Demons and angels wrestle in Jena

The first anniversary of the historic march on Jena stirred hardly a ripple of interest in the mainstream media, but has received significant attention in the regional press.  This article in the Monroe paper slipped my attention when it appeared two weeks ago, but it is well worth reading.

Two men celebrate the nine-week religious revival that swept through Jena last year: the Rev. Jimmy Young and DA Reed Walters.

Accordingtto Rev. Young, the events of last year broke Jena wide open, revealing long-simmering problems and pointing the way to a better future.   “This blowing up brought the issues to everyone’s attention,” Young said. “It wasn’t a problem to some because the way things were happening was the way things had always been done. But now people know those things may not have been right. And we aren’t going back to doing everything the way we always did.”

Reed Walters is also thrilled with the revival that began in Midway Baptist Church, his home congregation, and spread to other churches in Jena.  But his assessment of the background issues stands in stark contrast to the words of Rev. Young:

“There is a popular misconception that we had racial problems, and I don’t think that was ever accurate. But this past spring – and I think this was as an offshoot of the case – a spirit of religious revivalism came over the community and that has brought people together in a way I’ve never seen before. It started in my own church in February and, without any coordinated advance planning, spread to other churches. We had black people and white people coming together night after night to worship and communicate. And it’s left us a stronger, more tight-knit community.”

The Rev.  Lyndle Bullard, pastor of Nolley Memorial United Methodist Church, shares Walters’ enthusiasm, but his understanding of the background issues is much closer to the views of Rev. Young.  While most Jena businesses closed down the day of the massive rally in Jena, Bullard encouraged his congregation to open its doors to the protesters. 

“I think the events of Sept. 20 changed my church,” Bullard said of the rally. “I think it scared them at first that we were opening up the church, but when nothing happened to the church and they came up and spoke to the people who came, it opened up their hearts. Wonderful is the only way I can describe it.” 

Did the march on Jena open the way to a new civil rights movement?  When reporter Abbey Brown asked me this question I was forced to answer in the negative. 

“The main impact the controversy has had on the Jena Six is at the courthouse,” said Alan Bean, the founder of Texas-based Friends of Justice. “They have first-rate legal representation, which means the legal system will operate differently than it normally would. I think they’d all be in prison right now if we hadn’t intervened.”

But as far as the events of a year ago today being the beginnings of a new civil rights era, they aren’t. They could have been, Bean said, but instead it became a one-time demonstration.

“I think the demonstration showed the concerns of black America with the justice system, although most didn’t have a solid grasp of the facts in Jena,” he said. “Instead, most came because of a personal experience, a concern about the justice system.”

If the Jena Six case was looked at to point out the systemic issues – if we have a truly fair and equal justice system – rather than a case about six kids, it could have become a movement. But when civil rights celebrities like the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved, the message shifted, Bean said.

Because Sharpton and Jackson focused all their attention on the alleged racism of local officials, Jena never became a symbol of what many call “the school to prison pipeline.” 

As pastors Young and Bullard understand, racism was always at the heart of the Jena story.  By refusing to call a hate crime by its proper name, public officials validated the de facto segregation that had been in effect at the High School since its grudging integration in 1970.  When black students protested, Reed Walters came to the school auditorium, waved his pen in the air, and reminded his audience that, “With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.”

To many students, black and white, it seemedthe prosecutor was taking sides.  The school superintendent had dismissed the noose hanging incident as a childish prank and now the most powerful public official in LaSalle Parish was endorsing that verdict.

Al Sharpton argued that the white students who hung the nooses should have been tried as hate criminals and packed off to prison. 

I strenuously disagree.   

Prison time is almost always a poor response to boneheaded adolescent behavior.  Transforming the noose hangers into felons would have marked these confused young men for life and taught them nothing. 

Charging the Jena 6 with attempted murder threatened to have the same effect.  These kids would be currently be serving 25 year stretches in the state penitentiary without parole if Friends of Justice hadn’t intervened.  Reed Walters swore defiantly that he would be seeking the maximum penalities allowed by law and he was deadly serious. 

No Jena High students should have been packed off to prison for their involvement in the Jena fiasco.  Like the hanging of nooses, the beating of Justin Barker called for a strong disciplinary response (juvenile probation, perhaps).  But you can’t consider the legal issues until you understand that public officials who should have known better intensified the racial animus between black athletes and rural white students. 

The criminal justice system had no good answers for Jena’s racial issues.  In fact, that system, represented by Reed Walters, helped shape the tragic events of December 4th, 2006.   With a wave of his pen, Walters transformed a teachable moment into a deadly power struggle. 

Walters didn’t see any racism at Jena High in the autumn of 2006.  In a school assembly at the beginning of the academic year, a black freshman asked if he could sit under a tree that had traditionally been the reserve of white students.  The principal said he could.  The black student and a few of his friends tested out their new freedom.  The next morning nooses were hanging from that tree.

Like the folks commenting on the article (click on the link, and you will see what I mean), Reed Walters can’t see even a glint of racial animus in this flow of events, and Reed Walters’ name is legion. 

Stephen Colbert frequently asks his guests to designate their race because, “I can’t see color.  They tell me you are black, but I just can’t see it.”

Walters’ response to Jena’s infamous nooses reflects the same warped sensibility–except Walters means it. 

How amazing, then, that Walters and his real-world colleagues can celebrate the new spirit of racial openness in their community.  Jena has it’s share of demons, but angels abound as well.  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.

‘Jena Six’ rattled community, taught lessons

JENA – On Sept. 19, 2007, dread hung in the air. Chants of “Free the Jena Six” hadn’t been started by the thousands bused in the next day to Jena, but fear and chaos reigned as town and law enforcement officials braced for the worst.

The Jena Six are six black teenagers charged as adults with the Dec. 4, 2006, beating of a fellow student at Jena High School. The victim, Justin Barker, is white. They were originally charged with attempted murder. Ultimately that charge was reduced against all six, but not before a Sept. 20, 2007, protest rally that drew thousands of people from all over the country to Jena.

But Friday – just shy of a year later – there was no evidence of that fear or the thousands marching in the streets on Sept. 20, 2007.

It was serene, the courthouse lawn empty.

Traffic flowed easily.

But what is evident are the lessons learned since that day and the impact the rally had on the community, those involved in the case and the nation.

“This community has really come together through all this,” the Rev. Jimmy Young said of Jena over the past year. “Both races are sitting together on porches. They are dining at each other’s homes. They are embracing at Wal-Mart. That’s what this is all about. Bringing people together.”

Young, the minister at Jena’s L and A Baptist Church, said he thinks 75 to 80 percent of Jena may not have seen any kind of racial strife in the community and thought everything was fine before Sept. 20, 2007.

“This blowing up brought the issues to everyone’s attention,” Young said. “It wasn’t a problem to some because the way things were happening was the way things had always been done. But now people know those things may not have been right. And we aren’t going back to doing everything the way we always did.”

The Rev. Lyndle Bullard said Jena residents made three big mistakes in the early stages of responding to what was going on around them.

“First, we shut up,” he said, pointing out that many in the community clammed up and refused to talk to the media about their community – good or bad.

“The second was we tried to defend ourselves. And the truth got so mixed up there was no way to hone in on what we thought we were defending. And the third thing is we didn’t do anything to respond to what was happening.”

But not anymore, the minister of Jena’s Nolley Memorial United Methodist said. They learned from that and are proactively finding out what the community needs and addressing those needs.

“I think the events of Sept. 20 changed my church,” Bullard said of the rally. “I think it scared them at first that we were opening up the church, but when nothing happened to the church and they came up and spoke to the people who came, it opened up their hearts. Wonderful is the only way I can describe it.”

Lasting effects?
Many have said there was little to no impact of the rally on the Jena Six’s cases, community or nation. Others say that impact – even a year later – is being felt.

“The main impact the controversy has had on the Jena Six is at the courthouse,” said Alan Bean, the founder of Texas-based Friends of Justice. “They have a first-rate legal representation, which means the legal system will operate differently than it normally would. I think they’d all be in prison right now if they hadn’t intervened.”

But as far as the events of a year ago today being the beginnings of a new civil rights era, they aren’t. They could have been, Bean said, but instead it became a one-time demonstration.

“I think the demonstration showed the concerns of black America with the justice system, although most didn’t have a solid grasp of the facts in Jena,” he said. “Instead, most came because of a personal experience, a concern about the justice system.”

If the Jena Six case was looked at to point out the systemic issues – if we have a truly fair and equal justice system – rather than a case about six kids, it could have become a movement. But when civil rights celebrities like the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved, the message shifted, Bean said.

Evelyn Talley, owner of Jena Java, said she’s seen some lasting effects of the situation, not all positive.

“It was shocking to see how many people were espousing hate and victimization toward the city without doing their homework,” Talley said of what the community faced in light of the events of Sept. 20, 2007.

She said where the community was completely relaxed and comfortable before, the presence of the outside world looking at Jena with a microscope has thrown the pendulum the opposite way.

She opened the downtown coffee shop in response to the controversy. She wanted to give the community’s youth a safe place to come together.

Young said he certainly recognizes the importance of 20,000-plus marching through Jena but is glad there will be a positive celebration of that event through the communitywidechurch services tonight and Sunday night. Plans for a reunion rally by some outside groups are also in the works for today, although no details have officially been released.

‘Shines a spotlight’
Nooses were found hanging from an old oak tree at Jena High School more than two years ago.

But since that September morning, all evidence of the tree – the same tree some media outlets dubbed the “white tree” – has been destroyed. It’s been uprooted and the hole left behind filled. Soon the school’s new construction will cover the spot where the tree once stood.

But hopefully the tree’s absence doesn’t speak to an absence of the lessons that should have come from the hate symbol making an appearance on that tree, many have said.

The direct link between the nooses and the assault on Barker months later is disputed, but both events have caused reflection and change throughout Jena, central Louisiana and the nation.

“People throughout the United States were horrified that such behavior existed in the 21st century,” Carol Powell-Lexing, an attorney representing Jena Six defendant Mychal Bell, said of the nooses. “But it shines a spotlight on the fact that there are still pockets or areas that hold racism in their heart.”

Bean said the assault on Barker never would have happened if the noose incident had been handled properly. Many expressed disgust when the teens who hung the nooses weren’t criminally charged. The school punished them.

LaSalleParish District Attorney Reed Walters had said there wasn’t a state law that he could charge the youths with in the nooses incident. U.S. Attorney Donald Washington of the Western District of Louisiana decided against pressing any federal hate crime charges against the youths as the case just wasn’t there, he’s said.

Since then, Louisiana has passed a hate crime law specifically addresses nooses.

Louis Scott, another attorney representing Bell, said displays of hate symbols should never be treated as just “childish playfulness.”

“If we close our eyes to it, it will become much worse,” he said. “For people who were racist, those nooses were a resurgence of an old symbol. For people who weren’t aware of that, it allowed them to discover racism in their neighbors, friends or colleagues and allowed them to deal with those feelings and make some positive changes.”

School officials have said the teens who hung the nooses were unaware of their connection to racial hate and that instead the nooses were affiliated with old western movies.

After the Sept. 20, 2007 rally, there was a rash of sightings of nooses across the country.

A Grant Parish teen was convicted in federal court in connection with driving around in Alexandria the night of the rally with nooses tied to the back of his truck.

“I could call what happened as educational,” Scott said of the nooses being found. “But all lessons learned are not easy lessons. Kids over a period of time tend to think that things that are dangerous are not. Kids need to learn about things that are historically dangerous like nooses, (the “n word”), crosses (burning) and swastikas.

“So just like you teach a child about the dangers of snakes, you need to teach them about these dangers.”

Religion plays role
Nearly everyone you talk to in Jena credits faith and religion for the community’s evolution and ability to weather the storm that came with such events like the rally and the national media converging on Jena.

A nine-week revival earlier this year, that started out as a one-week event at one church, evolved to include the entire community and all churches. Because it drew hundreds of people nightly, sessions had to be moved to larger venues, like Jena High School.

“I don’t think this case itself has changed the community,” Walters said. “There is a popular misconception that we had racial problems, and I don’t think that was ever accurate. But this past spring – and I think this was as an offshoot of the case – a spirit of religious revivalism came over the community and that has brought people together in a way I’ve never seen before.

“It started in my own church in February and, without any coordinated advance planning, spread to other churches. We had black people and white people coming together night after night to worship and communicate. And it’s left us a stronger, more tight-knit community.”

Young and Bullard cited programs started by the ministerial alliance that have helped bring the community even closer and heal any rifts that may have existed before or that were created through the events.

“The revival is one of the greatest things to happen to any city,” Young said.

Bullardsaid he’s proud to be in Jena and proud to be a part of the community’s evolution. And they’ve been awarded opportunities in light of what happened that would have never been given to Jena, like the Department of Justice’s Spirit program that is working with Jena High students to help them resolve issues independently.

Young said Jena has come a long way through all this, although it still has a long way to go.

“In every city and state in this union, we have the problems we have here,” Young said. “No legislation can be passed, no law made, to make people love one another. The only way is to change their heart through God. And that has happened here. I think we’ve done well. I think we took the right steps for the positive changes to take place.”

2 thoughts on “Demons and angels wrestle in Jena

  1. Dear LaSalle native:
    You are more than welcome to post whatever information you wish. I have generally avoided reporting on the behavior of the defendants, their families, Justin Barker and his family and other actors in this story unless it is directly related to the events between September and December of 2006. When Mr. Barker was disciplined for (unwittingly) bringing a firearm to school I ignored the story because it had no bearing on the legal plight of the Jena 6. Anyone who has followed this story closely knows that certain individuals associated with the case have issues. If I thought these issues were relevant I would address them.

  2. Find the truth and let it be heard..
    “directly related to the events between September and December of 2006”

    Still waiting……….

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