Sep 20, 2007

The Jena Six As Seen From Ground Zero

I guess this is my opportunity to make a blog post that's deep, meaningful, and socially relevant, to show you all what a socially aware creature I am. I don't know if I can really DO that, to be quite honest. I think I'm too close to this.

You see, about fifty miles from here is a little town called Jena. It's a backwater town, one of hundreds of tiny, backward towns that dot Louisiana, especially in the south of the state. Racism is rampant in most of these little podunk towns, and it runs both ways. And something happened there that has catapulted this bug-under-a-rock town into the national attention. I'm not going to supply a link, all you have to do is run a search on Jena Six, or tune into NPR. It's everywhere.

And that's as far as I got with this post.

No, not really. I had about six or seven more paragraphs below there, but it was like my mood--jumbled, confused. And so, I erased it, all but the first two paragraphs and the last line, which set the mood. My mood. I wrote this next bit hours later. It's got a little more sense in it than what I had managed this morning, but not much.

When I was a kid, Xmas time was a magic time. There was a local guy who would go on TV after the news was over for a little locally-broadcast show, dressed to the nines as The Jolly Old Elf, and he'd ho-ho-ho and read letters from kids in the area and do all the expected Xmas stuff. And at the end he'd pull out a telescope from his red suit's pockets and he'd "look" out across the city and tell us that he He'd call us out by name, and the fervent hope, at least in my little heart was that one day he'd call MY name out, that he'd see ME sitting there in my living room, anxious grin pasted on my face. Well, an eye more far-seeing and more extensive than that of Saint Nicholas' is pointed at us, and I can't stand it.

The upset that the Jena Six rally is causing today, already, has had surprising ripples in me, and it'd not just that traffic is backed up for an hour away in all directions from that little town. I'm distressed, but not sure why. I tried to blog about it this morning early--I figured that my little slice of reading public would like to know how it feels to be a mere 50 miles from the main focus, how it feels to be the city that will be hosting Mos Def's rant at the amphitheater here in Alexandria on the Red River, downtown, just about twenty minutes from my house. And you know, I can't? I started, got a few paragraphs down and it's like my mood--jumbled, distorted, makes no real sense. It's just bits and chunks, disjointed.

Do you know that even here, one of the six or seven major cities in this state there's a part of town called "Samtown," which is where the ghetto begins? I always thought that was just a derogatory term for the ghetto, but it's listed on the city maps that you get from the Welcome Center as "Samtown." Lower Third and down. Samtown. The places where a white face isn't ever seen.

I'm of the mind that by nightfall tonight Jena will be host to a riot at minimum, a city-spanning fire at worst. Jesse Jackson has shipped in his own audience--40 busses full of activists, full of strangers into the tiny, insular Jena, where people are desperately afraid and angry of black people, much less strangers, much LESS activist strangers from states so far away that they probably couldn't even FIND Louisiana on a map without a GPS in hand.

I'm afraid, in a way, and I'm angry that so much focus is being paid to this state, so much negative. It feels like someone has turned over a rotten log and is suddenly astounded and shouting to everyone who will listen that they've revealed a squirming, writhing mess of horrible bugs. I mean, it's not like there is injustice only here, only in Jena. We're HUMAN, for shit's sake, it's part of our nature to be selfish, introverted and aggressive. I'm with Nietzsche--we're all born "evil," and have to work to overcome that natural tendency. And then the National Eye turns here, to this rinky-dink state, to a podunk town of 3500 who are so racist that I'm surprised there hasn't been a hanging there recently, and everyone is suddenly "Oh my god, there's RACISTS here!" Wow. Who would have thunk it?

And somehow I don't see Jesse Jackson and Mos Def changing anyone's minds down there. No toothless white-trash redneck is suddenly going to burn his rebel flag because an angry black man came to his town with 40 busses of black activists. No, it's only going to inflame them, make the quiet angers much louder, make the closet klansmen come out in the open. I guess this sounds strange to folks from more civilised places but do you know guys realise that many houses way out in the sticks still proudly display the confederate stars and ex? It's a point of pride. It makes me sick, but there you are, I'm a resident of the most racist state in the union probably. No escaping it, and I don't know that any number of inflamatory speeches and fist wavings are going to change it.

If Jena isn't quite literally on fire tonight I'll be astounded.


Nancy Dancehall said...

It's such a sticky situation. No, they aren't going to change anyone's minds down there (I know, I have relatives. I've tried...). They will only scare them. I worry about all the anger that is brought down on those buses, and I worry about all the anger in the town that receives them. I hope for peace, for a peaceful protest. I think that what is being done to those teenagers is wrong -- on both sides. I think there needed to be protests for what is being done to them...but this gigantic response? It smells like platform to me. And I pray people won't get hurt.

How rampant is racism in your little town?

Bob said...

I too doubt that the huge rally and protests will do much more than anger the residents. I guess that I'm surprised that, even in the sticks of Louisiana, racism is still that prevalent. Despite living in southern Georgia I thought that racism was on its way out. My question is, where were the protests when the boys who put up the nooses only got a few days suspension? That the decision to expel them was overturned was shocking to me, but I now see it was only an indicator of the state of things in that community.

Rayne said...

I am concerned that people are going to be hurt or killed if riots do develope tonight. The saddest part of it all is that good ol'Jesse will some how figure out a way to blame that on the whites, too. He'll never see or admit to his own hand in the chaos he may be starting.

AverageBro said...

My take on this story here:

Stucco said...

Send in Chinese food and clothing. Everyone will be dead and then the problem will be resolved. Or am I supposed to be more compassionate than that?

Mama Stina said...

I feel terrible that your neck of the woods is getting so much negative attention right now. As hard as so many people fight, racism will never go away. Event like this seem to bring it to a head time and time again. What is also scary about the potential chaos there, is that it spread throughout the nation, and hostility breaks out all over.

Mona Buonanotte said...

I can't figure out how racism prevails. It has to come from the parents, handed down, like grandma's good china, to the kids. And the kids have kids who have kids, and the whole stinkin' mess never gets resolved. But HOW, in today's society, does it prevail? Does no one feel a little bit guilty about it, when they go to church on Sunday and hear "Love thy neighbor as thyself"? Does no one see that it's wrong?

I hope no one gets hurt.

Dr.John said...

Sometimes despite the mess you have to turn that log over to get rid of the bugs. Sometimes you have to cut the wound open to hasten healing. Evil hides in the darkness.

Margaret said...

Just checking in and glad to report Jena is not on fire. =O)

I've been keeping tabs and the situation there isn't any different than the situation here in Savannah, GA. A few weeks ago Sharpton came to town, we currently have a New Black Panther Party running for mayor and a new Police Chief from Los Angeles with a tough stance on crime/gangs.

Things were ugly but they fizzled out very quickly.

I don't know what to think about the Jena 6 situation. All the other stuff aside - it all comes down to if they beat this guy up and left him for dead. If so - that's attempted murder. Regardless of how he fared after the beating.

Even if only he played dead.

But then again, who knows.

Scott from Oregon said...

If anything, the town gets nationally embarassed and that affects the kids in a generational struggle...

We had to fight that battle with Pops' ma, and we won when she died.

meno said...

I was listening to this story on the news this morning. I have no idea what really happened and what is right.

Maybe inflaming the town will cause some change. Maybe it will just cause more damage.

Anonymous said...

As I've been watching and reading the coverage... the long-awaited coverage... of the Jena Six situation, I cannot help but feel angered at my former profession, the "media".
First, it's covered this travesty in Louisiana far too little, and covered Paris, Lindsey, Brittney, and OJ far too much... in my humble opinion.
Now, when the "media" does cover the marches and vigils... and NOT the story itself, it is leaving out some crucial facts to the story.
Please read the following Chicago Tribune story, dated May 20, 2007. And, note the facts about the white kid beating the black kid and the white man pulling a gun on three black students that the "media" is now evading, overlooking, and/or simply leaving out to, in my humble opinion, "craft" the essence of the story of the Jena Six:

Racial Demons Rear Heads

Howard Witt
Senior Tribune Correspondent
reposted from

The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town's jagged racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites. Now the 3,000 residents of this small lumber and oil town deep in the heart of central Louisiana are confronting Old South racial demons many thought had long ago been put to rest.

One morning last September, students arrived at the local high school to find three hangman's nooses dangling from a tree in the courtyard.

The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school's 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators if they, too, could sit beneath the tree's cooling shade.

"Sit wherever you want," school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.

African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the American South. Three white students were quickly identified as being responsible, and the high school principal recommended that they be expelled.

"Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple," said Tracy Bowens, a black mother of two students at the high school who protested the incident at a school board meeting.

But Jena's white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.

"Adolescents play pranks," said Breithaupt, the superintendent of the LaSalle Parish school system. "I don't think it was a threat against anybody."

Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.

First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school over the nooses. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, which still sits in ruins. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.

Finally, on Dec. 4, a group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. The victim -- allegedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks -- was not seriously injured and spent only a few hours in the hospital.

But the LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, opted to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.

To the defendants, their families and civil rights groups that have examined the events, the attempted murder charges brought by a white prosecutor are excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.

The critics note, for example, that the white youth who beat the black student at the party was charged only with simple battery, while the white man who pulled the shotgun at the convenience store wasn't charged with any crime at all. But the three black youths in that incident were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft after they wrestled the weapon from the man -- in self-defense, they said.

"There's been obvious racial discrimination in this case," said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who described Jena as a "racial powder keg" primed to ignite. "It appears the black students were singled out and targeted in this case for some unusually harsh treatment."

That's how the mother of one of the defendants sees things as well.

"They are sending a message to the white kids, 'You have committed this hate crime, you were taunting these black children, and we are going to allow you to continue doing what you are doing,'" said Caseptla Bailey, mother of Robert Bailey Jr.

Bailey, 17, is caught up in several of the Jena incidents, as both a victim and alleged perpetrator. He was the black student who was beaten at the party, and he was among the students arrested for allegedly grabbing the shotgun from the man at the convenience store. And he's one of the six students charged with attempted murder for the Dec. 4 attack.

The district attorney declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But other white leaders insist there are no racial tensions in the community, which is 85 percent white and 12 percent black.

"Jena is a place that's moving in the right direction," said Mayor Murphy McMillan. "Race is not a major local issue. It's not a factor in the local people's lives."

Still others, however, acknowledge troubling racial undercurrents in a town where only 16 years ago white voters cast most of their ballots for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran unsuccessfully for Louisiana governor.

"I've lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism -- true racism," a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. "Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana ... racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it."

The lone black member of the school board agrees.

"There's no doubt about it -- whites and blacks are treated differently here," said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. "The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided."

And the troubles at the high school are not over yet.

On May 10, police arrested Justin Barker, 17, the white victim of the Dec. 4 beating. He was alleged to have a rifle loaded with 13 bullets stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck parked in the school lot. Barker told police he had forgotten it was there and had no intention of using it.

PLEASE, make sure that you get the word out... ALL OF THE WORD OUT... to people who need to know the TRUTH.

Irrelephant said...

Nancy, if you had seen the steady progression of Lear jets and security people you'd KNOW it was all about platform, about seeing and being seen, not about a racist little town.

As for here? It's here, just like it's anywhere. We've got a fair-sized ghetto, but crime isn't bad and the hate isn't overt.

Bob, I can't begin to describe how rampant racism is in those little towns. When I say there are a few towns that black folk don't dare live in at all I'm quite serious.

Rayne, that's the trick, isn't it. Oprah was here, Ice T and his wife, Will Smith and his Mrs., Sharpton and Jackson and so forth, and all it did, I'm certain, is further their agendas, up their star power a little bit, and drive the anger and resentment just that much deeper.

averagebro, thanks for the link. It's been a few days since, and the riots never came, fortunately. I'll definitely have to go visit and give a read.

Stucco, didn't you mean "toys imported from China?" I was honestly hoping that the heat would prevent them from staying. *lol*

Mama Stina, you're right. I was certain (and fortunately wrong) that some violence would errupt, and that it would spread like wildfire. The Klan was there, but outnumbered as they were 100 to 1 they were a very quiet minority.

Mona, it does that exactly. The old teaching the young how to mistrust, how to hate. As for Xians? Hypocrites, every one. If those Bible-thumpers were practicing what they pay lip service to none of this would have ever happened.

Dr. John, you're quite right. My experience tells me, though, that this is only going to make the bugs go hide elsewhere.

Thank you Margaret! And as much as I loathe what is happening there I'm glad it's still intact. As for the 'truth' of the matter? I'm certain we'll never know. No-one is willing to point out that Bell has a prior criminal record, and while the punishment for the nooses wasn't as strong as it should have been it's still not right to release six people who beat one up, no matter their colour or creed.

Scott, I'm hoping profoundly that this makes a difference, that the scar left changes the kids. Will it? Beats the hell out of me.

Meno, I'm on the fence about it myself. Half of me says that this is just giving the Klan and it's followers more fuel, and half says that it'll open the wound and let it heal. I have little faith in human goodness, though.

Anon, thanks for the article. Nice summary of what is a very turbulent, very cloudy occurance. We'll never know the entire truth, but at least we can hope.

Vulgar Wizard said...

I was thinking last night about blogging about this, but you've pretty much covered it. It's funny how this state is NEVER in the spotlight unless something like the Jena Six or a Brittney Spears drinking binge or a Mayor Nagin Chocolate City comment occurs. It makes me wonder if anything good ever happens here though.