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Media myths about the Jena 6

Craig Lamson

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Media myths about the Jena 6

A local journalist tells the story you haven't heard.

By Craig Franklin

Jena, La.

By now, almost everyone in America has heard of Jena, La., because they've all heard the story of the "Jena 6." White students hanging nooses barely punished, a schoolyard fight, excessive punishment for the six black attackers, racist local officials, public outrage and protests – the outside media made sure everyone knew the basics.

There's just one problem: The media got most of the basics wrong. In fact, I have never before witnessed such a disgrace in professional journalism. Myths replaced facts, and journalists abdicated their solemn duty to investigate every claim because they were seduced by a powerfully appealing but false narrative of racial injustice.

I should know. I live in Jena. My wife has taught at Jena High School for many years. And most important, I am probably the only reporter who has covered these events from the very beginning.

The reason the Jena cases have been propelled into the world spotlight is two-fold: First, because local officials did not speak publicly early on about the true events of the past year, the media simply formed their stories based on one-side's statements – the Jena 6. Second, the media were downright lazy in their efforts to find the truth. Often, they simply reported what they'd read on blogs, which expressed only one side of the issue.

The real story of Jena and the Jena 6 is quite different from what the national media presented. It's time to set the record straight.

Myth 1: The Whites-Only Tree. There has never been a "whites-only" tree at Jena High School. Students of all races sat underneath this tree. When a student asked during an assembly at the start of school last year if anyone could sit under the tree, it evoked laughter from everyone present – blacks and whites. As reported by students in the assembly, the question was asked to make a joke and to drag out the assembly and avoid class.

Myth 2: Nooses a Signal to Black Students. An investigation by school officials, police, and an FBI agent revealed the true motivation behind the placing of two nooses in the tree the day after the assembly. According to the expulsion committee, the crudely constructed nooses were not aimed at black students. Instead, they were understood to be a prank by three white students aimed at their fellow white friends, members of the school rodeo team. (The students apparently got the idea from watching episodes of "Lonesome Dove.") The committee further concluded that the three young teens had no knowledge that nooses symbolize the terrible legacy of the lynchings of countless blacks in American history. When informed of this history by school officials, they became visibly remorseful because they had many black friends. Another myth concerns their punishment, which was not a three-day suspension, but rather nine days at an alternative facility followed by two weeks of in-school suspension, Saturday detentions, attendance at Discipline Court, and evaluation by licensed mental-health professionals. The students who hung the nooses have not publicly come forward to give their version of events.

Myth 3: Nooses Were a Hate Crime. Although many believe the three white students should have been prosecuted for a hate crime for hanging the nooses, the incident did not meet the legal criteria for a federal hate crime. It also did not meet the standard for Louisiana's hate-crime statute, and though widely condemned by all officials, there was no crime to charge the youths with.

Myth 4: DA's Threat to Black Students. When District Attorney Reed Walters spoke to Jena High students at an assembly in September, he did not tell black students that he could make their life miserable with "the stroke of a pen." Instead, according to Walters, "two or three girls, white girls, were chit-chatting on their cellphones or playing with their cellphones right in the middle of my dissertation. I got a little irritated at them and said, 'Pay attention to me. I am right now having to deal with an aggravated rape case where I've got to decide whether the death penalty applies or not.' I said, 'Look, I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. With the stroke of a pen I can make your life miserable so I want you to call me before you do something stupid.'"

Mr. Walters had been called to the assembly by police, who had been at the school earlier that day dealing with some students who were causing disturbances. Teachers and students have confirmed Walters's version of events.

Myth 5: The Fair Barn Party Incident. On Dec. 1, 2006, a private party – not an all-white party as reported – was held at the local community center called the Fair Barn. Robert Bailey Jr., soon to be one of the Jena 6, came to the party with others seeking admittance.

When they were denied entrance by the renter of the facility, a white male named Justin Sloan (not a Jena High student) at the party attacked Bailey and hit him in the face with his fist. This is reported in witness statements to police, including the victim, Robert Bailey, Jr.

Months later, Bailey contended he was hit in the head with a beer bottle and required stitches. No medical records show this ever occurred. Mr. Sloan was prosecuted for simple battery, which according to Louisiana law, is the proper charge for hitting someone with a fist.

Myth 6: The "Gotta-Go" Grocery Incident. On Dec. 2, 2006, Bailey and two other black Jena High students were involved in an altercation at this local convenience store, stemming from the incident that occurred the night before. The three were accused by police of jumping a white man as he entered the store and stealing a shotgun from him. The two parties gave conflicting statements to police. However, two unrelated eye witnesses of the event gave statements that corresponded with that of the white male.

Myth 7: The Schoolyard Fight. The event on Dec. 4, 2006 was consistently labeled a "schoolyard fight." But witnesses described something much more horrific. Several black students, including those now known as the Jena 6, barricaded an exit to the school's gym as they lay in wait for Justin Barker to exit. (It remains unclear why Mr. Barker was specifically targeted.)

When Barker tried to leave through another exit, court testimony indicates, he was hit from behind by Mychal Bell. Multiple witnesses confirmed that Barker was immediately knocked unconscious and lay on the floor defenseless as several other black students joined together to kick and stomp him, with most of the blows striking his head. Police speculate that the motivation for the attack was related to the racially charged fights that had occurred during the previous weekend.

Myth 8: The Attack Is Linked to the Nooses. Nowhere in any of the evidence, including statements by witnesses and defendants, is there any reference to the noose incident that occurred three months prior. This was confirmed by the United States attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, Donald Washington, on numerous occasions.

Myth 9: Mychal Bell's All-White Jury. While it is true that Mychal Bell was convicted as an adult by an all-white jury in June (a conviction that was later overturned with his case sent to juvenile court), the jury selection process was completely legal and withstood an investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Court officials insist that several black residents were summoned for jury duty, but did not appear.

Myth 10: Jena 6 as Model Youth. While some members were simply caught up in the moment, others had criminal records. Bell had at least four prior violent-crime arrests before the December attack, and was on probation during most of this year.

Myth 11: Jena Is One of the Most Racist Towns in America. Actually, Jena is a wonderful place to live for both whites and blacks. The media's distortion and outright lies concerning the case have given this rural Louisiana town a label it doesn't deserve.

Myth 12: Two Levels of Justice. Outside protesters were convinced that the prosecution of the Jena 6 was proof of a racially biased system of justice. But the US Justice Department's investigation found no evidence to support such a claim. In fact, the percentage of blacks and whites prosecuted matches the parish's population statistics.

These are just 12 of many myths that are portrayed as fact in the media concerning the Jena cases. (A more thorough review of all events can be found at www.thejenatimes.net – click on Chronological Order of Events.)

As with the Duke Lacrosse case, the truth about Jena will eventually be known. But the town of Jena isn't expecting any apologies from the media. They will probably never admit their error and have already moved on to the next "big" story. Meanwhile in Jena, residents are getting back to their regular routines, where friends are friends regardless of race. Just as it has been all along.

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Thanks Peter, for pointing out that racists like Jackson Lee and Sharpton were simply baiting the gulliable...<removed by Moderator>. The truth will out..eh? LOL!

Craig - no comments about forum members, please. Attack the message, not the messenger. Thank you.

Edited by Evan Burton
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Can't believe we agree on something. Thanks for posting this- it's a travesty the way this story has been distorted by the media and idiots like John Cougar Mellencamp, who wrote a ridiculous song about the "Jena 6," as if they were the latest descendents of Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers. What has been completely lost is the simple fact that the only victim here is the kid who was viciously attacked by a group that included, as you pointed out, several with criminal backgrounds. What kind of absurd world are we living in when a group of thugs who gang up on someone and beat him almost to death are considered heroes?

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the ongoing fight for justice in Jena, Louisiana. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing last Tuesday on the case of the Jena Six. Democratic lawmakers, community activists lambasted federal officials for not intervening, despite the hanging of nooses on the schoolyard tree and District Attorney Reed Walters’s initial charges of second-degree attempted murder against the six African American teenagers for a schoolyard fight. Reed Walters was invited to the hearing but didn’t attend.

Many spoke of a worsening climate of overt racism, citing the recent spate of noose-hanging incidents well beyond Jena. House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers said, "Racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is not unique to any one place, but is found in cities and towns north and south throughout our nation."

This is an excerpt of civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton’s testimony last Tuesday.

REV. AL SHARPTON: What I would beseech this committee to look into the fact that Jena is all over this country. It’s hangman nooses at Columbia University in New York. It’s even a hangman noose at the site of 9/11. It’s in North Carolina. It’s in California. All kinds of reports.

And what has been most troubling is the silence of the federal government in the face of this. Now, this is bipartisan. In the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower sent the federal government into Little Rock. John Kennedy sent in the federal government, and the Justice Department was involved. So did Lyndon Johnson. What has happened in Jena and what has happened all over this country, we have not heard one federal response. It is almost like the national government is not in the country while we're watching nooses on the news every night, while we’re watching hate crimes. And if we can’t appeal to the federal government, where can we go?

It has been rationalized by those in Jena, some, that these nooses was a prank. A prank to who? Grandchildren of people who saw their grandparents hang on nooses? If there is a prank, if there is a joke, the joke is, if we can represent to the world that we're the land of the free and the home of the brave, but we can’t protect youngsters in Jena, Louisiana, and we can’t stop people from hanging nooses, and our federal government, after fifty years of bipartisan tradition of protecting people from states’ rights, has now decided it can no longer protect people from states that decide they can prosecute some sixteen-year-olds, if they’re black, as adults, but can’t process other sixteen-year-olds if they're white, same age, but they qualify as juveniles.

Do we want harmony? Absolutely. Do we want the races to come together? Absolutely. But you cannot achieve racial justice by getting a premature racial quiet. There’s a difference between “peace” and “quiet,” Mr. Chairman. “Quiet” means shut up and allow a two-tier justice system to continue to exist. “Justice” means, we must have an even playing field. And the Justice Department, at the behest of this committee, needs to step into Jena and the Jenas of this country and establish that the federal government is still in charge, and the states did not win the Civil War.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Reverend Al Sharpton testifying before Congress. Donald Washington is the US attorney for Louisiana’s Western District. He visited Jena last year, concluding the hanging of the nooses was not a hate crime. This is Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, questioning Washington.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: September 2006, three nooses were found hanging, and the principal said, “Let's expel them.” They were then -- the students were suspended. Then, in the fall, we had a series of fights between black and white students. In late November, arsonists set fire to the school’s building. A white student beats up a black student who shows up at an all-white party. And my understanding is that a shotgun was pulled by a white man on three black students at a convenience store. Let me ask the chairman to put into the record, the US attorney: nooses, beating at Jena High, not related; nooses, incidents evoke segregation. Right now I’m going to ask you -- and I’d like the people that are called to answer this question --

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Without objection, this will be introduced into the record.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I thank you, Mr. Chairman. I thank you. You stated on the record that nooses equal hate crimes. I’m asking you now, first of all, to go back to Jena, Louisiana, in the symbolic position that you hold, one, because you merited appointment, but you are the first black Western District US attorney, and I’m asking you to go back, and I’m asking you to find a way to release Mychal Bell and the Jena Six.

My question that goes down the road: I want to know why, in the course of meetings of local district attorneys, why you didn’t engage with Mr. Reed Walters, who may be subject to prosecutorial abuse, and confer with him and say, “Mr. Walters, this is not the way to handle this case. I can see disparate treatment by white students being suspended back in school and by Mr. Bell being still in jail on an offense that he served ten months for, ten months, and therefore, the judge, the juvenile judge, could have said, ‘Time served,’ and he could have been released.” I want you to tell me why you didn’t engage with the DA, and I want you to tell me what you're going to do now.

Reverend, I’d like you to tell me what -- how they treated us when they came there. And, Dr. Ogletree, please tell me what federal action, legally and legislatively, that we can have.

Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene, not by way of the legal system, but the consultation that the US attorneys have with the local district attorneys. Why didn't you intervene? These broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken the symbolic responsibility that you have, being the first African American appointed to the Western District. I don’t know what else to say. I am outraged! And that’s why my voice is going up like this. Literally outraged!

AMY GOODMAN: Minnesota Congressmember Keith Ellison sharply questioned Washington at Tuesday’s hearing. During the questioning, Ellison also turns to Reverend Brian Moran from the Antioch Baptist Church in Jena, Louisiana.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: In the course of this -- my time on this committee, we have dealt with eight US attorneys who were fired because they did not slavishly obey the dictates of the Bush Justice Department. And we had some people who got promoted, benefits accrued to them, because they did do what the Justice Department wanted them to do under Gonzales and Bush. You still have a job, don't you?


REP. KEITH ELLISON: And I almost fell off my chair when you invoked the name of Martin Luther King to say that you are somehow the culmination of his work. Sir, I would expect you to quit in protest, based on that -- based on your inability to use your discretionary latitude to charge these noose hangers. That’s what I would expect of somebody who is truly in fidelity with that great legacy of Martin Luther King.

Let me say that, you know, Jena Six is obviously the occasion that we’re here, but, you know, for those folks who are not from Jena, you know and I know that we’re outraged because we all have some Jena Sixes. We got some Minnesota Jena Sixes. You know, the fact is, is that nationally, according to the testimony of Professor Ogletree, black students are 2.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Overall, the numbers of students being suspended each year increased due to tough zero-tolerance policies. But that’s just school discipline. The fact is, juvenile justice data mirrored disparities in the school. 2003, African American youth were detained at a rate of four to five times higher than that of their white counterparts.

Aside from the issue of the civil rights decision and the hate crimes stuff, what about black youth and Latino youth in the criminal justice system and the over-incarceration of black people? We live in a country that incarcerates more than two million people. Don't we have a system that is essentially using the legal -- the criminal justice system to do what the Jim Crow system did in the past? Isn’t this just an extension?

But I just wanted to just go back to this eight US attorneys thing, because this has taken up a lot of time here. And one of the things that always concerned me is not just the eight who were fired because they wouldn’t do -- because they wouldn’t bring fake voting rights cases, but the people who stayed and kept their jobs. These people are the ones who I’m truly concerned about. And I guess, you know, one of the things that I would like to know is, Mr. Washington, have you prosecuted other juveniles in your tenure as US attorney? Have you prosecuted other juveniles?


REP. KEITH ELLISON: You’ve never -- because, let me tell you, I’ve defended juveniles in federal court.

DONALD WASHINGTON: Yeah, well, I don’t --

REP. KEITH ELLISON: No, let me tell you, sir, I’ve been -- I spent sixteen years as a criminal defense attorney, and I’ve tried over a hundred cases to a jury, and I’ve defended juveniles in federal court. So you can’t tell me that the federal government doesn’t prosecute -- you prosecute them for having five grams of crack cocaine.


REP. KEITH ELLISON: You told me -- no, you put them in jail for that. You know, we have incarcerated generations over your drug war. And I say it’s yours, because you will not step away from an unfair system. And, you know, but what about the selective justice? You’re telling me you have never prosecuted a juvenile. We’re going to find out. Is that your statement under -- is that your statement before Congress?

DONALD WASHINGTON: In my district. And you are asking me, I guess, about the Department of Justice, and I cannot speak to whether or when or how we prosecuted juveniles --

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Right. Well, let me just say this, Mr. Washington. You know, you’ve been on record saying that you believe that the noose hangers didn’t commit a crime, and now you’re saying today that they did. I’m glad to see that, and I want to give you credit for that. Have you changed your mind? Does that explain your change in testimony?

DONALD WASHINGTON: I don’t believe so, sir.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Have you come to see the light? Is that why you’re saying that it’s a crime today?

DONALD WASHINGTON: I don’t think I’ve changed my testimony.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, you changed your statement; do you agree with that?

DONALD WASHINGTON: I don’t think so.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: OK, well, I guess the reverend seems to have another alternative -- another viewpoint. Reverend Moran, do you have another thing you’d like to share on that?

REV. BRIAN MORAN: Well, I think a gun on school property is a federal offense, is it not?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: I think that it certainly could be. What about that case about the guy having a gun pointed at --

REV. BRIAN MORAN: Justin Barker, the one that was accused of being jumped on at the school.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Had a gun at school?

REV. BRIAN MORAN: Yeah, he had a gun -- a loaded gun.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Did he get prosecuted by a US attorney? Oh.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Or by the local district attorney.


REP. KEITH ELLISON: Or by nobody.


REP. KEITH ELLISON: You know, if you claim to be a beneficiary of the work of Martin Luther King, you’ve got to stand on that. You can’t just -- it’s not a matter of career advancement. Martin Luther King did not do his work so you could get a Lexus and a nice house. It’s not just a matter of your own career advancement and buying consumer items. It is fidelity to a set of ideas.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Keith Ellison, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the Congress member, as we turn now to Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, who also testified about race relations in Jena and beyond at the hearing. This is an excerpt of what he said.

CHARLES OGLETREE: There is a sign over the courthouse in Florida that has a useful epithet. It says the court is where the injured flock for justice. And it reminds me of how the people in Jena today are wondering: where do they go? Where can they find a sense of justice? Where can they be treated not better, not differently, but just fairly?

This incident that we have been talking about is a microcosm of a larger set of incidents that have occurred in Jena. And yet, what occurred in Jena in 2006 is not isolated. It’s not different than what happened to Genarlow Wilson in Georgia or what’s happened in West Virginia, at the University of Maryland, and Hempstead, New York, at Columbia University. And the irony is that just a year ago I wrote a book with Professor Austin Sarat called From the Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America, looking back at the history of these incidents with the idea that, thank god, we're not there anymore. And it’s ironic that one year after this book is published, looking at issues of lynching --

AMY GOODMAN: That was Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on the Jena Six.

from: www.democracynow.org Oct 22, 07

SO were is the Reverend Al and his ilk showing outrage over this example of blatant racism? Oh wait, the victims were white and the bad guy black.....



Jordan, the city's first African-American district attorney, violated employment discrimination laws when after taking office he ordered the wholesale firing of white employees and replaced almost all of them with black workers, a jury found more than two years ago.


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