Trying to get a clear picture of what happened one year ago in Jena, La., isn’t easy. Race has muddied everything. The press has even given central aspect of the case — a tree — a black eye.
What ought to be a clear-cut case of schoolyard fisticuffs and hooliganism has become undeniably tainted.
A few facts seem common to most news stories, however, so let’s review them to begin at the beginning.
At Jena High School in Louisiana, there stood a tree that students considered the “white tree” because only white students sat under it. In September 2006, a black boy asked a school authority if he could sit under the tree, and she said yes. A day later, three nooses were found hanging from the tree. The principal recommended suspending the white boys involved in the incident, but she was overruled and some black students organized a sit-in. Racial tensions mounted at the school, and a string of fights and arson followed. Off-campus violence between blacks and whites followed as well.
Then, in December, six black boys beat up one white boy, and felony charges were leveled. Prosecutors said the weapon was the boys’ tennis shoes. In June, one of the boys, Mychal Bell, was convicted of various charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison. But a week ago, on Sept. 14, Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that Mychal should have been tried in juvenile court. Yesterday was Mychal’s sentencing hearing.
Those are the unvarnished facts.
In the old days, most of these incidents would have been treated as no more than an old-fashioned fistfight among boys — boys coming of age and duking it out (whatever “it” is). In the old days, brothers and sons came home with shiners and bloodied noses from bare-knuckle beatings, and with bruised ribs from being kicked while down and out.
No knives, no guns, no hard feelings.
Settle the score and move on.
No prosecutors. No hate-crime laws. No reporters and TV cameras.
But not in Jena. In the case of the now-memorialized Jena 6, “it” is white vs. black, black vs. black and nobody wins.
In the Jena case, the NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, are in full-throttle mode. Blacks and whites alike are being accused of trying to resurrect Jim Crow, spewing their respective brands of juju on Jena, a woodsy hamlet of 3,500, as if it were Selma, Ala., one of the lynching capitals of the South.
Jena is no Selma.
But that fact also has been bloodied in the fray, although Mr. Jackson doesn’t see it that way. The reverend, bless his liberal heart, has stirred up a mess of warmed-over grits, accusing Barack Obama on Wednesday, the eve of Mychal Bell’s sentencing hearing, of “acting like he’s white” (whatever that means). Mr. Jackson leveled his brand of racially charged criticism because Mr. Obama had not let loose any racially tinged rhetoric about the injustices that have befallen the Jena 6.
To his credit, Mr. Obama used carefully crafted language: “Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s a matter of right and wrong.” Hear, hear.
Mr. Jackson, however, views Jena as “a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment.” There are two obvious conclusions here. The first is that senility must have kicked into overdrive, because surely Mr. Jackson knows that Mr. Obama is white; that is, his mom is white. What does Mr. Jackson want the man to do? Issue a disclaimer? Denounce all white people? The second could be a sinful indiscretion by Mr. Jackson — namely envy. Political envy to be precise. Mr. Jackson ran twice for president and lost twice. On both occasions he failed to run as successfully as Mr. Obama (who, interesting enough, Mr. Jackson supports).
The banner of justice on behalf of the Jena 6 is being carried by as diverse a group as that of the Civil Rights Movement on which Mr. Jackson cut his teeth. Jews and gentiles (including Muslims), blacks and whites, and celebrities with tons of money to toss around. There were many noisemakers in Jena this week, but ordinary folk made up the overwhelming majority of protesters, people who poured in by the busloads to color the town.
And who knows? If the six black boys had been white and the one white boy had been black, there’s the possibility that the scales of justice would have tipped differently. (Think Duke rape case.) But that is not the case in Jena.
Blame it on the tree. The tree everybody calls the “white tree.” Poor tree. Even mother nature’s creature can’t escape the white-hot rhetoric in Jena, La. It’s a sturdy tree. A beautiful tree. And nooses, with or without strange fruit, had no place on that tree.
Funny, though. The press is so busy trying to chase down all the hot air until reporters and photographers overlooked a crucial fact about the Jena 6 case. The tree that sparked the unbelievable sequence of events isn’t “white” at all. Nor is it a “black” tree. It’s an oak tree. Or rather, it was an oak. The tree, like central facts in the Jena 6 case, has been cut down. Poor tree.