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Hate is not quaint in Jena, Louisiana

by Brian Clarey

Why should we care about Jena, La.? Why should anyone?

It’s a tiny town of less than 3,000 souls in rural Louisiana, near where the Little River feeds into Catahoula Lake, the kind of place that most people don’t know is there but if they were to visit might remark on the beauty and simplicity of life down there.

It exists in something of a time warp for many Americans – children still catch catfish down by the creek and call their elders “sir” and “ma’am.” Young men – and even some young women – go into the military after graduation, unless they can wrangle a few years at LSU for sports or smarts. And there are always the oil rigs. Most of the homes cost less than $100,000, and six sworn police officers keep a pretty good handle on crime. The majority of its citizens are married, and most have jobs.

But not all vestiges of the past are so quaint. Only seven people make more than $150,000 a year in Jena, and men still earn nearly twice as much as women. The 10-member board of aldermen is all male, with a single African American among the ranks. There is but a single black police officer, and one of the nine men on the school board is black. Sometimes these men are referred to in this town as “colored.”

And there is a tree – there was a tree – in the yard of the local high school that was called the “white tree” until town officials ordered it cut down this summer.

The tree is at the heart of the Jena 6 case now unfolding in the Louisiana heartland. White high school kids hung three nooses from its boughs when a black student tried to break years of unspoken segregation by sitting under it. Violence erupted in the tiny town when school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt lessened the students’ expulsion to just three days’ suspension.

There was a fire at the school. When black students protested the suspensions, La Salle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

He got his chance.

After fights between teens broke out both on and off school property, six black youth were charged with second-degree murder, though charges have been lessened for two of them and dropped for one. No whites were charged, even though one white student pulled a shotgun on a group of blacks. When the black kids took the gun away, Walters interpreted it as theft.

The first trial took place this month, when 16-year-old Mychal Bell was convicted of aggravated battery – his sneakers were considered by the courts as a deadly weapon – and conspiracy. Bell, who was a star on the high school’s football team, was tried as an adult.

A state appeals judge has thrown out Bell’s conspiracy and battery convictions on the grounds that he should have been tried as a minor – this after Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and dozens of other protest groups, have planned a march on the town. The rest of the “Jena 6” still await trial.

And all of a sudden a lot of people care about Jena, La., that bucolic idyll where the river meets the lake. On Sept. 20, there should be thousands clogging its rural streets, demanding justice, clamoring for equal rights and insisting that Jena, La. joins the rest of us in contemporary America – or, at least, treats everyone as equals under the law.

Because hate and ignorance are anything but quaint.

This part of Louisiana sometimes gets a bad name as one of the last bastions of Deep South culture. There is Klan there, to be sure – David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard, carried La Salle Parish in his 1991 run for state governor – and the kinds of attitudes towards race that keep the nation as a whole mired in conflict.

But Jena – indeed, all of Louisiana and, for that matter, the South – is not monolithic. There is goodness in Jena, just as there is goodness in every community, from the penthouse to the projects. But right now it is being held at bay by arcane dispositions and blind hate.

We should care about Jena, La. if we are serious about equality and freedom. We should remember about the events that took place there anytime we think that justice is universal, that the fight against racism is done.

We should care about Jena because it is a part of America. They are us and we are them. And if it can happen there, what is to stop it from happening somewhere else? Who will stand and say, “No more”?

And on Thursday, thousands will descend on the tiny town to encourage justice to rear her head.

For information about the case, to contribute to the Jena 6 legal fund or to partcipate in the Jena demonstrations on Sept. 20 go to colorofchange.org.

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