Author: Alan Bean

John Mellencamp Isn’t the Problem

Friends of Justice didn’t stand up for the Jena 6 because we approve of school yard violence. We issued a demand that these cases be transferred out of LaSalle Parish and out of the hands of Judge JP Mauffray and prosecutor Reed Walters. It was neither fair nor appropriate, we argued, that the community that created the context for the assault on Justin Barker should now be adjudicating the fate of his alleged assailants.

In this short piece, Tom Head extends the same argument to town mayor Murphy McMillin.

http://racerelations.about.com/b/a/257608.htm

John Mellencamp Isn’t the Problem

by Tom Head, About.com Guide to Civil Liberties

John Mellencamp
Photo:

Imagine you’re the mayor of Jena, a small Louisiana town made famous for a series of unprosecuted white-on-black beatings followed by a ludicrously over-the-top prosecution of a black-on-white beating. Basic issues of moral decency and social justice aside, which is the more serious PR problem?

  1. John Mellencamp just released a video comparing the Jena Six trials to the show trials and lynchings of the pre-civil rights era.
  2. The town mayor gave an interview in which he thanked a white supremacist group for its “moral support.”

Apparently, Jena mayor Murphy McMillin feels that Mr. Mellencamp is the more serious problem. More than two weeks after telling Mississippi white nationalist Richard Barrett how much he appreciates having people in town during the September 20th rally “opposing the colored folks,” McMillin has made no attempt to apologize or otherwise back away from his remarks.

I’ve been trying very hard to give the mayor of Jena and the district attorney of LaSalle Parish the benefit of the doubt, but every time one of them steps in front of a microphone, they make that task more difficult. Both of them have inflammatory remarks of their own to apologize for. John Mellencamp should be the least of their worries.

Outsiders

This column in the Kansas City Star deals with the role of the outsider in effecting change.  In case you are wondering, the “Tom Bean” referenced below isn’t my evil twin.  Charles Coulter is clearly answering the, “If it hadn’t been for outsiders,” comments made by Jena residents, aided and abbeted by Star columnist Jason Whitlock.  These complaints, says Mr. Coulter, have a familiar ring.

Jena at Columbia

The New York Times may have been hesitant to touch the Jena story, but they have partially redeemed themselves with this report on the noose hanging at Columbia.  Note the sense of outrage the noose hanging inspired in Manhattan and compare that with the “boys-will-be-boys” reaction in Central Louisiana (and, regretably, in some of the comments posted on this blog).  Jena may be America; but Jena is also Jena.

A white girl’s nightmare

Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune was the first American journalist to receive my Jena narrative.  This wasn’t coincidental.  Howard’s reporting on the Shaquanda Cotton story (Paris, Texas) impressed me.  It was another story about a school student sent to juvenile prison (Texas Youth Commission) for shoving a teacher’s aid.  Most journalists wouldn’t have touched that story because, as we all know, students aren’t supposed to shove adults.  But Witt had the sensitivity to know the difference between appropriate punishment and excessive punishment.

The story below suggests that the justice problem transcends race.  America has decided to use prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities as a cure-all.  Regardless of the problem, we want to lock-em-up.  Sometimes there is no alternative to incarceration; but usually there is.

If the noose boys in Jena had been tried and convicted as hate criminals they would likely have done a stretch in a juvenile facility.  If so, there is a good chance they would have experienced the kind of hell described in Witt’s article on a troubled white girl’s tragic encounter with the Texas Youth Commission.

__________

chicagotribune.com

TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE

Girl alleges sex abuse in Texas prison

White teen whose sentence led to uproar over racial disparities says guard molested her

By Howard Witt

Tribune senior correspondent

12:16 PM CDT, October 9, 2007

HOUSTON

When the Chicago Tribune published the story last March of Shaquanda Cotton, the 14-year-old black girl from Paris, Texas, who was imprisoned for shoving a hall monitor at her high school, the article quickly provoked a national civil rights scandal because of apparent racial disparities in the way justice was administered in the small east Texas town.

Shaquanda had no prior arrest record, and the hall monitor was not seriously injured. Yet the teenager was convicted in March 2006 of assault and sentenced by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville to prison for up to 7 years.

Just three months earlier, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl, convicted of the more serious crime of arson, to probation.

The furor that erupted over the disparity in how the two girls were treated prompted Texas authorities to release Shaquanda from prison three weeks after the Tribune article appeared.

This is the story of what happened to the white girl in that saga.

It appears she has suffered a fate far worse than Shaquanda’s.

The emotionally troubled teenager, who has been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, was sent to the same youth prison in Brownwood, Texas, where Shaquanda was incarcerated, because she subsequently violated her probation twice.

While there, the teenager—whom the Tribune is not identifying—was allegedly sexually molested by a male prison guard, who then threatened her to keep her quiet, according to documents and witness statements examined by the Tribune. The girl self-mutilated her arms with a knife, carving the word “Why” into her flesh, her mother said.

Last spring, the girl attempted suicide by swallowing a handful of pills prescribed for another inmate. When a guard rushed into her cell to rescue her, authorities allege, the girl knocked the officer to the ground—an assault that tacked another 6 months onto her sentence.

Even worse, officials at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex knew of allegations that the guard was sexually abusing the girl but did not remove him from contact with female inmates until four months later.

In a letter to the girl’s parents dated Oct. 18, 2006, prison Supt. Teresa Stroud wrote that “a formal investigation has been initiated” into allegations that a prison guard “touched [the girl’s] buttocks and made comments about her anatomy.”

The girl would later tell authorities that she was too frightened to talk to investigators about the incident, and prison officials ruled that the allegation was “unconfirmed,” according to Tim Savoy, a spokesman for the Texas Youth Commission, the state’s juvenile corrections agency.

But on Feb. 24, 2007, another abuse allegation against the same guard surfaced, and he was suspended with pay the same day.

In August, a Brown County, Texas, grand jury indicted the guard, Jaime Segura, 30, on multiple felony counts including sexual assault, indecency with a child, improper sexual activity with a person in custody and official oppression.

Authorities allege that Segura molested other female inmates at the Brownwood youth prison in addition to the Paris teenager. Officials in the Texas attorney general’s office were unable to clarify Monday whether the Paris girl’s case was among those cited in the indictment.

Segura’s arrest came six months after a series of abuse incidents at other Texas Youth Commission facilities exploded into public view in a scandal that rocked the agency and forced the resignation or firing of all of its top leaders. Segura is the fifth guard at the Brownwood facility to face felony charges for allegedly molesting youths incarcerated there as part of this investigation.

Stroud declined to answer questions from the Tribune about why she did not immediately remove Segura from contact with youthful prisoners after he was first alleged to have molested the girl from Paris.

Girl describes alleged abuse

“I can’t explain or try to justify what happened back then,” Savoy, the youth commission spokesman, said. “I can tell you what we do now: If there’s an allegation, they will pull the person away from the kids, either put the guard on suspension or in an area where they will not be around the kids.”

But today, even as the youth commission moves forward with administrative reforms and the abuse scandal recedes into history, the Paris girl, who turned 16 in July, remains locked up in the Brownwood prison, where she has been for the past year. The girl’s assault on the prison guard pushed her earliest possible release date to June of next year; she was originally due to be released Dec. 15.

That assault—and the suicide attempt, the self-mutilation and the girl’s deepened depression—would never have happened if she had not been victimized by a prison guard, the girl’s mother believes.

“I understand there are processes and procedures they need to go through,” said the mother, whom the Tribune is not identifying to protect her daughter’s identity. “I understand [my daughter] needed to take responsibility for her actions and learn from them. But what is happening now is punishment, not rehabilitation. She’s being punished for something that should never have happened to her.”

Last July, during an interview conducted by an investigator from the Texas attorney general’s office, the girl related the details of what she said Segura had done to her, starting just a few days after she arrived at the Brownwood prison in October 2006 at the age of 15.

Among other things, the girl alleged that Segura watched her while she showered, offered her extra food if she would show him her breasts and threatened that she “was not going to like the outcome of it” if she revealed what the guard was doing to her.

“Mr. Segura put his hands up my shirt and grabbed both of my breasts,” the girl wrote in her witness statement. “Mr. Segura rubbed my breasts. I was scared and did not know what to say or do.”

Long before she arrived at the Brownwood youth prison, the Paris girl was emotionally troubled, her mother said. She takes medication for depression and bipolar disorder and has been in and out of alternative schools and special facilities for emotionally disturbed children.

State denies girl’s appeal

In December 2005, the girl set fire to her family’s Paris home and watched it burn to the ground without calling for help—the crime for which Superville initially sentenced her to probation. The girl violated that probation twice, first by skipping school and later by kicking a baby at the home of a relative. The baby was not injured, the girl’s mother said, but the relative filed a complaint, causing Superville to revoke the girl’s probation and send her to the Brownwood prison on an indeterminate sentence.

The abuse the girl allegedly suffered once she got to Brownwood deepened her despondency, her mother said—a point she tried to make when she appealed her daughter’s sentence extension for knocking down the guard who interrupted her suicide attempt.

Texas Youth Commission officials denied that appeal last week, without ever considering the alleged sexual molestation as a potentially mitigating circumstance.

“The information in the file I have does not state what the alleged act of abuse was, who the alleged abuser was, or when the alleged abuse took place,” Doug Wise, an attorney for the Texas Youth Commission, wrote to the girl in a letter explaining the denial of the appeal.

“I don’t want it looking like we’re trying to copycat the attention that Shaquanda got, but I think my daughter’s story needs to be told,” the mother said. “They should take into consideration that she has tried to take her life over this issue. She’s really despondent. She blames herself for what the guard did. She just cannot forgive herself. And she is not receiving any counseling for what the guard did to her.”

Late Monday, after the Tribune published this story on its Web site, state Rep. Harold Dutton, chairman of the Texas Legislature’s juvenile justice committee, said he had contacted Texas Youth Commission officials “to seek an early remedy to this young lady’s situation.”

hwitt@tribune.com

Jesse, Al and the Mainstream Media

This thoughtful article in The New Republic is worthy of careful attention.  Initially, it sounds like just another hateful screed against Sharpton and Jackson; but the analysis goes much deeper than that. 

Mr. Olapade appears to suggest that the black blogosphere got this story first.  But if you click on the link to AfroSpear (the first African American blog to pick up on Jena) you will find that an article by the very white Howard Witt in the Chicago Tribune was the writer’s initial source.  Witt’s account was quickly fleshed out, after a little research, by my blogging and an article by Jordan Flaherty (also a white writer). 

It should also be noted that white folks at CNN also covered the story early on  (researcher Audrey Stewart is primarily responsible for CNN’s considerable coverage of the Jena story).  And then there are the white folks from across the pond who produced the story for the BBC.

The problem isn’t that the mainstream media or white progressive bloggers didn’t know about Jena; the problem is that they didn’t know what to do with it.  As Dayo Olapade suggests, this isn’t about Sharpton and Jackson, pre se; it’s about the fact that the mainstream media won’t take a story about black America seriously until these guys are on board.  How many media reports suggest that the massive Jena march was organized by Al and Jesse?  The churches and student groups that performed the organizational heavy lifting are left out of the story.  And that’s a shame, because they hold the keys to the kingdom.

Jena has drawn attention to a profound perception gap between average white and black Americans.  We need to talk, and, largely thanks to Jena, we are talking.  Actually, a lot of us are merely spitting and hissing back and forth across the color line; but every conversation has to start somewhere.

______________

Who Keeps Sharpton and Jackson Powerful? The White Media.

Listen Up!

by Dayo Olopade

Post date: 10.10.07

Mychal Bell, one of six black students jailed last year in Jena, Louisiana for allegedly beating a white classmate, was discharged from prison almost two weeks ago. His release comes in the thick of renewed discussion about race relations in the U.S. prompted by the 20,000-person strong protest in Jena last month. Bell, who has become the face of the “Jena Six,” kissed the sky outside the county prison before he headed home for the first time since December. Beside him was the Reverend Al Sharpton, as easy before the press microphones as Bell seemed dazed. “Upon this young man’s shoulders is a symbol of a movement,” Sharpton prayed, and the assembled friends, lawyers, cameras, and family said a hushed “Amen.”

The Jena case may be reaching a hopeful denouement, but Sharpton’s camera-ready role in it brings one aspect of American culture into harsh relief: The peculiar cult of the black political celebrity–which may have outlived its usefulness to black America–remains weirdly potent among the white-dominated media. By now, the Jena story is familiar: according to press accounts, a black student at the local high school sat under the de facto ‘white tree.’ After three nooses were hung from the tree in response, a spate of racialized taunts and tension soon escalated into full-on violence. The white noose-makers were given a short school suspension, while, even with recently-reduced charges, Bell and the five others face a combined 130 years in jail.At the September rally in Jena, Sharpton and his counterpart, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, were the marquee speakers, calling for the dismissal of all charges and railing against the prison “industry”. “Mychal Bell, we know you hear us. Hang on a little while longer,” Jackson thundered.

But the real story was the crowd, assembled by a flood of black activism on the Internet and on black talk radio. Black blogs like AfroSpear, Mirror On America and Prometheus 6 have written reliably on the story for months. As a result, black churches, historically black colleges and universities, and student groups of all stripes were protesting the Jena case as early as March. This brand of organizing was faster to focus on Jena, and its effectiveness far outstripped that of established groups like the NAACP, Sharpton’s National Action Network, and Jackson’s Rainbow/P.U.S.H. Coalition. The Color of Change, an Internet advocacy group sprung from MoveOn in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, generated an online petition to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco that boasts over 300,000 signatures. In fact, Sharpton admitted to the Chicago Tribune last month that his own knowledge about Jena had come from the black netroots. While the black community was galvanized to action through a multiplicity of new-media sources, Sharpton and Jackson retained their monopoly on major-media attention. The black blogosphere had been shouting about Jena for months, but the case gained traditional media momentum only after the anointed spokesmen stepped in. Sharpton first visited Jena in the beginning of August, turning the trickle of news on the incident into a firehose stream. Before then, only a spoonful of national outlets ran pieces on Jena.

Since then, celebrities have jumped onboard the cause; and statements from Democratic presidential hopefuls followed–first from Barack Obama, then Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. The GOP had been reliably mute on the case, until President Bush curtly told reporters last month, “the events in Louisiana have saddened me.” And after ten months of dawdling, the swelling noise on Jena forced local District Attorney Reed Walters to account for his actions and, at the end of September, drop his appeal to the state supreme court and release Bell on bail.

Despite the effective e-organizing among blacks, it will be a long haul before the Internet generation makes Sharpton and Jackson’s methods totally obsolete. These famous figures present a unique connection to systems of publicity and power. Their loud harangues brought figures like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and President Bush into the debate, and brought mainstream media outlets to dutiful–if peripatetic–attention. During a recent O’Reilly Factor appearance, for example, Sharpton’s rehearsed statements about Jena quickly segued into chatty jibes about the many dinners he and O’Reilly have shared. While Jackson performed better the following night on O’Reilly, this piecemeal statesmanship proved the only means for a story like Jena to enter the national conversation. White liberals gasp at what seems like atavism when such standoffs spotlight racial tension in America–yet have made these elder statesmen the only canaries in the mine.

The real blame, therefore, may rest with the media’s own ‘white tree.’ An April Brown University study showed that black contributors make up less than one percent of the political blogosphere. As the study notes–and the Jena movement proved–black blogs are successful at spurring black interest groups to action, but they hold little crossover appeal. Progressive blog Pam’s House Blend pointed out how, even on the day of the march, dozens of widely-read left-wing political sites run by whites continued to sleep on the story. The lack of publicity among non-blacks was evident at the Capitol Hill rally on the Jena Six Day of Action last month. I spoke to a white filmmaker documenting protest in America who said that even she knew nothing about Jena until that week, claiming the story “stayed segregated.” DC event organizer Lynetta Carson, who is black, gave the realist perspective while packing up the stage: “All we had was word of mouth, and unfortunately, that’s to our family.”

The last of the Jena Six who was behind bars now heads home to his family to await retrial. It is a shame to think that with more universal pressure, the steps toward equitable treatment for Bell could have begun months prior. Jackson and Sharpton’s soapbox oligarchy and the white media’s racial blind spots are more embarrassing than they are malicious–yet both have real consequences. Fifty years after the Little Rock Nine, new and old segregations persist. Last month, Barack Obama preempted any race-baiters by correctly casting Jena as “America’s problem.” Beyond revealing the casual racism of a small town in Lousiana, the case and its aftermath exposed a still-divided national conversation, and a media culture, establishment and blogosphere alike, that’s dangerously lazy in its reporting on black America.

Dayo Olopade is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

Even in Death, they are Without Sanctuary

A reader suggests we all watch the chilling movie “Without Sanctuary”.  Lynchings were commonly photographed in the good old days, and postcards were sent around the country commemorating the event.  Those who feel the noose incident in Jena was just a childish prank should take a moment to view this brief production.                

Hogwash vs. Whitewash: The Jena Geek Squad Works the Web

If you were to have checked out the Wikipedia article on Jena, Louisiana a few months ago, you would have found a passing reference to the Jena 6 controversy with my original Jena narrative and a few newspaper articles used for documentation.  Things have changed.

Responding to the Tsunami of bad press engulfing their community, Jena residents launched a campaign to set the record straight.  Whenever a Jena-related article is followed by a comments section, Jena’s Geek Squad aims gets there the firstest-with-the-mostest.   Where possible, the story has been carefully reworked on the basis of three working assumptions: 1. the mainstream media has everything wrong; 2. local authorities can be trusted implicitly; and 3. black Jena residents are not to be trusted at all (partially because their views on fact issues rarely become a part of the official record).  Reporters looking for “facts” turn to “official records: and the town fathers of Jena, who have been more than willing to oblige.

The new Wikipedia article on the Jena 6 has been transformed into an extended apologia for a misunderstood community.  Editorial comments from disinterested people have injected the occasional note of balance into the narrative, but the finished product is Jena-friendly from beginning to end.  Events that have received a lot of media scrutiny are handled in a relatively even-handed way.  Dozens of editors have weighed in behind the scenes, forcing the Jena folk to insert some balance into the narrative.

But when fact issues that have not received careful media attention come up for discussion, Jena’s Geek Squad have the playing field largely to themselves.  Forgive this extended critique, but somebody needs to set the record straight.

Throughout the Wikipedia article, appeals are made to US Attorney Donald Washington.  Washington, we are reminded, is black.  He is also the official representative of the United States government.  Mr. Washington, we learn at the outset, “has concluded that there is no evidence of unfair prosecution.” 

So why the big fuss?  The remainder of the article explains the confusion.

We learn that Kenneth Purvis, the young black student who asked if he could sit under the tree at the white end of the school courtyard, was simply joking around.  Students of all races, we are told, sat under the “white tree” “at one time or another.” [My research suggests that black students occasionally wandered over to the white side of the courtyard, and white students could sometimes be seen on the black side of the segregated area.  So long as they returned to their proper place, no one had a problem.  Black and white students, however, were clearly expected to hang with their own kind.]

Black students insist that Purvis and several of his friends tested out their new freedom by sitting under the tree after school.   This undergirds the argument that the nooses were a direct challenge to a breach of the color line.  The Wikipedia article has an alternative explanation.

The noose boys, we learn, hung the nooses in innocent anticipation of an upcoming football game.  Black students, it is reported, were initially delighted by the sight of nooses hanging from the tree.  In a rapturous display of gallows humor, they stuck their heads through the loops, laughing and clowning.  A good time was had by all.

The noose hangers, the Wikipedia article suggests, received much harsher treatment than the media would have you believe.  It isn’t mentioned that Superintendent Roy Breithaupt has changed his “noose-discipline” story.  Originally, he told Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune that the offending students received just a few days of in-school suspension.  Lately, this message has been quietly amended.

The noose section of the article concludes with yet another appeal to the omnipotent, omniscient (and appropriately named) Mr. Washington.  The US Attorney has admitted that the nooses “had all the markings of a hate crime,” but he says they could not be prosecuted because no laws were broken. 

Moreover, the article notes that District Attorney Reed Walters has recently lamented the noose incident in the strongest possible terms.    He would have sent the noose hangers to prison if he could, he now says, but the law wouldn’t allow it.

What has happened to the oft-repeated suggestion that the nooses were a juvenile prank?  Mr. Breithaupt voiced this opinion to the Jena Times and repeated it to the Chicago Tribune.  The Jena paper (a fair measure of popular opinion) vigorously seconded the motion. 

Furthermore, when black students protested this characterization of the noose-symbol back in September of 2006, Reed Walters refused to countenance their concerns.  In fact, in the course of a June, 2007 hearing, Walters said he believed the students were over-reacting.  If the message behind the nooses was as loathsome as Walters now suggests, his dismissive attitude to the student protest is, at best, problematic.

The Wikipedia article addresses that problem.  Reed Walters, we learn, was upset because students were being rowdy and inattentive.  [Black students assure me that the room was silent as the grave when the DA spoke.] 

The article denies repeated allegations that Walters was looking at the black students when he made the “stroke of my pen” remark.  No one can deny that black students were sitting on the traditionally black side of the auditorium.  But we are assured that the DA’s eyes danced from the white side of the room to the black side and back again as he spoke. 

Mr. Walters’ statement that he could make their lives disappear with a stroke of his pen had no relevance for white students.  They weren’t upset.  They weren’t protesting.  Their parents weren’t holding meetings down at the Baptist church.  The unrest had been sparked by a black student protest (unmentioned in this article) led by the young men we now know as the Jena 6.   This act sparked the unrest at the school.  True, some white students had a problem with the protest under their tree.  But according to Mr. Breithaupt and Mr. Walters, the white students had a right to be upset–black students, and their parents, were blowing things out of proportion.

Did white students leave the auditorium feeling that they had been threatened; or did they leave reassured that their protest against the protesters had been validated by the local representative of the State of Louisiana?  To ask the question is to answer it.

The Jena Times is a good small-town newspaper.  They dutifully reported that black parents held a special meeting at L&A Baptist Church to protest the school’s response to the noose incident.  The Times also reported that black parents were initially not allowed to address the school board on the matter.  The Wikipedia article skips over these facts.  Instead there is a brief mention of black students, not their parents, protesting to the school board.  Editors failed to challenge these facts because they have been under-reported.

The Wikipedia article doesn’t mention that sporadic fights between black football players and white friends of the noose hangers flared up during the fall semester.  This gives the false impression that everybody immediately forgot about the noose issue.  Again, we are dealing with issues that have not been addressed in media coverage.

The school fire is briefly noted, but it’s significance is not considered (mainstream reporting has been guilty of the same oversight).  Small town high schools are common ground.  Residents attend different churches and often work out of town; but on Friday night, everybody shows up for the basketball or football game.  It is an act of homage–a pilgrimage to Alma Mater.

When someone burns down the school, it feels like sacrilige–everyone responds as if they have been personally violated.  It is 9-11 in microcosm.  Everyone in Jena, black and white, felt threatened, and the fact that arsonists were not immediately apprehended added to the threat.

Now comes the Fair Barn incident.  Black students say Robert Bailey was admitted to the dance; white students say he was refused admission.  Everyone agrees that a 22 year-old former student assaulted Robert without provocation.  Black students insist that several white friends joined the assault–one of them wielding a beer bottle.  White students aren’t so sure about that.  The Wikipedia article discounts the claims made black students because there is no medical proof that Robert was cut on the head.  Once again, the white version of the story becomes the official version.

The under-reported “Gotta Go” incident receives similar treatment.  It is mentioned that the young white student who pulled the shotgun on Robert Bailey and his friends attended the party at the Fair Barn the night before.  But was the young man part of the group of white students who joined in the assault on Robert?  Robert and his friends say yes; the Wikipedia article doesn’t address the question.

If the young white male had participated in an assault on Robert a few hours before, it is not surprising that the white student went for his gun when he saw his erstwhile victim and three friends emerging from a convenience store.   But what if Robert and his friends are lying about that?  Then we have three black males chasing a white male to his truck for the sheer fun of it.  That is precisely what the official version of events suggests.

I will leave it to Robert’s attorney to sort out the fact issues here.  But the puzzle pieces only fit if Robert had a personal beef with the gun-wielding white student.  Robert had encountered hundreds of white people as he exited the Gotta Go in the past; what made this incident different?

The article allows Roy “childish prank” Breithaupt to describe what happened to Justin Barker on December 4, 2006.  “The victim,” we are told, “was attacked, was beaten and kicked into a state of bloody unconsciousness.” 

The article becomes more objective when attention shifts to the trial of Mychal Bell. These matters have been frequently addressed in the media and Wikipedia editors knew enough to demand fairness.  It is even reported that a former football coach named Benji Lewis, an eye witness to the assault on Barker, signed a statement describing the attack in detail–Mychal Bell is not mentioned.  We also learn that coach Lewis was not asked to testify and that Mychal’s court appointed attorney called no witnesses. 

Coverage of the September 20th rally is also fairly balanced, with sympathetic editors and Jena folks jockeying for control of the narrative.  The final version is an awkward amalgam of observations from both sides of the polemical divide.

But when we arrive at the “columnists and editorials” section, the Geek Squad is in full control.  The final word is given to the fair-and-balanced Jason Whitlock.  The Kansas City Star sports columnist asserts that the media story has been “created and orchestrated” by Alan Bean.  “Whitlock,” we read, “contends that the facts surrounding the case in the media have been seriously distorted by Bean and reports that Jena officials consider Bean’s version of the Jena Six events as ‘hogwash'”.

This comment is the unchallenged final word.

You have to admire Jena’s Geek Squad–they take their work seriously, and they do it well.  If these cases ever see the inside of a courtroom (and I still believe they won’t) a watching world will encounter two versions of truth: the official view (reflected in the unchallenged portions of the Wikipedia article), and the black view (reflected in my narrative).   It’s he-said vs. she-said; Whitewash vs. Hogwash.

Take Your Nooses Down: Mellencamp’s Jena Song

John Mellencamp has released a new song inspired by Jena’s famous noose incident.  Produced by the gifted T-Bone Burnett, the song is reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”.  In other words, it’s a throw-back.  The lyrics, by pop standards, are pretty well-written, and the hook is infectious; but it is the accompanying video that has folks in Jena upset.

Jena’s mayor, Murphy R. McMillin, laments that “The town of Jena has for months been mischaracterized in the media and portrayed as the epicenter of hatred, racism and a place where justice is denied.”  Black-and-white images of freedom marches, Martin Luther King Jr., lynchings, and white supremacy placards from the 1960s, McMillin suggests, merely underscore Jena’s ill-deserved reputation as the haunt of all evil.

“I do not want to diminish the impression that the hanging of the nooses has had on good people,” McMillin told the Associated Press in a carefully worded statement. “I do recognized that what happened is insulting and hurtful.”

But, he said, “To put the incident in Jena in the same league as those who were murdered in the 1960s cheapens their sacrifice and insults their memory.”

Perhaps Mr. McMillin has a point.  The video is a bit over-the-top.  Moreover, it deflects attention from the disastrous handing of the noose incident by adults to the behavior of adolescent school children.  Reed Walters and Roy Breithaupt’s treated the noose hangers as innocent pranksters while signalling that the behavior of black parents and students who protested the noose incident was irresponsible and inflammatory. 

White residents, if the Jena Timesis anything to go by, thought Reed and Roy had it right on both counts.  Black residents were left with the impression that public officials had given their tacit approval to a message of hate.  When concerned parents attempted to share their views with the local school board, they were refused a hearing.  Finally allowed to make a brief presentation, the parents met with stoney silence.  Only the single black member of the school board thanked them for coming.

Viewed against the backdrop of these well-documented facts, John Mellencamp’s take on Jena isn’t so easy to dismiss.  At the very least, Jena authorities revealed an appalling lack of racial sensitivity.  Mayor McMillin assures the outside world that Jena residents hate the  noose symbol every bit as much as John Mellencamp.  White Jena, the mayor suggests, feels the pain of black Jena, and always has. 

We’ll see if Mr. Mellencamp (and the 30,000 people who visited Jena on September 20th) can be convinced of that.  I’m not betting the rent money.