'Jena Is America'
In the alleyway between de jure and de facto, Jim Crow conceived a son. Even though the deed took place in broad daylight, everybody tried not to notice, and in time some would even try to pretend it hadn't happened. For most of his long life, Jim Crow Sr. had been a powerful and respected man. His word was law, his laws were obeyed and those who transgressed were punished without mercy. But in his dotage these crude and brutal ways became a liability. Finally, and after some protest, he was banished. Some claimed he had died. But nobody found the body.
Junior, meanwhile, was adopted by a local family and raised with all the refinement and courtesy that his father never had. While the father had railed against the changes that ousted him, the son adapted to them. But he cultivated the same allies and pursued the same goals, and in time he too would become powerful and respected. With little use for curse words or ostentatious displays of authority, he was most effective when not drawing attention to himself.
Over the past year the small town of Jena, Louisiana, has vividly established the genealogical link between the two generations of Jim Crow. Paradoxically it has taken the symbolism of the old--complete with nooses and all-white juries--for the nation to engage with the substance of the new: the racial inequalities in America's penal and judicial systems. For what is truly shocking about Jena is not that it has happened here but that the most egregious aspects of it are happening all across America every day. Go into any courthouse in any city and you will see it playing out. Like Rodney King, Hurricane Katrina or Sean Bell, it has revealed to the rest of the country what black America already knows. "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, the mother of Bryant Purvis, who was there when the recent round of trouble started.
Fittingly for a post-civil rights story, it began with the discrepancy between what you are allowed to do and what you can do. In August last year, Kenneth Purvis asked the principal at Jena High School if he could sit under the "white tree"--a place in the school courtyard where white students hung out during break. The principal said Purvis could sit where he liked. So the next day he went with his cousin Bryant and stood under the tree. The morning after that three nooses dangled from the tree.
The overwhelmingly white school board judged the nooses a youthful prank and punished the culprits with brief suspensions. Black parents and students were angry, and months of racial tension followed. Police were called to the school several times because of fights between black and white students.
The principal called an assembly at which the local district attorney, Reed Walters, warned, "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen." The black students say he was looking at them when he said it; 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 a white boy pulled a gun on three black students in a convenience store. One of the black students wrestled the gun from him and took it home, only to find himself 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, in school, 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 a concussion and his eye was swollen shut. He spent a few hours in the hospital and on his release went to a party, where friends described him as "his usual smiling self."
The six black students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder--a charge that requires the use of a deadly weapon. Walters argued that the sneakers 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 he faced up to twenty-two years in jail. His black court-appointed attorney called no witnesses and offered no defense. Bell's conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which ruled that he shouldn't have been tried as an adult. At the time of this writing he sits in jail waiting to hear his fate, and a huge civil rights march is set to descend on Jena.
These incidents have turned Jena into a national symbol of racial injustice. As such it is both a potent emblem and a convenient whipping boy. Potent because it shines a spotlight on how race and class conspire to deny black people equality before the law. According to the Justice Department, blacks 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 more than five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced to 20 percent longer jail time. This would not be a problem for the likes of Kobe Bryant, but in Jena's "quarters" high-powered legal teams are hard to come by.
Convenient because it allows the rest of the nation to dismiss the incidents as the work of Southern redneck backwoodsmen without addressing the systemic national failures it showcases. According to the Sentencing Project, the ten states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration rates include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and none from the South. What took place in Jena is not aberrant; it's consistent. The details are a local disgrace. The broader themes are a national scandal. Jim Crow Jr. travels well--unencumbered by historical baggage.
"Jena is America," says Alan Bean, 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 color in particular. We don't always get the exotic trimmings like the nooses." Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi) and Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press).
© 2007 The Nation