Here’s the latest from Jena. Hours after a community meeting at Jena’s tiny Antioch Baptist Church ended two men from Monroe, Louisiana destroyed a sign in front of the church building. According to eyewitness reports, they also did a “wheelie” on the rain-sodden lawn before driving off. The meeting was attended by 150 people; approximately 60 of whom were from neighboring communities.
I have pasted some of the comments from the Alexandria Town Talk after this brief AP article. The comments are typical: white folks think the boys from Monroe were “stupid”. This is also the term many white Jena and Alexandria residents used to describe the hanging of nooses in the “white tree” at the Jena High School.
Black people see the destruction of the sign as intimidation–a hate crime.
The Jena story is rapidly capturing the American imagination. As of yet, the story hasn’t been featured on the national news, but a couple of weeks should take care of that. The major civil rights groups have yet to weigh in publicly–but behind the scenes the action in the reform community is frantic and unrelenting. This story is about to explode.
I don’t know John Sanderson and Jerry Bufkin, the young white men from Monroe who decided to mow down the church sign in Jena, but the true name of the perpetrators is Legion. The Jena story fascinates and horrifies because it uncovers the dynamics of New Jim Crow racism.
According to most white people in Central Louisiana, there is no association between the nooses hanging from the tree in the High School square and the assault at the school three months later. To hear their story, Justin Barker was the random victim of black thugs eager to beat up a defenseless white kid. In this telling, the incident is stripped of all context. The crime is considered horrifying precisely because it is arbitrary and senseless.
Black people (and a growing cadre of justice-loving white people) are beginning to grasp the broader picture.
People are learning that the LaSalle Parish School Superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, called the noose hanging a childish prank and recommended the mildest of consequences–three days of in-school suspension.
People are learning that black students responded to Mr. Breithaupt’s announcement by staging a spontaneous lunch hour protest in the school square. Black students, led by a group of male athlestes, physically occupied the tree–claiming it as their own. (Thus far, no one in Jena has denied that the tree from which the nooses dangled provided shade for white shoulders only).
People are learning that high school officials responded to this legitimate and honorable protest by calling an emergency assembly in the school auditorium. Every police officer in town was asked to appear in full uniform. District Attorney, Reed Walters, looking cross and distracted, addressed the students.
Imagine a school auditorium in which the white students (in accordance with tradition) sit on one side of the aisle while the black students sit on the other side. Imagine the District Attorney directing his full attention to the black side of the room. Imagine Reed Walters zeroing in on the black male athletes who sparked the lunch hour protest. Now you’ve got a feel for the atmosphere.
Now, imagine Reed Walters waving a pen in the air with a dramatic flourish. “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he tells the black students. The protests at the school have got to stop, he insists, and if they don’t, “With a stroke of my pen I can make your lives disappear.”
I am not repeating hearsay–Mr. Walters admitted to issuing this threat in the course of a mid-July hearing in the LaSalle Parish courtroom. He was angry with the black student protesters, he explained, because they were making a big fuss over nothing. He wanted the white and black students to “work things out on their own” without wasting his valuable time.
People are beginning to understand that Superintendent Roy Breithaupt could have foreclosed on months of outrage and protest simply by calling the noose incident a serious hate crime. That’s all the man had to do. He couldn’t do it.
People are beginning to understand that District Attorney Reed Walters could have defused the tense situation Mr. Breithaupt had created if he had told the student assembly that hate crimes would not be tolerated in LaSalle Parish. Had Walters waved his pen at the white side of the auditorium and issued a warning to the racist element within the student population, nothing would have remained for the kids to “work out on their own.”
But that’s just the problem: Mr. Breithaupt and Mr. Walters didn’t see the noose incident as a hate crime. They didn’t see the hate behind the nooses because they couldn’t. As representatives of Jena’s power people, these men had to see the nooses as a silly prank; there was no no practical alternative.
People are beginning to understand that the official response to the noose hanging (symbolized by the public comments of Mssrs. Breithaupt and Walters) validated the color line the noose hangers were desperate to preserve.
People are beginning to understand that in the wake of Mr. Breithaupt’s “silly prank” comment and Mr. Walters’ “stroke of my pen” threat, the black male athletes who staged the protest under the “white tree” had two choices: they could surrender their pride and manhood by accepting a reassertion of the racial status quo; or they could continue their protest by other means.
Unfortunately, thanks to Mr. Breithaupt and Mr. Walters, all forms of legitimate protest had been taken off the table. If the white noose hangers and the black protesters were going to “work things out on their own” there was going to be trouble–and Breithaupt and Walters knew it.
People are beginning to realize the true significance of Mr. Walters’ threat. He was setting up a situation that was bound to end in racially-tinged violence. Sooner or later some white kid was going to take his lumps at the hands of black kids–and when that day arrived, Mr. Walters planned to be waiting at the courthouse, pen at the ready.
And so, a day after the Jena High School went up in flames, Robert Bailey was brutally attacked by a mob of white students (and young adults) as he entered a Friday night dance. Robert was kicked, punched and whacked with a beer bottle. This was precisely what Mr. Walters was looking for . . . only the violence flowed in the wrong direction.
No matter, everyone knew the assault on Robert Bailey would not go unanswered. Although teachers begged the administration to give the students a few days before returning to class, the administration called for the resumption of classes Monday morning. This decision guaranteed that the demons unleashed on Friday evening would still be dancing–a backlash was inevitable.
Eyewitness student accounts make it clear that the attack on Justin Barker was preceded by a heated encounter between white students taunting Robert Bailey for having had his “butt kicked” on Friday night and black student athletes who were powerless to respond . . . unless, that is, they wanted Mr. Walters to make good on his threat to make their lives disappear.
There is no sense debating the relative demerits of hanging nooses in a tree vs. punching and kicking a defenseless student. Both actions are deplorable. What has been missed in the noose-fight debate is the intimate association between the two events. If Mr. Breithaupt and Mr. Walters responded to the noose incident in a spirit of justice, fairness and simple common sense in early September, there would have been nothing to fight about in early December.
People are beginning to grasp the appalling irony of this case: the man who stripped black male athletes of their constitutional right to protest in September pulled out his pen in December and made their lives disappear. The perpetrator has become the prosecutor.
And now Mr. Walters is being asked to respond to the young men who mowed down the sign in front of Antioch Baptist Church. Since the perpetrators are white and the victims are black, the outcome is pre-ordained–a “silly prank” will spark a mild fine and life will go on.
But not for long. Nothing will ever be the same in Jena, Louisiana. The racial status quo will change. The white tree at the High School must be reconsecrated as a unity tree or it must be leveled. There is no middle ground.
Friends of Justice
You can donate securely on Paypal by following this link. Thanks to all those who have already given!
Sign up for Action Updates by clicking the link to the right of this post, and entering your email. You’ll get an email when we post to the blog and when we have opportunities to take action!