about defending these kinds of verdicts just because they are technically legal. The weightier matter of justice demands a hard look at the actual situation, and in that sense the violence carried out by these 6 immature kids is far less damnable than the violence perpetrated by a court system that should know better.

Larry James said...

scoots, thanks a million! Great insights and right on the mark. Why do we overlook the systemic violence of the entire Jena reality? You've brought it home in a very clear manner.

Amy Boone said...

Last night as we were eating dinner, my 11 year old son asked me about the Ku Klux Klan. He is a well read, intelligent 5th grader. I found myself actually relieved for a moment that he wasn't really familiar with the KKK, but then knew in my heart he must know as someone who loves Jesus. As I gave a rather brief description of the KKK, the 11 year old was stunned. My 8 year old said, "There aren't any of those kinds of people anymore, right?" I actually got a hitch in my throat. I told them there certainly were people like that. My 11 year old, who is a person who desires justice, was incredulous that the authorities would allow that kind of criminal behavior. Hatred is truly of Satan.

dsf said...

From NPR (of the liberal MSM):

--The so-called "white tree" at Jena High, often reported to be the domain of only white students, was nothing of the sort, according to teachers and school administrators; students of all races, they say, congregated under it at one time or another.

-- Two nooses, not three, were found dangling from the tree. Beyond being offensive to blacks, the nooses were cut down because black and white students "were playing with them, pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them," according to a black teacher who witnessed the scene.

-- There was no connection between the September noose incident and December attack, according to Donald Washington, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department in western Louisiana, who investigated claims that these events might be race-related hate crimes.

-- The three youths accused of hanging the nooses were not suspended for just three days -- they were isolated at an alternative school for about a month, and then given an in-school suspension for two weeks.

-- The six-member jury that convicted Bell was, indeed, all white. However, only one in 10 people in LaSalle Parish is African American, and though black residents were selected randomly by computer and summoned for jury selection, none showed up.


As you can see, a lot of the "why did..." and "why didn't..." questions are based on bad reporting by the news agencies.

Larry James said...

The nooses were still in the tree. Lots of people will say lots of things once the spotlight is turned on their town. Mr Washington's investigation leaves much to be desired. The tree was well known to be a place with a history. Like I say, I've been to Jena and this "back splash" commentary after the fact sounds very familiar.

owldog1 said...

Okay I have to say my standard 3 sides to every story, each person and the truth. No one really knows what happened. Is there still racism YES and IT IS wrong. The thing that upset me the most of the Jena 6 was 2 things. One, the nooses. AGAIN WHO DO YOU BELIEVE? Every week the school was decorated for football spirit. The week of the "nooses" they were playing the cowboys and the nooses were the school colors. All over the school were posters that read "hang the cowboys" (the bad timing was the infamously conversation about where the student could sit was asked at a meeting the week before) The parents of several students were upset about the nooses the kids were fine with them at the beginning of the week because of the "spirit" That is why "both sides" are now saying the nooses had nothing to do with this incident.

One more thing "facts can be verified by the courts" Free Mychal Bell made me sick to my stomach and I do not care what color he is. The reason his bail was set so high was because of his past violent crimes and 2 of them involved young children. All of the other boys were let out of jail very quickly because as the law states they had no past the crime they were being arrested for did not warrant being held in jail, they weren't.


I wondered when you were going to talk about the Jenna six and I agree it needs to be talked about. The problem is this march did not bring motivate anything to change. I have a co-worker who traveled downed to Jena for the March. He said when he got down there and started learning about Bells' past and was able to verify (yes is a black male and an investigator) the violent crimes that included children he could not longer support freeing him. He agreed racism exist as it does in a lot of southern towns and it needs to be changed but the Jena "cause" was not the cause worth fighting for.

I hope I am not one of those white people that just believe the propaganda I really do try and find out what happened..

Larry James said...

All of the Jena 6 were originally going to be tried as adults.

Tim said...

A courageous post, Larry, even in these "enlightened" times.

You are right when you say "Race and racism continue to play large roles in the social and cultural life of the nation. And, much of what is still alive and well in our communities is ugly, hate-filled and utterly absurd."

We continue to see all-too-real reminders of this. Here in SW Missouri, where I live, there have been several "apparently" race-motivated crimes (assaults, arsons, murders) in the past year. I say "apparently" only because it is not always 100% possible to establish the motive, despite obvious appearances.

What are parents teaching their children for them to grow up with such hate-filled hearts?

Tim Hadley
Springfield, MO

Larry James said...

Thanks, Tim. So good to hear from you! I know you are making a big difference where you are!