My introduction to the saga of the "Jena Six" was to hear two members of that number interviewed by Amy Goodman on her news show, "Democracy Now." I decided to write a column on this story when I found that a tree that bears a role in the tale was actually cut down after the incidents escalated.
Here are the facts of the case, as closely as I have been able to determine them:
Jena is a town of 3,000 people in LaSalle Parish, La. Most of that area is rural. Many of its inhabitants are below the poverty level in income. One in 10 citizens of the parish is a person of color. The other 90 percent are Caucasian.
When school started at Jena High School in the autumn of 2006, a black student, Mychal Bell, went to school officials and asked if he could sit in the shade of a tree on the school grounds during recess. It was usually the "white tree," according to students there. The school staff gave him permission. He sat in its shade.
The next day when everyone arrived at the school, two nooses were hanging from the tree. The young white men guilty of the offense, apparently led by Justin Barker, were sent to another school district until things cooled off and then given an in-school suspension of two weeks. School officials dismissed the placing of the nooses in the tree as a prank.
Shortly after their suspension ended, the offenders beat up Mychal Bell, apparently in retribution for their having been punished for their deed. Further, Justin threatened Mychal with a gun after school.
Several days after that, on Dec. 4, 2006, Justin Barker engaged in mocking and taunting the young black man whom he and his buddies had just beaten, the typical tactic of a playground bully who wishes to retain an atmosphere of fear and to show his power.
Mychal Bell and five of his black friends — Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw — turned on Justin, knocking him to the ground and leaving him dazed. Justin went to the Emergency Room of the local hospital, was released and later that night attended the high school's ring presentation ceremony with his parents. He had not sustained any lasting harm, physically. He had been humiliated.
Justin was asked by the school board to apologize to the "Jena Six" for mocking and teasing them. He did so. The Jena Six were charged with attempted murder for their attack on him. One of those charged, Mychal Bell, apparently the instigator, is still in prison, pending his appeal, for he had been convicted. His charge, and the charges on the other five as well, who remain free on bail, have been reduced to assault, over the prosecuting attorney's objections.
The prosecuting attorney, Reed Walters, was asked to speak to the assembled students of the high school after the entire student body, white and black, put on a series of in-school protests, asking for equal treatment for white and black offenders. Bracketed by policemen, he stood on the auditorium's stage, held up a pen and, looking at the black students, said: "See this pen? I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen."
On Sept. 20, 2007, a civil rights protest march on Jena, La., was held. It was led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and attracted 40,000 marchers, as well as national media attention. It was the culmination of a year of local protests and letter campaigns over the felony charges against the six black Jena teenagers. It was orderly and peaceful.
However, in its aftermath, KKK websites are asking their readers to harass the Jena Six and their families. Numerous threats have been received by them. And Jena's townspeople are smarting and sensitive, because they feel the entire nation sees them as racist when, they insist, they are not any such thing.
This little backwoods town of Jena will take a long time to return to its sleep.
That's the story's bones. The flesh and musculature of it are about the nature of prejudice and about how people respond emotionally to triggers.
Let's take the "flesh" of prejudice first. It is human nature to harbor prejudices. Whether they are racial, gender-related, age-related, religious, national or simply an unreasoning dislike of some minority such as obese, blind, illiterate, poorly spoken, retarded or crazy people, we all have them. The enormous majority of us manage to keep such biases to ourselves.
However, in the Deep South, racial prejudice runs high, even nearly 150 years after the Civil War. I have witnessed it myself here in Kentucky and especially while living in Forsythe County, Ga., for five months in the early '80s. Driving into Cumming to do my grocery shopping on a Saturday morning, I would almost always see Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia passing out pamphlets at the small town's stoplights.
Also, while I lived there, two killings made the news. In one instance, a man of color from New York City who was visiting a friend on Lake Lanier was shot dead by a man wielding a shotgun. He went to jail happily. He knew the consequences of his actions and said that someone had to stop blacks from moving into the county.
In the other instance, a white meter man in an easily recognizable uniform called out to a black homeowner that he was going to check the man's gas meter. The owner came out of his house and shot and killed the meter man. The black owner said that the white man was trespassing, and he had a right to defend his home.
Prejudice spawns prejudice. Hatred spawns hatred. Violence spawns violence.
It is easier to understand what drives such unreasoning hatred when you look at the underlying causes of it: poverty and ignorance. Both black and white poor people in the South are trapped in a kind of institutionalized slavery, at the mercy of an unending cycle of bad factory jobs, no middle-class money to be earned and the grinding effects of relative poverty in a land where the fat cats do so well. The middle class is minuscule. A wide abyss exists between the haves and the have-nots.
For the poor white man, all that differentiates him from or makes him better than the equally poor black man is his racial pride. For both races are equally ignorant and poor. And the powers that be condone this way of life in a multitude of small omissions of notice, letting the "n" word be used by whites, letting Klan meetings occur and joking about "poor white trash" and "good old boys" as if flying Confederate flags, making racial slurs and ritualistically beating up black men for being black in bar fights and on the streets were OK.
The hate-filled threat of death represented by the displaying of nooses is "just all right" with Southern America. Authorities dismiss such displays as trivial and meaningless, in spite of the fact that Klan hangings of black people continued well into the 20th century. One of those who reported this story, Gerald Cox, a black college senior, said that his great-grandfather was lynched in Louisiana less than a century ago.
In urban areas these days, racial profiling, even when denied, thrives. My home town of Louisville, Ken., is still reeling from a recent profiling scandal. And black criminals all over the country tend to get far tougher sentences for the same crime than white criminals. As Walter Cronkite used to say at the ending of his news broadcasts, "That's the way it is."
Does it have to continue to be that way?
Back to Jena. Black MTV reporter Shaheem Reid was sent to Jena to make a report on the march. He and his cameraman saw several Confederate flags as they came into town on I-65, and when they stopped to get gas, two men drove up in a pick-up truck which had a back window completely covered with a Confederate-flag decal. David Duke, KKK leader, carried LaSalle parish in 1991, when he ran for governor. During the march, a man drove his pickup through the town with nooses hanging off the back.
Prejudice is alive and well in Jena, in a subliminal way at least.
On the other hand, most of the village's inhabitants reject the label of "racist."Although there are no black lawyers, doctors or bankers, save one accountant who works out of sight of the customers, both blacks and whites say that there is usually no local problem with racism. It is a quiet little town. People know how to get along. One of the defendant's sisters, Rashaunda Bailey, told Reid, "The Jena High I went to a few years ago didn't have a 'whites only" tree. They had a tree that anybody could stand by or sit under, no matter what race. For heaven's sakes, it's just a tree."
Perhaps only this year's crop of Jena High seniors was uncharacteristically racist. Or perhaps one boy, Justin Barker, the instigator of putting the nooses in Jena High's tree, is the only true racist. Perhaps his buddies just went along with him.
One thing is for certain: Emotions ran so high in the reportage of these events that I had to spend a full day digging to get a rounded picture of this year-and-a-half-long saga. March leaders like the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton tended to orate as though the Jena Six were innocent, which they were not. Conservative writers like Bob Parks and Katherine Ward tended to dismiss the affair as trivial and overblown, "blaxploitation" which was not worthy of attention. And all the reporters whose articles I read tended to telescope 18 months of events into the couple of weeks leading up the protest march on Jena.
As I relate this sad tale, you may perhaps see, as did I, that it is a story set solidly in the gray. There is no right side. There is never an excuse for violence. The Jena Six could have gutted out the taunting and walked away. Assault on a fellow human being, no matter how understandable, is wrong, at least in civilian life.
There are two things to mourn here, in regard to prejudice. One is our very flawed justice system, in which one man such as Reed Walters can bend it into a pretzel. It would seem clear from recent events at the national level that our entire justice system desperately needs unbiased oversight and reform. I mourn unequal justice in the "land of the free." As Ben Franklin said, "You have a Republic - if you can keep it."
I hope we can keep it!
The other tragedy is Jena High's tree. It has been hewn to the ground, as though it were the tree's fault for having sprouted those nooses. I mourn for Jena's tree.
Now for the musculature that lies beneath the flesh of prejudice. Our emotions are our energy bodies' muscles and sinews. Prejudice can only thrive when we, individually and as a group, let our surface reactions to catalyst escape into the world of manifestation without taking some time for thoughtful consideration as to the deeper ethical and moral issues involved in the catalyst that sparked our emotions. We really need to "count to 10."
On April 22, 2007, the extraterrestrial source, Q’uo, which I channel, said this:
"There are two different points of view to take in dealing with the same circumstance. Generally speaking, entities' surface reactions or instantaneous reactions to catalyst tend towards being fear-based and shortsighted. Naturally, some entities in third density are able to rationalize their reactions to various types of catalyst in ways that do not involve the necessity to change or transform the self.
"It is the spiritual seeker, who proactively chooses to enter into that transformative road of seeking, that can begin to move to layers deeper than instantaneous and sometimes instinctual reactions; to seek further into where in the energy body that over-activation or blockage is occurring, why it may be occurring, and how he can clear that blockage."
The emotions of those who act out in resentment of bad treatment, such as the Jena Six, can be easily understood. No one likes a bully. I have also sinned in my time by attacking a bully who was tormenting my younger brother. I am not better than the Jena boys. I am one with them. Indeed, I sympathize with them. And insofar as I have acted in violence, I am in the wrong. It is very easy to seek revenge when wronged. It is only human to want an eye for an eye. Yet it shall never be morally or ethically right.
Spiritually speaking, I think that is the core issue here. We as a nation need badly to hew to the higher ground and work within ourselves and within our legal systems to find fairness and true justice in our actions and in the actions of our justice system. The Q’uo group, in the same session, gives us our inspiration for doing so:
"It is a matter of observing where your triggers are and, when you are triggered, looking carefully at the thoughts that arise and the feelings that come with those thoughts. What you are doing is a kind of prospecting. You are looking for the gold in the ore of your personal, emotional, psychic and mental mind. The joy of this kind of work is that you find gold at the heart of each learned lesson and it is a lesson that is, shall we say, a heavenly treasure, a treasure of the soul."
Fundamentally we are all one. Jesus said that what we do to the least of our brothers, we do to him. This is the core principle to be invoked when we see justice gone awry. The Q’uo say:
"Each time that you look into another entity's face, spiritually speaking, you are looking into your face and the face of the one infinite Creator. Therefore, when someone says something that hurts you or makes you feel unhappy, life has outpictured the energies that are moving inside of you so that you can look in the mirror of another person and that person's concept of who you are, and see things both happy and sorrowful that surprise you and about which you realize that you need to think."
I hope we all may think carefully about the lessons of Jena.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. I pray that we all may mourn Jena's tree, and that we may plant seeds of loving thought to give us the shade of justice and truth in the days to come.