All Things Considered, July 30, 2007 audio: As at hundreds of other high schools across America, black and white students at Jena High School in Jena, La., rarely sit together. The white students gather under a big shade tree in the courtyard, while black students congregate near the auditorium.
But last year, a few days into the first semester, a new student, a freshman African American, asked the principal at an assembly, if he, too, could sit under the tree. He was told he could sit anywhere he liked.
Three white boys on the rodeo team apparently disagreed. The next morning, there were three nooses hanging from the shade tree in the courtyard.
Anthony Jackson is one of two black teachers at Jena High School. He laughs ruefully, as he recalls watching the nooses swaying in the tree.
"I jokingly said to another teacher, 'One's for you, one's for me. Who's the other one for?'"
Many in Jena's black community wanted the three white students expelled. But when the white superintendent and other school administrators investigated, they decided the nooses were a prank. Instead of expulsion or arrest, the three received in-school suspension.
Blacks called the punishment a double standard.
"White students can do things and receive a slap on the hand," Jackson says. But authorities "want to throw the book at blacks," he adds.
An Incident Escalates
A few of the black athletes, the stars of the football team, took the lead in resisting. The day after the nooses were hung, they reportedly organized a silent protest under the tree.
The school called an assembly and summoned the police and the district attorney. Black students sat on one side, whites on the other. District Attorney Reed Walters warned the students he could be their friend or their worst enemy. He lifted his fountain pen and said, "With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear."
That evening, black students told their parents that the DA was looking right at them. Walters denies that. Billy Fowler, a member of the school board, doesn't believe it, either.
"He said some pretty strong things," says Fowler, "but I don't think he was directing it to anyone in particular. I think he just wanted people to calm it down."
But things didn't calm down. Some whites felt triumphant; some blacks were resentful. Fights began to break out at the high school. But that year, the football team was having an unusually good season and the black athletes were a major reason why. So while there were fights throughout the fall, nobody wanted to take any action that would hurt the team.
When the season was over, so was the truce. On Nov. 30, somebody burned down Jena High.
Whites thought blacks were responsible, blacks thought the opposite.
Charges and Public Outrage
The next night, 16-year-old Robert Bailey and a few black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. When Bailey got inside, he was attacked and beaten. The next day, tensions escalated at a local convenience store. Bailey exchanged words with a white student who had been at the party. The white boy ran back to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip shotgun. Bailey ran after him and wrestled him for the gun.
After some scuffling, Bailey and his friends took the gun away and brought it home. Bailey was eventually charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.
The first punch knocked Barker out and he was kicked several times in the head. But the injuries turned out to be superficial. Barker was examined by doctors and released; he went out to a social function later that evening.
Six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. But District Attorney Reed Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder. That provoked a storm of black outrage.
"Jena has always been a racist town," says Bailey's mother, Caseptla Bailey. "We've understood that….It has been that way since I've lived here."
But school board member Billy Fowler disagrees.
As far as racial problems, our community is no different than any other community," Fowler says.
Fowler is one of the few leaders with the school administration or local law enforcement willing to talk to the media. The principal, the school superintendent and the district attorney all declined repeated calls for comment.
Fowler says he is appalled at reports by outside media outlets that he claims portray Jena as a racist community. But he and many other white leaders agree that the charges are unfair.
"I think it's safe to say some punishment has not been passed out fairly and evenly," Fowler says. "I think probably blacks may have gotten a little tougher discipline through the years.
"Our town is not a bunch of bigots. They're Christian, law-abiding citizens that wouldn't mistreat anybody."
But the black students and their families feel mistreated. The first to go to court was Mychal Bell, the team's star running and defensive back. Bell's court-appointed lawyer refused to mount any defense at all, instead resting his case immediately after two days of government presentation. An all-white jury found Bell guilty.
A talented athlete, Bell had a real shot at a Division I football scholarship. He now faces up to 22 years in prison. The other five black students await trial on attempted murder charges.
Over the weekend, Jena High School had the big shade tree in the courtyard chopped into firewood.
This from the Press Association:
Thousands of chanting demonstrators filled the streets of the little Louisiana town of Jena, in America's Deep South, in support of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate. (Photo by Damion White, NY Times)
The crowd broke into chants of "Free the Jena Six" as civil rights leader the Rev Al Sharpton arrived at the local courthouse with family members of the jailed teens.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said the scene was reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles. He said punishment of some sort may be in order for the six defendants, but "the justice system isn't applied the same to all crimes and all people."
Five of the black teenagers were initially charged with attempted murder, but that charge was reduced to battery for all but one. The sixth teenager was charged as a juvenile.
"This is the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we've seen," the Rev Al Sharpton said on US television before arriving in Jena. "You can't have two standards of justice."
"We didn't bring race into it," he said. "Those people who hung up the nooses brought race into it."
The nooses appeared after a black student expressed interest in sitting under a tree where whites usually congregated, and inflamed racial tensions in the town. The charges against the six teenagers further escalated tensions.
The district attorney who is prosecuti[ng] the teenagers, Reed Walters, denied on Wednesday that racism was involved in the charges.
He said he did not charge the white students accused of hanging up the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. In the beating case, he said, four of the defendants were of adult age under Louisiana law and the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.
From the New York Times: Louisiana Protest Echoes the Civil Rights Era
Eugene Robinson's OpEd in the Washington Post: Drive Time for the 'Jena 6'