The four-hour drive from New Orleans to Jena takes you over long bridges, across still bayoux and deep into the remote backwoods of Louisiana. It's a journey that starts in the city that has become a byword for racial division and infrastructural neglect, following Hurricane Katrina. It then heads north-west through Opelousas where, as in so much of the south, people are literally segregated to death. There are two Catholic churches in the centre of town - Holy Ghost, for African Americans, and St Landry, for whites. In between is the cemetery where, by law and then by custom, blacks and whites have been buried according to their race - separate and finally equal, if only in the afterlife. And finally, it lands in the small town of Jena, surrounded by forests of pine where, it seems, even the flora can be racialised.
It was here that Kenneth Purvis asked the headmaster at Jena high school if he could sit under the "white tree" - the tree in the school courtyard where the white children used to hang out during break. The principal said he could sit where he liked. Purvis took him at his word. The next day he went with his cousin Bryant and stood under the tree. The day after that white students hung three nooses there.
If the symbolic threat of a schoolyard lynching makes this sound like a tale from a bygone era, then what happened next belongs very much to the present. It is a story of institutional indifference and judicial impunity that today condemns black American men: not to end their lives hanging from a tree, but to spend it rotting in jail. It illustrates to those who would like to draw a line under the civil rights era that they must first contend with its legacy before claiming to have conquered history. It serves as a salient example that legal barriers to integration may have been removed - itself no mean feat - but the ultimate goal of equality remains elusive. And it shows that just because you are allowed to do something - even something as basic as sitting under a tree - it doesn't mean that you are able to.
Back in Jena, the local, overwhelmingly white school board, considered the nooses a youthful prank and handed down brief suspensions. This made black parents and students angry and sparked months of racial tension. Police were called to the school several times because of fights between black and white students.
The principal called an assembly where the local district attorney, Reed Walters, told them "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen." The black students say when he said it he was looking at them; Walters denies it.
In an unsolved arson case a wing of the school was burned down. A few days later, Justin Sloan, a white man, attacked black students who tried to go to a white party in town. Sloan was charged with battery and put on probation. A few days after that another white boy pulled a gun on three black students in a convenience store. The black student wrestled the gun from him and took it home. The black student was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who produced the gun was not charged.
On December 4 a group of black students attacked a white student, Justin Barker, after they heard him bragging about a racial assault his friend had made. Barker, 17, had concussion and his eye was swollen shut. He spent a few hours in hospital and, on his release, went to a party where friends described him as "his usual smiling self".
The six black students were then arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder. Such a charge requires use of a deadly weapon. Walters argued that the trainers used to kick Barker were indeed deadly weapons. Mychal Bell, 17, became the first of what are now known as the Jena Six to be convicted on reduced charges by an all-white jury and faced up to 22 years in jail.
On Friday Bell's conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which ruled that he should not have been tried as an adult. A new bail hearing is set for later today.
These incidents have transformed Jena from a sleepy town of 3,000 into a national symbol of racial injustice. Its new-found notoriety suggests that if a political gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells an awkward truth, then a racial scandal in America is simply when the scandal of its racism is laid bare. The true outrage is not that this happened in Jena, but that similar things happen everywhere, every day in America, and almost nobody takes any notice.
"If the media wasn't watching what was going on then every last one of those kids would be in jail right now," says Tina Jones, whose son, Bryant Purvis, has also been charged.
Once again race and class collide. The poor, who are unable to afford a decent lawyer, stand at the mercy of a judicial system that simply wants them to disappear. They are given inadequate counsel, encouraged to plea-bargain their lives away or face stiffer penalties on trial. This is not a problem for P Diddy or OJ (Lil' Kim was not so lucky). But Bell could never have afforded Johnnie Cochran, even if he were alive.
Add racism to poverty and the magnifier effect is stunning. African Americans fall foul not just of the law of the land, but the law of probabilities.
According to the US justice department, black people are almost three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are over five times more likely than whites to be to be sent to jail, and are given 20% longer sentences. On any given day, one in eight black men in America in their 20s is in prison.
"Jena is America," says Alan Bean, the executive director of Friends of Justice, who has been working with the Jena Six. "The new Jim Crow is the criminal justice system and its impact on poor people in general and people of colour in particular. We don't always get the exotic trimmings like the nooses."
At the high school's homecoming rally on Friday there were plenty of cheers for the black and gold of the Jena Giants, the school football team, but no talk of festering bitterness between black and white. White people here don't want to talk about it. They resent being portrayed as rednecks. They have a point.
According to the census, the top five segregated cities - Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Chicago and Newark - are all in the north. According to the Sentencing project, a pressure group for penal reform, the 10 states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York - which all consider themselves liberal - but there are none from the south. Jena's problem is not that it has proved itself more racist than the rest of the country, but that it has manifested its racism with insufficient subtlety.
As the homecoming parade passed through town, the class of 2007 was carried by a truck with a Confederate flag on its licence plate. At the high school they chopped down the "white tree". But they couldn't uproot it.
© 2007 The Guardian