Racial incident at school overwhelms Louisiana town

May 20, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

JENA, La. -- The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town's racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites.

Now the 3,000 residents of this small lumber and oil town deep in the heart of central Louisiana are confronting Old South racial demons many thought had long ago been put to rest.

One morning last September, students arrived at the local high school to find three hangman's nooses dangling from a tree in the courtyard.

The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school's 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators whether they, too, could sit in the tree's shade.

"Sit wherever you want," school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.

African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the South. Three white students were identified as responsible, and the principal recommended that they be expelled.

"Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple," said Tracy Bowens, a mother of two black students at the high school who protested the incident at a school board meeting.

But Jena's white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.

"Adolescents play pranks," said Breithaupt, the superintendent of the LaSalle Parish school system. "I don't think it was a threat against anybody."

Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.

First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, causing heavy damage. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.

Finally, on Dec. 4, a white student was attacked, allegedly by a group of black students, on his way out of the school gymnasium. The victim, supposedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks - was knocked unconscious and kicked after he fell. He was treated briefly at a local hospital and released.

After the attack, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters decided to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.

To the defendants, their families and civil rights groups that have examined the events, the attempted-murder charges, brought by a white prosecutor, are excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.

The critics note, for example, that the white youth who beat the black student at the party was charged only with simple battery, while the white man who pulled the shotgun at the convenience store wasn't charged with any crime at all. But the three black youths in that incident were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft after they wrestled the weapon from the man - in self-defense, they said.

"There's been obvious racial discrimination in this case," said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who described Jena as a "racial powder keg" primed to ignite. "It appears the black students were singled out and targeted in this case for some unusually harsh treatment."

That's how the mother of one of the defendants sees things as well.

"They are sending a message to the white kids: `You have committed this hate crime, you were taunting these black children, and we are going to allow you to continue doing what you are doing,'" said Caseptla Bailey, mother of Robert Bailey Jr.

Robert Bailey, 17, is caught up in several of the Jena incidents, as both a victim and alleged perpetrator. He was the black student who was beaten at the party, and he was among the students accused of grabbing the shotgun from the man at the convenience store. And he's one of the six students charged with attempted murder for the Dec. 4 attack.

The district attorney declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But other white leaders insist that there are no racial tensions in the community, which is 85 percent white and 12 percent black.

"Jena is a place that's moving in the right direction," said Mayor Murphy McMillan. "Race is not a major local issue. It's not a factor in the local people's lives."

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