Is Jena Getting a Bad Rap?

Many who live in Jena, La., worry the media attention about racial tension is giving the town a bad name. Billy Wayne Fowler, a member of the La Salle Parish school board, says some of the coverage has been unfair.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

As Jordan said many locals worry their hometown is getting a bad rep nationally. Locals like Billy Wayne Fowler, a member of the LaSalle Parish School Board.

Mr. BILLY WAYNE FOWLER (Member, Ward 5, LaSalle Parish School Board, Louisiana): I've lived here all my life. And our town is a small town consists of hardworking, law-abiding, Christian people.

CHIDEYA: What has happened to this town as the rest of the country takes a look at it during this controversy?

Mr. FOWLER: What's happened to our town is a lot of inaccurate reporting. If people could read that FBI report, they'll have a different outlook on what happened here.

CHIDEYA: What specifically makes you think that?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, basically, when the FBI gave their report to the U.S. attorney, Donald Washington, he gave the report and he clearly says that nobody here in Jena, by (unintelligible) law, except given the fullest extent of the law handed down charges against these guys. But he says they were then the letter of the law will do that. And why he did that I don't know. Both whites and blacks here thought they were way too strict. And as we've found out yesterday, they've been reduced and I have an idea they're probably going to be reduced even further.

CHIDEYA: So you think that the charges not only have been lowered but that the town approves of this, black and white?

Mr. FOWLER: Yes, ma'am, most definitely.

CHIDEYA: When the black students protested after the nooses were found hanging from a tree, I understand that the District Attorney Reed Walters held in assembly at the school. He had some tough words for the students. Do you know what he said? And do you think he was singling out the black students?

Mr. FOWLER: Yes, I know what he said, and, no, I do not think he was singling them out. What he was doing, there was a lot of tension about that time. And I think he was sending the message to everyone just cut out to foolishness. It's time to quit playing around and just take care of our business.

Now let me tell you about the nooses. The FBI report could not charge the white kids for hanging the nooses. And you know why? What he found out - he said that he found out it was a joking manner, and it was. Can you believe that whites and blacks stuck their heads through those nooses, poking fun at one another that day? Now that was not known at that time.

CHIDEYA: Someone burned Jena High last year. Do you know who's responsible?

Mr. FOWLER: I wish I did. No. That's been kept a really a tight secret. If they know anything, they're not saying anything and anybody's guess would be as good as mine.

CHIDEYA: With the magnitude of the fire, the kids had to be moved. Where are they going to school right now?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, fortunately, our campus is spread out, and we have enough space that we are making do with what we got still on the same campus. And it's - we've got kids in classes with no air conditioning, and it's primitive conditions that we're having the school under, and it's going to remain that way until we get an academic building rebuilt.

CHIDEYA: When you think about Jena High and the classes that have graduated over the past couple dozen years, has there been a better set of race relations, you think, between students over time? Has it stayed the same? How would you characterize - where's your - where's Jena going in terms of how people have been getting along over the past couple of decades?

Mr. FOWLER: Let me put it to you this way. I've been raised here all my life. If I could take you back here in Jena 50 to 60 years ago and let you see the conditions that were here then compared to now, you would have to agree we have come a long way to be a Deep South small town.

What I've observed here and the FBI report, Mr. Washington, who's a black attorney, come in here and he tried to find evidence of racism. He says this is not an issue on racism. That it's strictly a legal matter. And his report says that.

So as far as racism here, we're no different from any other town. There's not a single thing that a white person can do in Jena, Louisiana that a black person can't do. We get along. Only a small group of people on both sides - if there's trouble, that's usually coming from one of those two groups.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Fowler, thank you so much.

Mr. FOWLER: Well, I appreciate you having me. And you have a good day.

CHIDEYA: You, too. Billy Wayne Fowler is a member of the LaSalle Parish School Board. And we also reached out to district attorney Reed Walters, but he did not return our call.

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