Busted stories usually have a nice, tidy moral. Somebody does wrong, gets caught, and pays a price. But what happens when the busted are both victimizers and victims? What happens when the whole town is busted?
Sitting on the steps of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana, beneath a growing chorus of demonstrators chanting “Free Mychal Bell,” my reporter friend confessed she was the first to write the phrase “Jena Six.” By that day, in September 2007, when thousands had traveled to Jena to protest what they saw as unfair treatment of six black youths by an overreaching District Attorney, the Jena Six had become a household name.
President Bush said the case “saddened” him. Barack Obama rolled Jena like a worrystone through his stump speech. The big TV news networks hit Jena hard. The case had all the makings of a national superstory; two scoops of die-hard Southern prejudice, protests over a racially-charged judicial system, and nooses swinging from a schoolyard tree. But beneath the outrage and rhetoric, the story of Jena was more complicated than it seemed.
Here’s what happened. A year earlier, in September 2006, a group of African American students asked for permission to sit under a tree that, according to school tradition, was for whites only. (That there could be such a tradition at all shows how strained race relations are in Jena.) School administrators said they didn’t care where students sat, but the next day, students arrived at school to see three nooses in school colors hanging from the tree.
The school administration chalked it up as a prank and suspended the white boys who hung the nooses from school for a few days, but the fuse was lit. Fights and unrest broke out. District Attorney Reed Walters was called in to address the students, where he told them he could end their lives “with a stroke of my pen.” Black students were assaulted at white parties. A white man drew a loaded rifle on three black teens at a local convenience store. (They wrestled it from him and ran away.) Someone tried to burn down the school.
Then, on 4 December 2006, a fight broke out that landed white student Justin Barker in the hospital and six black students in jail, charged with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy. True to his word, D.A. Walters pushed for maximum charges.
My path crossed the Jena Six by chance. The BBC broadcast a documentary called “Race Hate in Louisiana” in May 2007. When I watched a copy of it in June, I was dumbfounded. I quit my job a week early, packed the car with my cameras, and drove to Jena. In June, it was still a quiet place. There was a demonstration by the families of the accused on the courthouse steps, but it was mainly for a documentary filmmaker’s lens.
When I returned home, I uploaded the photos to my site and put together a video about the case. Without trying, I’d beaten mainstream media to the story. My site came up first on “Jena Six” searches for months. As traffic rolled in, so did phone calls from the press, concerned citizens, and anyone who was outraged by the case and just needed someone to listen.
My last day in Jena, CNN stopped by the courthouse, and they aired a brief story a few days later. Their report was buried as soon as Paris Hilton was released from jail. The progressive show Democracy Now! dedicated a few hours to the case in early July. But by the time the rest of the media caught on, they’d been outpaced by the story itself. Al Sharpton and Michael Baisden had used their radio shows to organize thousands of marchers to travel from across the country for a rally in Jena on 20 September 2007.
I returned, too. At four-thirty in the morning, it was a surreal scene. Bleary-eyed bus drivers from South Carolina sipped coffee beside sign-making students from Howard University and commemorative T-shirt vendors from Baton Rouge. Everyone walked around in the pre-dawn hour, ogling the courthouse, drawn to the lights of the cameras set up for the early morning news.
Marchers coming into town were met by S.W.A.T. teams, crowd fencing, and satellite trucks. It seemed like every cop in Louisiana had been shipped-in to Jena. Some marchers were pulled over by suspicious state troopers before they could reach their destination. I was tailed for 35 miles into town.
As the media unpacked their gear, they came face to face with a tangled, complicated story. They cranked up their generators and started boiling the story down to race, a small country town now divided, a stubborn district attorney with stay-in-place hair, and the looming reminder of nooses, swinging from an oak tree in a schoolyard.
Back in June 2007, before Mychal Bell went on trial as the first of the Jena Six defendants, I pulled up a chair in the LaSalle Parish Courthouse to look at documents from the case and read the witness statements. Or, I tried. The spelling and grammar of the students was so poor, it was hard to piece together what exactly happened. (Louisiana traditionally ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in educational quality and effectiveness.) I couldn’t tell who’d hit Justin Barker, or why. The students who witnessed the fight weren’t even in agreement. Barker – who, months later, would be expelled for arriving on school grounds with a firearm – was definitely attacked, and a few black students at Jena High (there are only a few black students at Jena High) were charged as adults, even though they were still minors.
The first time I saw D.A. Walters, I was sitting in the second row of courtroom seats on the morning the court decided whether or not Mychal Bell’s case would go to trial. I’d snuck a voice recorder into the courtroom, and pressed record as the judge said, “jury trial.” At that point, both Bell and Theodore Shaw were still incarcerated, unable to make bail. When Shaw was escorted out of the courtroom, he raised his wrists high above his head and defiantly shook his shackles. Later, I saw Bell do the same. Months later, I’d see Bell do it again, but this time on CNN, and it read like a cliché of defiance, because of all the spotlights. But on that June morning, when Shaw raised his arms for only a few people to see, I gasped.
By 20 September 2007, the world had turned its attention to Jena, and accordingly, everyone had arrived in Jena to play a part. Marchers marched and chanted. Speakers spoke and inspired. The press, police, even the FBI were there to take measure of what Jena had become. For that day, Jena stopped being a small country town in Louisiana, and became center stage in the middle of the mediaverse.
It was as if the story of the Jena Six, of these black youths who had allegedly beaten Justin Barker, had turned into a story about itself. The truth was somewhere, but it was all tangled up in the wires unspooling from the satellite trucks. Newspeople walked around waiting to “go live,” while Bryant Purvis and Carwin Jones were followed like rock stars, smiling and posing for pictures. Chants echoed off the Bank of Jena, only to bounce into microphones and land on the CBS Evening News.
It’s hard to tell if Jena was truly “the beginning of a new Civil Rights movement” as Sharpton said, but the story has stayed alive, thanks to a predictable racist backlash. The day of the march, a kid was arrested while driving around Alexandria with two nooses hanging from his truck. His nooses multiplied into a widespread epidemic. My hate mail continues (in ALL CAPS) but pales in comparison to the incredible stories I’ve received from people who saw a few pictures I took in Jena, and wrote to me with their dreams, stories of the past, and hopes for the future.
Jena will be known for the Six, regardless of what Dr. Phil does to “help the town heal.” Congress got involved, Mellencamp wrote a song, Bowie donated money, and a University of Louisiana student who videotaped her friends in blackface re-enacting the Barker beating declared she’s wasn’t racist because she has many black friends, and that she “loves them to death.”
No one’s come through Jena unscathed. Donations made to the Jena Six via radio host Michael Baisden have come under scrutiny. One of the accused, Robert Bailey, posted pictures of himself to his MySpace page, showing him lying on a bed, his mouth stuffed with hundred dollar bills. Residents of Jena told me they weren’t racist, but they had to leave town to “protect their families” from the marchers. Jones and Purvis, with litigation pending against them, walked the red carpet at BET’s Hip Hop Awards, mugging for the cameras. Reed Walters tried to save his reputation on the editorial pages of The New York Times, which itself failed to report on Jena until the story was too large to ignore.
When listening to audio I recorded in Jena over the summer, I keep returning to Caseptla Bailey’s remarks on June 25, protesting the charges against her son Robert. “We love you, we love you, and we’re here to support you,” she said. Caseptla spoke through a megaphone, but there were only a few people on hand, and she was standing right in front of me. This much about Jena, I knew: here was a mother, fighting for her son’s future, standing on the courthouse steps with a megaphone, calling out with vibrance and clarity to anyone who’d listen.
Editor’s Note: An appeals court forced D.A. Walters to treat Mychal Bell as a juvenile. Bell pled guilty to second-degree battery in December 2007 and agreed to serve 18 months in juvenile custody, and testify in upcoming trials. The other five cases against the Jena Six are still open. Justin Barker and his family have filed a civil suit against the Jena Six, their families, and the LaSalle Parish School Board. The suit is ongoing.