Reporters Update Baltimore, Jena
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We want to bring you an update on two stories that we've covered in recent months, but which have fallen out of the headlines lately. First, the so-called Jena Six - the African-American teens in Jena, Louisiana, who assaulted a white student after months of racial tension in the community, which was in turn set off by the hanging of three nooses at the high school. The treatment of the six sparked one of the largest civil rights rallies in recent years. And in Baltimore, five African-American teens were involved in a violent confrontation on a public bus with a white woman and her boyfriend. This story provoked complaints in the conservative blogosphere that misdeeds by black youth are ignored by the media. Well, the teens insisted that the woman and her boyfriend provoked the attack.
I'm joined by Howard Witt, southwestern bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, and Melissa Harris, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who've been following these stories. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.
Ms. MELISSA HARRIS (Reporter, Baltimore Sun): Thank you.
Mr. HOWARD WITT (Southwestern Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune): Hello.
MARTIN: Hello, Howard, let's start with you. I think the more widely known of these cases is the Jena Six case. One of the best-known defendants in that case, Michael Bell, pleaded guilty in the attack on Justin Barker. Now, he's still in juvenile custody, but this month, his attorneys filed papers that say the attack was provoked by the victim, Justin Barker. What's this all about?
Mr. WITT: Well I think it has more to do with the civil suit. Michael Bell and the other Jena Six defendants, as well as the school board, have been sued by the original victim in the case for civil damages. And so, I think they're trying to lay a groundwork to defend themselves against the civil suit.
But Bell is in a halfway house in Monroe, Louisiana, living with kind of a foster family and apparently doing pretty well. He's still waiting to be released in the middle of the summer. The other defendants pretty much are still awaiting their legal trials, which have yet to get under way and keep getting continued.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that. Why is this? Why is this taking so long to move forward with these other cases?
Mr. WITT: Well, I think it's a combination of things going on there. First of all, the defendants and the prosecutor, Reed Walters, the local prosecutor there, are trying to find a way to perhaps plea bargain the rest of these cases because it's not really in anybody's interest to have big trials and have the focus of attention go back on to Jena again. But those negotiations have been going very slowly.
And it's also the case that this is a small town with one judge, and it takes a very long time for cases to get moving. So it's kind of a combination of that.
MARTIN: How are the individuals doing with all the scrutiny? For example, of the six kids, we understand, we know what happened to Michael Bell. You just told us. What about Bryant Purvis? We hear that he was arrested after a fight?
Mr. WITT: He got himself into trouble again back in early February. He was charged - he lives in suburban Dallas now with an uncle there who happens to play for the Dallas Cowboys. He was arrested for a misdemeanor assault for an incident at his high school. He got into what his attorney says was some kind of a shoving match with another kid there. So he now faces another assault charge in Texas.
That's not going to help his case in Jena because the prosecutor is likely to try to use that as leverage in the case against him. And the other kids are still just awaiting trials. There have been a number of motions in their cases attempting to change the venue and change the judge, but none of those have gone anywhere so far.
MARTIN: Are they all still at home, except for those two that you told us about?
Mr. WITT: Yes, I believe one or two others also are staying with relatives - have moved away from Jena and are staying with relatives elsewhere, and a couple of them are still in Jena.
MARTIN: And what about Justin Barker?
Mr. WITT: And Justin Barker, he continues to live there. He continues to say that he suffers long term after effects from this incident in which he was briefly knocked unconscious after he was allegedly kicked and beaten. And so, he says that he still has headaches and problems with his eyesight, but he's still there in Jena. I believe - last I heard, he was working part time somewhere.
MARTIN: And I want to hear more about how the community's doing, but I want to bring Melissa in and then Howard, if you'll stand by and we'll come back to you in just a minute.
Mr. WITT: Sure.
MARTIN: Melissa, several - this story in Baltimore arose in December when there was an altercation on a bus. A woman named Sarah Kreager, her boyfriend Troy Ennis, were injured, and several teenagers were involved in this. And there's been all this sort of toing and froing about, you know, who is responsible and how it started. Just last week, five of the juveniles were found to be responsible for the attack. You attended the trial. Tell us how that all - how this story kind of unfolded in the course of the trial.
Ms. HARRIS: Well, essentially the debate was over who provoked the attack and whether the students' responses, essentially kicking, beating, punching, were justified. And the judge ultimately determined that they were not. He didn't explain his ruling. He didn't say whether he believed Sarah Kreager and Troy Ennis' story that the fight was not provoked by them. He simply said that these kids went too far and left Sarah Kreager with severe injuries to her eye.
MARTIN: You talked to the woman, Sarah Kreager. Did she think the attack was racially motivated?
Ms. HARRIS: She does, sort of. She claims, as does her boyfriend, that they never uttered a racial slur against the students, which many of them have claimed. She actually claims that it was one of the students who first brought race into the equation by saying, quote, "you white B's think you own everything." So she alleges that it was actually the students who brought race into the equation and not her or her boyfriend.
MARTIN: And this all started because the kids - they're all middle-school students. The reason that they're not named is because this all took place in juvenile court. Now, some of the names became public later, but that's the reason that they're sort of not generally used because this was all in juvenile court. But she claims that they got on the bus, and the kids wouldn't let her sit down. Is that it?
Ms. HARRIS: Exactly. One of the girls wouldn't let her sit down. Nikita McDaniels is that girl. We have named her because her name became public when she filed countercharges against Kreager. And Nikita McDaniels was sitting there filing her nails, according to the bus driver, taking up two seats with her leg propped up on the seat next to her. The bus was crowded. There was only about three seats available.
Sara Kreager went to sit down, and Nikita allegedly told her that seat's for my home girl, and essentially told her she couldn't sit down. And then according to Sarah, Troy Ennis essentially insulted Nikita by saying that Nikita was less mature than their five-year-old daughter. That's what they say started the fight.
MARTIN: Has this been seen in Baltimore as a racial thing? Some sort of a metaphor about race relations in Baltimore, Melissa?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, I think it's definitely played upon racial fears. Baltimore is a city that is very troubled by crime. We had 282 homicides last year. And so, this has sparked legislation, which is still under consideration about increasing penalties for violence on city busses and on public transportation.
MARTIN: The reason that we're talking about these together is that these two stories were linked in the public mind, at least in some quarters, by the kind of the through line being misdeeds by a group of African-American kids. And so I'm interested, Howard, to hear from you about how Jena is fairing as a result of all this attention. As we know, there was a huge rally. There was some 20,000 people came to this town last year to discuss what they considered to be excessive prosecution of these kids, particularly given that there had been other incidents involving white kids that they don't feel were treated as harshly. So Howard, how is the town now responding to this after all this?
Mr. WITT: Yeah, that's a great question. I think in many ways Jena is - it's almost like a perfect laboratory for what Barack Obama was talking about in his speech in Philadelphia last week. You know, this gap in perception between whites and blacks, which has plagued our country for a long time. And that really lies behind a lot of the tensions in Jena itself. The town is quiet. It's very thankful for the fact that the scrutiny is off it now, and there have been some kind of real tentative reaching out efforts from both sides to see if they could start some kind of a dialogue between blacks and whites in the community.
There's a town commission that was appointed that's looking into things and still kind of continuing their work. For the last month or so, there have been a number of religious Christian Revival meetings going on in churches across the town - this kind of spontaneous movement that seems to have happened. Not a lot of mixing, but some, between black and white churches there in this very deeply religious part of the country.
But overall, there's still a lot of weariness, a lot of tension, between the two camps, if you will. And it's precisely because there has been so little dialogue and understanding between these two groups over there that a lot of these incidents just blew up last year in the way that they did.
MARTIN: And Melissa, obviously Baltimore is a very different place. I mean, Jena has what, a permanent residence of about three thousand people and so, having a rally of 20 thousand people could be quite a new event. Whereas Baltimore is a very different place - city leadership predominantly African-American and so forth, but the people who write to the paper, the people who post on the blogs, and things of that sort, did last week's finding that these five students were responsible yield any larger discussion or metaphor about what this might mean?
MS. HARRIS: Not really. You know, there were efforts at protests when the trial started. I believe about five people showed up. You know, one factor here is that the bus driver who identified several of the students involved in this case is African-American. The judge in this case is African-American. Two of the three prosecutors are African-American. And so, a city that is majority African-American - this hasn't quite raised the specter as the Jena Six case has.
MARTIN: And it never became as well known - was there as much outside attention? Melissa, it's my impression that it was - there was not.
MS. HARRIS: You know, it certainly was an issue here in the city and in the state mostly because of the issue of simply, of bus safety, because there were several other violent incidents on city buses in the months after this case. So after this incident, so it mostly - the issue mostly focused on keeping our buses safe, insuring that the security cameras, which malfunctioned in this case, were working on all buses, ensuring that crimes on buses were being appropriately investigated and prosecuted. So those were the kind of questions that it raised.
MARTIN: All right. Melissa Harris is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She joined us from the Sun's offices in Baltimore. We're also joined by Howard Witt. He's the Southwestern Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune. He joined us from his home in Texas. Thank you to you both.
I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.