The Mess in Jena

William F. Buckley's picture

CNN devoted an entire hour to the chaos in Jena, La., and rendered a considerable service. We hear, running through it all, the voices of critical figures -- the district attorney, the school principal and a school board member, the mothers of the defendants and of the victim, the outsiders. The temptation for this journalist was to seek to isolate words and events and watch the tensions rise, the ease with which despair made its way into the picture, creating a scene reproduced throughout the world.

Kyra Phillips, CNN anchor: "... nothing has been normal since the three nooses were hung from a school tree."

Ms. Phillips continued in voiceover: "Jena, La., population about 3,000. It's like so many small Southern towns. Jena is about 85 percent white, 13 percent black, and people here are, for the most part, civil to one another. Still, blacks and whites keep largely to themselves. Social life here is built on two enduring pillars, high school football and church on Sunday ...

"But civility and tolerance were splintered just over a year ago, on Aug. 31, 2006, when No. 33, Kenneth Purvis, a star junior fullback for the Jena Giants, asked if he and his friends could sit under this large oak tree on the high school grounds, a tree that Purvis and other black students believed was an unofficial gathering place reserved for white students only."

Purvis and his friends asked for, and received, permission from a school official to sit under the tree. The next day, they received a very different message from some of their schoolmates.

PHILLIPS: So, you come to school the next day.

PURVIS: Yes, ma'am.

PHILLIPS: And what did you see?

PURVIS: There was three nooses hung up in the tree.

The nooses were taken down immediately and the three white students who had put them up were identified. The school principal, Scott Windham, wanted the three expelled, but the boys' parents appealed to the school board, which accepted their plea that hanging the nooses was a prank, not a threat. Instead of being expelled, the students were suspended for just a few days. Many of Jena's black residents were furious.

The school principal called an assembly of students and teachers and invited longtime district attorney Reed Walters to address the assembly. Several people who were present quoted Walters as saying, "See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen."

Anger seemed to be boiling up again, but as one female student put it, "Then we had our first real football game, and everybody just kind of forgot about it."

The truce lasted throughout the football season. Then on Nov. 30, the main building at Jena High burned down, apparently at the hands of an arsonist -- though it has still not been determined whether those hands were black or white.

A couple of days later, there was a fight in the parking lot of a convenience store in a black neighborhood. A white student at Jena High, Matt Windham, later told police he felt threatened by three black students. Windham ran to his pickup truck, where he had a shotgun; three black students wrestled it away from him.

As Ms. Phillips reported: "Jena's small black community was watching to see what charges would be brought against the white student with the gun. But there were none. Instead, the three black students were the ones accused -- among the charges, aggravated second-degree battery, assault, disturbing the peace and theft of the weapon. Nearly a year later, those cases have yet to go to trial."

Then on Monday, Dec. 4, came the incident that led to Jena's unwelcome notoriety. A group of black students badly beat a single white student, Justin Barker, sending him to the hospital unconscious. One witness told CNN: "He was making racial slurs, and they had enough of it. And they took action." Another witness said, "A lot of the blacks, if not all, that was standing started kicking him and pushing him down. When he got knocked out, they still kicked him just as hard."

One thanks the good Lord for the football games, and for the church services every Sunday.

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