This month, I wrote a song about the crisis in Jena, Louisiana. The first verse sets up a critical moment: when the District Attorney came to the high school to speak to the students after three nooses were hung in the courtyard:
Down in Jena, Louisiana,
There’s a tree in the square
There’s a fire at the schoolhouse,
There’s a noose in the air.
Down in Jena, Louisiana,
In the land of the free,
There’s a man at the courthouse
And he’s talking to me:
“Sunday morning, I’m a church mouse,
But Monday morning at the courthouse,
With a stroke of my pen,
I’ll make your whole world end,
And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Won’t put your world
Back together again.
Why would a district attorney conclude that a flash of school violence in which no one was seriously injured translates into fifty years in prison without parole? Wednesday’s recusal hearing at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse provided some answers.
Attorneys for two of the Jena defendants are contending that DA Reed Walters should recuse himself because he is personally invested in these cases. Exhibit 1 was the nasty statement Walters published in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested. “I will not tolerate this type of behavior,” Walters wrote. “To those who act in this manner, I tell you that you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and with the harshest crimes that the facts justify. When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law. I will see to it that you never again menace the students at any school in this parish.”
These angry words take on a new significance when they are linked to comments Walters made at the Jena High School auditorium a few days after three nooses swung from a tree in the school courtyard. A black freshman, you will recall, had asked if black students could sit under an oak tree on the traditionally white side of the school courtyard. The remarkably light punishment was justified by the perception that the boys had committed an innocent prank free of racial overtones. The day after the punishment was announced, several black students “occupied” the space under the now infamous tree.
And who do you suppose took the lead in this spontaneous act of protest? You got it—the young black athletes now known as the Jena 6.
School authorities were terrified. Every police officer in LaSalle Parish was summoned to the school. Several dozen black students were standing under the tree surrounded by a ring of white students. A dozen police officers looked on helplessly until a school bell summoned the students to class.
To the white authority figures in Jena, Louisiana, the impromptu demonstration led by the Jena 6 had the feel of anarchy. The principal called the entire student body to the school auditorium for an unscheduled assembly. A sheriff’s deputy called Reed Walters and told him to get over to the High School immediately.
Reed Walters took the stand on two occasions during the June 13th recusal hearing. Asked to describe his emotional state the day of the school protest, Walters said he was frustrated and angry. “I had just been handed an aggravated rape case,” the DA explained; he was trying to decide whether to press for the death penalty. “I was really wrapped up in that,” he said.
In comparison to his important rape case, the disturbance at the high school was much ado about nothing. “I told the students I was tired of what was going on,” Walters testified. “I was tired of the problem they were having. I felt that this was something they needed to handle themselves.”
Here we reach the crux of the matter. If the student protest was a justifiable response to a bizarre and unjust disciplinary decision, Mr. Walters’ reaction is incomprehensible. But if the noose incident really was a childish prank, it follows logically that the Jena 6 and those who followed their lead were exploiting the situation as an excuse for making trouble. They weren’t really concerned about racism or equality, the argument goes—they were just a bunch of thugs who needed to be straightened out.
Everything Reed Walters said the day of the protest under the tree reflects precisely this attitude. “I would like to be your best friend,” he told the students; but I can be your worst enemy.”
Then, with a dramatic flourish, Walters brandished his pen like the sword of Damocles. “With a stroke of this pen,” he told the students, “I can take your life away!”
Everyone testifying at the June 13th hearing, Walters included, agreed that this statement was made—but who was the intended audience?
White students? Not at all—they were happy as clams with the situation and were in no mood to protest. Walters was talking to black students, in general—and to the Jena 6, in particular. He was telling them that if they continued to cause trouble, he would destroy them. His remarks in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested in early December show that he was making good on a threat he had issued back in September.
Reed Walters suggested that the white and black students needed to work things out for themselves. They did. None of the tragic events that have placed Jena, Louisiana on the map would have taken place had Reed Walters kept his pen in his pocket and delivered a different speech. He could have called the nooses a hate crime. He could have denounced that crime and called for every authority figure in LaSalle Parish to follow his lead.
But, as a practical matter, Reed Walters had no choice but to wave his pen and issue threats. If the nooses constituted a hate crime he would have been forced to file charges against white students—a one-way ticket to political disaster. The white community had already decided to treat the noose incident as a harmless stunt and the DA had no choice but to follow their lead.
The assault at the school in December was a direct consequence of the DA’s bizarre speech in September. Reed Walters sowed the wind; Justin Barker and Robert Bailey reaped the whirlwind. Mr. Walters is prosecuting a crime produced and directed by Reed Walters.
Americans are tired of listening to the laments of poor people. There are no crimes of desperation, we say, just crimes of opportunity. America is a level playing field, so quit making excuses. And then we find three nooses dangling from an oak tree in Jena, Louisiana, or Camden Jew Jersey, or Tulia Texas . . . and we reach for our pens.