I read this scathing denunciation of the GOP from a hotel room in Washington, DC. I appreciate the fact that Bob Herbert has finally directed his attention to the Jena story, even if he merely uses it as what columnists call a “media hook”. Herbert could have brought the Jena story to the attention of mainstream, liberal America months ago, but he chose not to. (Herbert, some of you may recall, set a fire under the Tulia story with a string of columns in 2002). In fact, the New York Times virtually ignored this story until it got so big they had to put it on the front page. This is tragic because, thanks to Randy Credico and the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, the New York Times brought the Tulia story to national attention two years before Mr. Herbert’s influential work.
For several weeks now, I have been doing an average of two interviews a day on the Jena mess. Yesterday, I was talking to a radio talk show host in DC while I settled into my seat on the plane–the interview ended when the pilot told us to kill our cell phones. Everybody wants to know why the mainstream, allegedly “liberal” media has been so slow to pick up on Jena. Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune and CNN are blessed exceptions, but, as a general rule, the big boys and girls of the Fourth Estate fumbled this story badly. How come?
The answer is obvious: at first glance, this is a story about six black guys beating the crap out of a white guy. The Jena saga begins with a graphic and rivetting image: nooses dangling from a “white tree”; but it ends with lurid photographs of Justin Barker’s swollen eyes. That’s not an image white Americans (be they ever so liberal) like to promote.
My critics argue that, had this been a story about six white boys being charged with attempted murder for mugging a black student, people like me would be calling for the death penalty. This will always remain a hypothetical. It is inconceivable in our America that white students would face such draconian charges–it simply couldn’t happen. And even if the six white boys were so charged, they would never be tried by an all-black jury. In Jena, as in both American towns, white defendants are tried by white juries–so are black and Latino defendants.
This story captivates the black imagination because, properly told, it is a story about white guys mugging a defenseless black guy. Short days before Justin Barker was assaulted at Jena High School, Robert Bailey Jr. (now one of the Jena 6) was attacked by a savage white mob at a local dance. True, he wasn’t knocked unconscious–but that is just a matter of aim and good fortune. He was punched, he was kicked, and he was smacked over the head with a beer bottle (he’s got the scars to prove it).
Robert Bailey’s twenty-two year-old assailant was charged with misdemeanor battery. Had Justin Barker’s assailants been similarly charged, I never would have touched this case and it wouldn’t be gracing the pages of the New York Times (Paul Krugman kicked off an excellent column on southern racism with the Jena saga yesterday morning).
African Americans immediately notice that only one of Robert Bailey’s white assailants was charged. What happened to the rest of the kids? The case was hardly investigated. Eye witnesses were not questioned. After all, the black kid had strayed onto white turf–he didn’t know his place.
This story may have been shaped by a white guy (me) and introduced to the world by white guys (Howard Witt, Jordan Flaherty, Bill Quigley, Tom Mangold of the BBC); but it didn’t become a phenomenon until it came to the attention of black bloggers and radio talk show hosts. Black America (conservative and liberal) understands this story; white America still doesn’t know what to do with it.
None of this should be construed as a tacit admission that the Jena 6 are guilty as charged. The evidence against Mychal Bell (his much lamented juvenile record notwithstanding) is so weak that any motivated attorney could have won a grudging aquittal–even from an all-white jury in Jena. The evidence against the other defendants varies greatly. One defendant hasn’t even been arraigned because the evidence against him is virtually non-existant and Reed Walters doesn’t want to give his critics a moral victory by dropping the charges.
It would probably have been equally difficult to identify Robert Bailey’s attackers. The primary assailant wasn’t hard to identify because he kept attacking Robert even after he had been restrained by adult chaperones. Had eyewitness statements been requested they would likely have been riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions–just like the statements taken in the wake of the assault on Justin Barker.
I am disturbed by the growing tendency of mainstream journalists to jump from the nooses to Justin Barker’s swollen eyes without mentioning the chain of events that link these graphic and disturbing images. We don’t hear about Reed Walter’s pen. We don’t hear about the fire that destroyed the central academic wing of the High School. We don’t hear about Robert Bailey, Jr. getting attacked at a dance. We don’t hear about a white youth threatening black youth with a shotgun outside the Gotta Go convenience store. We don’t hear about Justin Barker and his buddies talking trash with black students during the lunch hour.
In fact, many journalists have latched onto US Attorney Donald Washington’s bizarre claim that there is no discernible link between the noose incident and the assault on Justin Barker. Anyone familiar with the facts of this story can only gasp in disbelief at this suggestion. But most journalists don’t know the facts. Last Friday, on the LaSalle Parish Courthouse lawn, I told an NBC reporter that they needed to get a person of equal prominence to Donald Washington (Charles Ogletree?) to rebut his allegations. The man was unimpressed. “He’s got access to the evidence,” he replied. “Who else knows as much about the story?”
I told him I had access to all the facts Washington had seen. To prove it, I began rattling off the disturbing undeniable links between the nooses and the swollen eyes. “You’re kidding me,” the man said. “Really?” “Oh my God, I hadn’t heard that.” This is the guy who was helping to shape the story for the NBC Nightly News!
The Jena story has revealed a wide and gaping chasm between the perceptions and instincts of white and black Americans. This perception gap is as significant as it is troubling. Black America was right about the war in Iraq. Black America is right about Jena. Perception is rooted in personal and painful experience; few white Americans have been impacted by the inequities at the heart of our criminal justice system. The folks who came to Jena brought their scars with them. No surprise that you had to scan the crowd for a single white face.