Jump-Swinging from Nooses in Jena

I can truly understand the racial, political and social undertows that help shape the story of the so-called "Jena Six" about as easily as I can know exactly what went on in that Las Vegas hotel room when O.J. Simpson and Co. barged in on that memorabilia dealer. Which is to say, not very well. In both cases, I wasn't there.

But I think the news article that best conveys all the subtleties of the Jena Six case comes from Todd Lewan of The Associated Press. The story shatters some of the myths about the case and the story that have cropped up over the past few weeks and months, and shows that the "true story" -- as near as any of the rest of us can figure -- is both more and less significant than it has been made out to be. It is a story of negligence and ignorance, of hyperbole and reflex.

On the "less significant" side are the nature of the charges brought against the black teenagers. Yes, the prosecutor almost certainly "overcharged" them. Attempted murder? Please. But there are plenty of white teenagers who get overcharged, too, by district attorneys. Plenty of white adults, too. Just ask Jeffrey Skilling or John Walker Lindh.

Convicted by an all-white jury? Yep. But as Lewan reports: "The six-member jury that convicted [Mychal] 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."

And Bell himself? More from Lewan: "It was widely reported that Bell, now 17, was an honor student with no prior criminal record. Although he had a high grade-point average, he was, in fact, on probation for at least two counts of battery and a count of criminal damage to property. In any event, his conviction was overturned because an appeals court ruled he should not have been tried as an adult."

Does any of this mean Bell or the others were treated fairly? Not necessarily. Local officials, including the people running the local high school, didn't take the initial allegations about the hanging nooses nearly seriously enough. The police should have been told of the incident. It should have been stopped long before it got to the point where kids were beating up other kids.

And then, when there was a fight, and when Bell allegedly beat up a white student, the same "deliberate speed" with which officials had handled the news about the nooses should have been applied to the post-fight investigation. Instead, a molehill was turned into a mountain by the local prosecutor. If every fight between high school students ended up in attempted-murder cases (here, writes Lewan, a "sneaker" was the so-called "lethal weapon") the criminal justice docket would quickly reach gridlock.

So can anyone seriously blame a black person in Jena, or really any person anywhere who has empathy for their plight, for thinking that the story of the Jena Six is about black kids getting hammered while culpable white kids get off? Does anyone truly believe that, had the glare of national attention not been turned to this small town, the incident might have faded away?

To me, the most profound "fact" about the Jena Six case is this -- again from Lewan: "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."

If this is true, and black and white high school students both failed to immediately understand the significance of nooses hanging from trees in Louisiana, then it seems to me that Jena as a community (and the rest of us, as a society) are guilty not necessarily of racial prejudice but of indifference -- to the history of racism in the South and anywhere else it exists. How could these young people have grown up there and not understood, at least by the time they reached high school, the terrible symbolism of those nooses?

Black or white, rich or poor, how could their parents not have taught them that? After all, as their teachers could surely tell them, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when students did not laugh and play with nooses hanging from trees. That's because those nooses swung from the weight of the bodies of murdered black men and women.

Whatever else it is, then, the story of the Jena Six also is a story about insensitivities -- to the ugly past, to the tense and unfulfilled present, and to a grim future. Especially if those children, indeed all children, don't learn that racial injustice was present at the creation of the country, and persists to this day.

By Andrew Cohen |  September 23, 2007; 6:01 PM ET
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If the black and white children of Jena treat nooses hanging from trees as playthings, rather than symbols, that sounds to me like progress. These people don't live in a bubble. Isn't it possible that they recognize the symbolism, but also know that in 2007 there's a world beyond that past?

Posted by: mike s | September 24, 2007 08:51 AM

The school principal's reactions seemed just right and even handed. The school board's in reducing the punishment, a bit off, but not too bad.

It was the prosecutor who blew it up. (and maybe local law enforcement). A cooler, slower approach in the investigation.

The imbalance is in unconstrained reaction to the fight. (Why not charge them all with the Louisiana equivalent of "participating in an affray?")

Posted by: Pogo again | September 24, 2007 08:59 AM

Most disturbing, in this article, is the failure of local blacks to show up for jury duty when summoned.

How can a population expect to receive justice when they are apparently unwilling to do their part in dispensing justice?

Posted by: slenon | September 24, 2007 09:31 AM

jeffrey skilling and john walker lindh were not overcharged. the first contributed heavily to one of the great modern corruptions of the stock market, which does not regulate itself.
the second carried a weapon against the united states. he should have been shot at the wall.
the kids in jena were justified in getting pissed off at the kid who called them names, but it should not have taken six of them to beat him up. the bell kid was a football star, and should have been able to beat the kid up by himself. so, while i don't think attempted murder was a good charge, i think we as a society are just as well off getting them off the street. somewhere, in a just world, they can lock those kids up with aryan brotherhood bullies and let them have at it.

Posted by: david weinstock | September 24, 2007 09:49 AM

Good article. The facts of this case seem well considered. Race still matters, however, indifference and apathetic behavior that pushes courage to the back of the bus must also be understood.

We must carry the full arsenal of these traits, because without one, people are left up to other peoples vices, and people die and/or are murdered.

Posted by: Gary Ponder | September 24, 2007 10:15 AM

Pretty good article. Things are always about perception. it is truly unfortunate that the things that should matter, tend to be insugnificant to many and vise versa. If there is a parent taking in the Jena case, I would recommend them putting themselves in the shoes of all involved. Any one with any common sense should simply want all punishments to be just and all incidents to be taken on the same level of seriousness. It seems that the community of Jena, the Procecutor, the educators, the school board, etc, rally are miguided in their judgement and should do some heavy soul searching, because they semm to not have any balance with regards to their thought process.

Posted by: SMC | September 24, 2007 10:43 AM

Why someone would say that this is good editorial is beyond me. When the author states he was not there:he removed himself and all his 'intellect ' from writing any farther.

The author tend to hide his own shortcomings behind the young man's past,Blacks reluctancy to serve on a jury and parents inability to teach their children be they black or white. The adults who knew of this sore and push it aside are the ones to question and diagnose. By the way how many Black teachers are employed at Jena High? Coming up in the south I was told you either got Book sense or Common sense. In this article I do see the Book sense.We need both.

Posted by: Elshaddi | September 24, 2007 10:47 AM

In reply to slenon.

I can't believe that of all the information discussed in this article, someone said "THE MOST DISTURBING" item was someone not showing up for jury duty. That is simply ignorant to say.
That is absurd that after hanging nooses, puting a dun to the black boys and getting no real punishement for it, what you found most distrubing was showing up for jury duty. THIS CERTAINLY SAYS ALOT ABOUT YOU AND YOUR CHARACTER.

Perhaps the climate in the city, as it seems to appear, is that of a people who are stuck in a time warp, where although "legally" you are asked to serve on a jury, but you find yourself in a situation, in "a room", in an atmosphere of fear because of the mind set of the people you are asked to serve as juror with.

Perhaps judgement should be just, no matter what color the jury was. An all white jury, IF THEY IN FACT ARE SO FAIR AND IN NO WAY RACIST", should be tursted to do, the right thing, instead of having to have someone of color on the jury, JUST DO THE RIGHT THING.

Posted by: SMC | September 24, 2007 10:51 AM

One of the most consistent and I believe fraudulant themes in most articles I have read is the easy dismissal of the fight and the injuries.

First, from every account I have read this was not a school yard fight, but six youths jumping an individual. This apparently was in response to a personal and possibly racial derogatory comment. (The only attribution I have seen for this is that the white youth boasted that one of the six blacks had been beaten by a white boy. Whether it was actually said this way and intended to be a racial insult or simply a comment on what happened is not clear.)

Second, in every account I have read, the six black youths "jumped" the white youth / victim. That is, they attacked him by surprise. It is not clear whether this was immediately after and in direct response to the comment or whether some time passed, giving the black youths time to decide upon a response. This would be the difference between a "heated response" to fighting words and a planned response to an insult.

Third, the weapon of choice was "tennis shoes" however this ignores two important facts. One: today's "tennis shoes" are not the soft canvas shoes of old but hard shoes made firm with plastic and made of leather. Second: the shoes were at the time occupied by the feet and powered by the legs of football atheletes, not swung like a wet noodle with their arms. I make the point about the football atheletes because presumably they have more powerful legs than the average person.

Fourth, the assault continued after the youth was rendered unconscious. That is a pretty serious assualt.

Fifth the youth suffered a concussion, among the young this can be a very serious injury. Whether he spent two hours or two days in the hospital he was sufficiently injured to be treated at the hospital.

Sixth, the youth did attend a "ring ceremony" at his school. I have no idea what this is, but the way it was written up in other articles this sounds like an important event; the youth said despite his injuries that he insisted on attending: "I was not going to miss my ring ceremony." Nevertheless accounts say he left the event early because he suffered headaches, and continued to suffer headaches for some time.

So, while it is likely that attempted murder is over charging, aggrevated, felonious assault is not.

If Andrew will volunteer, we can pick a single high school football player to kick him with tennis shoes on and he can tell us how seriously he feels the pain.

Posted by: Constitutionalist | September 24, 2007 11:47 AM

Hell must have frozen over, but am inclined with Con- man on this (the counter point that double-standard may exist still holds, but shouldn't change what the incident--a beating of one person by a gang, just some boyish high spirits!)

Posted by: | September 24, 2007 11:52 AM

Ok, a noose may or may not be suggestive, was it confirmed to have had that intention of some archetypal symbol to bear the burden of a racial past, but a rope around a tree is still only that, and I get the sense it was probably at least partly a smart-ass prank (honestly, a bit funny in a high school way). I do think that presuming mental intention from symbols can be far too hasty and common these days. Did they ask the guy what they meant by doing that before getting mad? And they still ganged up and beat the guy, a pretty terrifying experience, even if it were a large group of 8 year old girls to do it, say with their shoes or something.

Posted by: CV | September 24, 2007 11:59 AM

What you do not seem to know about the South in general and about Louisiana in particular boggles the mind.

Posted by: Forrest | September 24, 2007 12:10 PM

As an unrelated aside, I'll just say that while it's great that Ahmadjinedad is getting to talk directly in a time of unhelpful inflammation by some of the heads in government here and elsewhere, I hope he clarifies that he meant by his notorious statement of "wiping Israel off the map" so that it doesn't become an automatic stick to beat him with, that it wasn't meant as sanctioning an attack on Israel, but that he was merely doubting if its position as it exists now as a very small separate country surrounded by predominatly Arab ones is the best way to go as far as statehood. That is ,like it or not, at least something possible to consider.

Also that he doesn't emphasize so much being some separatist "Islamic" beacon (in my opinion, separatist pride without a link to more universal, nom-materialist principles causes problems eventually), but rather how his plans would enable Iran to fit into a world entity such as the UN, at least as the UN should be, rather than merely some separatist Arab League.

Posted by: Phil | September 24, 2007 12:22 PM

I can attest that much of the roots of Iran/Persia's venerable culture, history, and milieu,indeed the land itself, has a great deal in common with Southern and central Europe (indeed I would even say that much of the Arab Middle East all the way to Dubai has a fundamental affinity--Islam's deep-rooted , but often obscured in reactiveness, emphasis on reason and mutually agreed principles rather than on superstition and primitive tribal impulses-- and with Europe and the Near East, more than say with the Latin Americas, which are more of a factor in the US), to emphasize the Islamism primarily is unnecessarily limiting to itself (and plenty of INDIGENOUS Muslims in Southern and Central Europe and Russia).

Posted by: Brief | September 24, 2007 12:36 PM

I don't whose comment Forrest was referring to, but if mine, you're not saying that because persecuting events occurred in the past, that a rope around a tree in "the South in general and in Louisiana in particular" inherently and always and by any random, unmonitored individual inherently reflects this private intention, are you?

Posted by: CV | September 24, 2007 12:41 PM

The fact may or may not be pertinent but in the deep south, rope swings are often used by kids (of all ages) for swings..not nooses.

Posted by: thependulumswings | September 24, 2007 01:00 PM

I should have been less cryptic. I was referring to the blog. Your comment, CV was judicious, thoughtful and well taken.

Posted by: Forrest | September 24, 2007 04:00 PM

Thanks Forrest, but I don't know about all that! I'm certainly happy with it being "well taken", though.

Posted by: | September 24, 2007 04:03 PM

Were there any heads in these nooses that everybody is so worked up about?

Posted by: arlan | September 24, 2007 09:59 PM

This case was really made into a big story when it probably shouldn't be. Sure the attempted murder is too much, but that is for the courts to decide. That is why we have a legal system.

A fight of 6 vs 1 where they beat the person severely should land those who did the beating in trouble. I can understand a school yard fight and would say suspended them a day, but this seems like more.

But, the students joking with the noose I think shows you where we are today. It is not the youth caring on racism and racist related things, but the elders. I know, being young, that most of my friends and people I know could care less about race on anything. If anything you might hear a racial joke, but usually making fun of your own race. Even, affirmative action is disliked my many of todays youth of all races. We just want to be treated as a single race and not have these Al Sharptons making big issues

Posted by: J | September 25, 2007 12:01 AM

In Jena, almost every one was wrong. The nooses in the tree were an opportunity to educate the kids in that school about their own history. The fact that the opportunity was lost suggests fear and unwillingness to face history honestly. Suspension may well have been appropriate but education was more so. Instead they cut down the tree. The fighting that resulted, kids of both races were involved at different times I have read, was an indication that unresolved tensions and issues were simmering below the surface. The adults in charge chose to ignore symptoms of those issues again rather than deal with them. When one youngster is set upon by six others and beaten into unconsciousness, the time for education and understanding has been lost. Kids in Jena were failed by the whole adult community: educators, parents, those who failed to show up for jury duty, and by a dual system of injustice that calculates the seriousness of a crime by the color of the perpetrator.

Posted by: strega | September 25, 2007 12:38 AM

It would be great if state government, especially the Dept of Education would take a leadership role in addressing issues of respect for others. This incident created an opportunity to grow.

Posted by: | September 25, 2007 03:07 AM

Unrelatedly, with his comment on homosexuals, could Ahmadetc.. have meant, rather than saying an absurd untruth as there are no homosexuals possible in Iran (he's not an idiot to say something like that in New York, and at Columbia, with their high gay proportions!), but I thought his words were " We don't have homesexuals like in your country...We don't have this phenomenon" which indicates as far as I can tell, that homosexuality does not exist as a phenomenon to nearly the same EXTENT ("like" meant in the sense of "as") in Iran. That would be a completely valid statement, and to dismiss out of hand or awareness of another possible reading shows bad faith and/or less than great mental capacity at that moment.

Posted by: Vin | September 25, 2007 11:33 AM

Why doesn't Sarkozy stop pretending he is French and just move to the US and become a technocratic Reaganite conservative like many of his Hungarian forbears? He doesn't have real French traits, a poseur, is getting very annoying already. I could tell even before he started he doesn't understand French culture.

Posted by: F | September 25, 2007 04:53 PM

It's a potential disaster for the world when France starts to play these games, and Germany hasn't known WHAT it is in many many years, indoctrinating self-flagellating brainwashing induced by others into its own culture through its time-honored traditions of mindless drilling, the worst of both worlds.

Posted by: | September 25, 2007 04:56 PM

Just to say that the responses coming OUT OF THE WOODWORK from the most prestigious journalists, mayors, congressmen, senators, candidates, the ways the story was reported, selectively "reported", and drastically colored by the various newspapers here and abroad, and who chose what option--not even touching offically self-promoting interest groups, at least they are up front--to the highest level, is just OH, SO REVEALING. Am rather enjoying this unfolding show, and I DO know the culture was different not so long ago.

Posted by: | September 25, 2007 05:12 PM

sorry, previous relating to the admittedly unrelated Columbia talk

Posted by: | September 25, 2007 05:15 PM

Cohen...you have become so predictable and pedantic.....it's actually funny!

Posted by: lmao | October 12, 2007 09:17 AM

I have to say that I agree with many of the commenters here about this case, that if the nooses were being played with instead of looked on as a symbol of hate by either black or white children, why can't this be viewed as a good thing instead of automatically having negative conotations. Now I don't think teenagers swinging from and playing with a noose is safe, so it was good that they removed it, but I can easily think back 10 years ago when I was in high school and think that many of the kids would have dismissed it as a prank. Some students may have been upset about it yes, and then we could have had discussions but if no real threat came out of it maybe it would mean that we, as Americans are moving ahead in racial relations. The past is important to learn about to try to keep from making the same mistakes, but to live in the past and allow symbols that meant something then mean the same thing now doesn't help. I believe the problem came more from the perception of the nooses than the boys who hung them. Not that they shouldn't have been punished but from many accounts I've read they recieved a lot more than 3 days suspension, and them and their parents had to go through counseling. I don't think charges against the boys would have stopped what happened though. If the witness statements I've read are real, then the Jena 6 were not trying to get back at someone for the nooses or even for the previous weekend's incidents, but rather for making fun of them for it. Not that I think its right to make fun of anyone, but six on one retaliation is unfair. I was raised to believe that fighting should be a last resort option and that, although standing up for yourself is a good thing, you should never start a fight even if someone is saying things to try to start one. And if you are in a fight, then it should be one on one and started face to face, not you and some of your friends ambushing someone then beating that person after they're on the ground (whether you know if they're unconscience or not). I don't think the charge should have been attempted murder but I have heard of other cases (where race wasn't involved) where the prosecutors overcharged a person with a crime to try to get a person to plea bargain to the lesser crime. (This isn't necessarily fair, but it does sometimes work and most smart prosecutors will lower the charge prior to the actual trial without evidence to back up the more severe charge.)
I don't think racism is correct, but a lot of the backlash against the support for the Jena 6 seems to come from two factors in this case, 1)the supporters of the Jena 6 are saying that "free the Jena 6" which to many is just as unfair if not even more than the six being charged with attempted murder, and 2)much of what is getting spread around the internet and through the media seems to be rumors and hearsay and half-truths (and these on both sides of the issue at least to some degree) which are causing so many people to insist that the racial problems of this country are so much bigger than they really are. It's frustrating to not know what REALLY happened, but to judge a whole town on half-truths just seems very wrong. I hope everyone learns a lesson after all this is over that you shouln't believe everything you see, and way less than what you hear and read. Or if you prefer this one, take all things you hear (from the media) and read (on the internet) with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that some people will always say things in a way that will stir other people up, even if it's not totally true.

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