'Jena Six' Case Exposes Town's Racial Tensions A racially charged case has brought Jena, a small town in central Louisiana, into the national spotlight. An e-mail petition supporting six black high-school students accused of attacking a white classmate has more than 100,000 signatures.
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'Jena Six' Case Exposes Town's Racial Tensions

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'Jena Six' Case Exposes Town's Racial Tensions

'Jena Six' Case Exposes Town's Racial Tensions

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Ydstie in Washington.

There used to be a tall shade tree outside Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana. White students gathered there each day to eat lunch. Last year, a group of black students went to the school's principal to ask him if the tree was off limits. He said no. So, shortly after, some black students joined their white classmates for lunch under the tree. The next day, they found three nooses hanging from its branches.

The months that followed were tumultuous. There was a fire, there was taunting, and there were fights. Ultimately, six black students beat up a white student as he left the Jena High School gym. They were arrested and charged with attempted murder.

During this past year, the case has gained national attention from eminent attorneys, civil rights activists and the media. But it took a while, longer perhaps than it should have. Now, Jena is under a media microscope. An e-mail petition supporting the Jena Six has more than a hundred thousand signatures. And a rally in Jena has been scheduled for September 20th.

Later in the hour, we hear what Iraqis are thinking about the war - views gathered in a new opinion poll from Iraq.

But first, the Jena Six. Join the conversation. What can we learn about race and America from what has happened in Jena, Louisiana? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're joined by Howard Witt, a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He's based in Houston, Texas. He broke this story about the Jena Six and he's been covering it since.

Welcome to the program, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD WITT (Senior Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): Thank you so much. Thank you.

YDSTIE: You know, the chronology of this case is somewhat confusing. Take us through it. After these nooses appeared in that tree, what happened?

Mr. WITT: Yes. The nooses were hung just exactly a year ago in this tree that used to be in the courtyard of the high school. And after that happened, many of the black students in this high school, who represent a small minority of the folks in the school, and their parents, were really quite upset and outraged over this because they viewed the nooses as a very hostile act, as what they called a hate crime because of the resonance of lynchings in the South.

They went to school administrators and, ultimately, the school board, complaining and seeking some kind of punishment for the students who committed this noose-hanging. There was three white students who were quickly identified as having done it, but the school superintendent overruled the recommendation of the school principal, who would recommend that they be expelled. And in fact, he only gave them a three-day suspension from school.

This, in turn, caused even more anxiety and anger among many of the blacks in Jena because they felt like these white kids were just getting off without a punishment and they felt this was a very bad message to send.

What happened then over the next few months was a series of altercations and fistfights between white and black students. There was a mysterious arson at one point in November, when the central wing of the high school is burned down. No one has ever been arrested for that. They didn't - never figured out who did that. And also, off campus, there were a number of incidents and fights where whites attacked blacks but were not charged with - they were either not charged with any crime or were charged with misdemeanors.

So all of this, then, led up to the incident on December the 4th. And at that point, six black students are alleged to have basically jumped a white kid as he was walking out of the gymnasium. They knocked him unconscious and kicked and beat him, when he was unconscious, on the ground. That student suffered a number of contusions and cuts and bruises, couple of black eyes. However, he was not hospitalized. He was treated and released at a hospital. And the evening of that event, he was able to attend a social high school ceremony. So he wasn't terribly injured, although he certainly was beaten up.

The black youths were charged in this crime, initially, with attempted murder by the local prosecutor. And the reason this case has such - become such a controversy is the whole question of proportionality and the different ways it is perceived that whites are treated when they attack blacks and blacks are treated when they attack whites. And so that's what's been kind of the cause for all of this controversy.

YDSTIE: In fact, there had been another altercation, where white kids had beat up on a - a white kid that hit a black kid on the head with a beer bottle or something like that and he was charged with battery.

Mr. WITT: Exactly. He was charged with a misdemeanor and, well, he paid a fine. And then, there was another incident a few days after that, where a white kid pulled a shotgun on some black kids at a convenience store. One of those black kids, ultimately, was involved and charged as one of the Jena Six in beating up the white kid. But anyway, when the shotgun was pulled, the black kids wrestled the shotgun away from the white kids - away from the white man.

And the white man was never charged with any crime, but the black students were charged with theft for having stolen the shotgun that they wrestled away from the white guy. So it was yet another example of this kind of continuum that black people in Jena - and a lot of civil rights activists who've looked at the situation believe shows this really kind of imbalance in the ways in which people are treated down there.

YDSTIE: Let's backtrack just a little bit. Right after the noose incident, the principal wanted to expel the three students responsible. Why weren't they expelled?

Mr. WITT: Well, the principal did recommend that they be expelled. However, he was overruled by the superintendent and a committee of the school board who determined that this was what they called a youthful prank. So I sat down the superintendent a few months ago and he explained to me that he thought, you know, kids will be kids and these kids didn't mean anything by it. And at one point there, the school board was saying, well, they were just hanging nooses to replicate an episode of the "Lonesome Dove" television show. It had nothing to do with the racial history of lynching.

Black people in Jena don't buy that explanation. And they believe that this was clear because of the context, because these nooses were hung the day after black students asked to sit underneath a tree that was traditionally used by whites. To them, it's a pretty clear-cut case of nooses being hung as a threat.

YDSTIE: Black members of the community didn't buy the superintendent's suggestion that it was an adolescent prank. What about the white community? Did they support the superintendent?

Mr. WITT: The white community does seem to support the superintendent. This is a town that's about 80 percent white. It's also a town that, in the very recent past, kind of showed its colors, if you will, when David Duke ran - he's the former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran for governor of Louisiana several years ago. And when he ran, the majority - the vast majority of voters in Jena voted for him. That's, if you wish, a kind of a bellwether as to the feelings down there. It is a town that continues - the racial tensions in that town are pretty palpable when you go visit it.

Another reporter went down after I did and visited the local barbershop and discovered that they don't cut black people's hair. And they refuse to cut black people's hair. So it's - this is a - it's kind of a time warp down there in some ways.

YDSTIE: Let's get back to the charges against these six students - the six students who allegedly jumped the white student and knocked him down - knocked him unconscious, I guess, is that right? Is that correct?

Mr. WITT: Yes. Yes. Yes. And I think that what you find is very few people excuse what the black students did, and very few people suggest that they should not somehow be punished. It's a question of proportionality and a question of should it have been, initially, a charge of attempted murder.

Those charges were then reduced, in the case of the first kid who went to trial, and a couple of others who are still facing trial had been scaled back to attempted aggravated battery, still a serious felony but not attempted murder. But the question is, you know, is that really proportionate to what amounts to what they say is a school fight? So that's kind of the issue here.

In addition, you know, no one's arguing that all these kids were necessarily angels. Well, a number of these kids are actually star athletes on the football team there. One of them the, first kid who went on trial - his name is Mychal Bell - he has a pretty long juvenile record, which came out in court, for various assaults and violent fights. So, you know, not all these kids are angels, and it's a complicated case for that reason. It's all really a question of what happens when white people act against blacks and when blacks act against whites in this town.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. I want to bring in another guest. We're joined by Charles Ogletree, the Jesse Climenko professor of law at Harvard University. He is a legal adviser to the lawyers representing the Jena Six and he's with us from a studio on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Masachussets. Professor Ogletree, I know it's the first day of classes up there at Harvard Law. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it.

Prof. CHARLES OGLETREE (Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School): Glad to be with you today.

YDSTIE: How did you get involved in this case?

Prof. OGLETREE: I was at the national NAACP convention in Detroit this July and the interim president, Dennis Hayes, told me that one of the local NAACP chapters outside of Jena had called, asking for help. And so I contacted a number of my former students and lawyers I know who offered to represent these young men free and to help Mychal Bell as well in his appeal. So there has been a tremendous amount of support for this case, which for many of us is a sad commentary on race relations in the 21st century, that we'd have something like this, so I got involved through the NAACP and I've been working with the lawyers ever since, over the last several weeks.

YDSTIE: Did Mychal Bell have adequate counsel in his trial, do you think?

Prof. OGLETREE: It's a textbook case of the worse lawyering(ph) possible. The lawyer didn't file any motions, didn't call any witnesses, didn't really respond to the government's evidence. The jury - even though it's a majority white community, was all-white - no effort to look into the racial aspects of this. And it was remarkable. Even coaches, who knew something about these incidents weren't called.

And there is a ton, literally a ton, of evidence that's been uncovered since that first trial and we hope that the judge will not even sentence Mychal Bell on the 20th but stop and think about whether or not there should be a new trial in the case. That's the only way I think for fair judicial processes to make sure that Michael Bell was convicted properly. And it doesn't appear from my judgment or many others with familiarity with the criminal justice cases that he was anywhere close to getting a fair trial.

YDSTIE: And as Charles, or rather, as Howard Witt said, the charges have been scaled back. Do you think that's partly because you and other people aligned with you have gotten involved?

Prof. OGLETREE: I'm not taking any credit for any change that has been made. All I can say is that it's important for people to have a voice outside the courtroom, in the court of public opinion as well as in the courtroom.

And the judge was moving too quickly. The prosecutor overcharged; the defense lawyer, who represented Mychal Bell, wasn't prepared. And it's people like Howard Witt and others who've written in detail about this case that makes the difference. You haven't even mentioned the fact that several African-American students had guns drawn on them in that same community. So the racial hostility is widespread and I think that's why it's important that we continue this pressure.

YDSTIE: Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard University. Please stay with us over our break. And Howard Witt, senior correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. He'll also stay with us over our break. We're talking about a case in Jena, Louisiana that's captured national attention. The case of the Jena Six. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail at talk@npr.org.

I'm John Ydstie. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: We're talking about a case in Jena, Louisiana that's captured national attention: the case of the Jena Six. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org.

With us is Howard Witt, correspondent with the Chicago Tribune; and Charles Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard University. We're also taking your calls. And we're going to go right now to Roger in Grand Rapids, - no. Yeah, yes, Roger, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hello, Roger. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROGER (Caller): How are you?

YDSTIE: I'm well.

ROGER: Thank you for taking my call. I just had a couple of points. I think it's society's role, I mean, it's easy enough to really make excuses and put blame and point the finger. But if we specifically step outside and specifically look at the actions, and what an individual did and their responsibility in it, and find proof in that action that it was committed, there was a crime, and act accordingly, I think we're doing our society and the whole world a favor by keeping the black and white issues out of this. And I'm not talking as a white male in an ignorant light. I grew up in a school that had prominently black people, and I was the minority.

YDSTIE: Well, from what you've heard...

ROGER: We always run into this situation where someone feels slighted or mistreated, and I can understand the nooses, how inappropriate that was and there may not been appropriate action. But that's a separate - obviously it built on this spearhead and this eruption of violence that if you specifically take each case individually, I would feel we'd make much more strides in coming together, working together as a nation and races, than we would blaming, pointing fingers and making it worse in the media and just a lot of the hoopla that goes around it.

YDSTIE: Charles Ogletree, any comment?

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, a lot of comments. I think when you talk about nooses in the 21st century, there is no way it's a practical joke. I'm an African-American male and I didn't live, thankfully, during a period when people where lynched, but I do know that history, and it pains me, my children, my grandchildren.

And if there had been a swastika, if there had been a cross-burning - these are things that we shouldn't as Americans tolerate, attacking a group. In my concern - you're right. Where was the Department of Justice? This case should have been investigated the moment it was evidence of a hate crime. And my sense is that you're right to be concerned. They should be taken individually.

Nothing happened. Nothing materially, substantively, symbolically happened with those nooses, and I think that's what generated attention on a racially divided community. These guys play football together. They love each other. But when they go on to a classroom, when they go on to separate places to sit under a tree, that should not be tolerated any place in America in the 21st century.

YDSTIE: Let's take another call, Harold in Coloma, Michigan. Harold, have you got a question or comment?

HAROLD (Caller): Yes. I'm - thank you for taking my call. Well, quickly, I advise a group whose purpose is to foster racial harmony in Coloma, Michigan. But - the call, the last call is I think very significant in that we seem to want to avoid the obvious: Why not face the fact that we do have racism? The only way we're going to overcome it is to meet it head on, discuss it and do something about it. That's what we do in school.

This is clearly a hostile environment in that place in Louisiana. But the same sort of thing exists in other parts of the country, in Michigan, Ohio, et cetera. So why are some people so reluctant to face the opposite and let's get on with solving our problem and bringing about harmony?

YDSTIE: Professor Ogletree, do you agree that this is something that could have happened anywhere in the country?

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, I think he's right. It happens everywhere in the country. And he points to a very important idea. And I hope you can e-mail me at my institute. It's charleshamilton@houston.org. We're very pleased to hear about community organizations dealing with these issues.

The reason it's a national issue is that if anyone can justify hanging nooses as a practical joke, what is that telling the children? What is that telling all of us about race relations? What is the parents' view about race? So it's not just the act, it's the poison within the community. It might be unconscious racism, but there is a problem when no one wants to confront the fact that reces are treated differently.

Whites would sit under a tree that's thankfully have been cut down that was sort of formerly reserved for whites; black was assaulted with a beer bottle, as Howard Witt mentioned. He didn't mention, but he has reported about a gun being pulled on one of the defendants here.

And so there's a lot of ongoings that show that Jena, Louisiana is symbolic and symptomatic of broader problems that we've had in our country, and I'm glad that NPR and other people are talking about it, because I think that's going to help - and Howard keeps writing about it - is going to help for us to move forward in improving racial relations. I'm not calling the people in Jena racists.

My point is that there needs to be some efforts to have more tolerance, more acceptance and more understanding, and Jena is a great place for that to happen, and I think that this attention on it will make a big difference.

YDSTIE: Professor, what's your role going to be now?

Prof. OGLETREE: We are trying to handle Mychal Bell's appeal and to support that effort to keep him from ever having to go to jail until this thing is sorted out factually. We're also trying to figure out what happened with this arson. There's, as Howard Witt has reported, there's an elephant in the room that somebody did another serious act that might or may not be related to all of this.

We're also are trying to bring public attention to it so that that very small minority community will realize that there are people around the country - and I'm getting e-mails from around the world, who are supporters for this, raising money, getting free lawyers to help, raising the consciousness and making sure that those young men not just get through this tribunal in Jena - that's simple.

None of them have a high school diploma. What happens after the case is over is one of my concerns. Let's help get them back on the road to recovery, redemption and hopefully, success, as young men working in our community down the road.

YDSTIE: We've got an e-mail here that's just come in from Jacksonville, Arkansas, I believe that is. I keep hearing that the day the nooses showed up that some of the black kids were posing for pictures with their heads in the nooses, and as they did that, laughing and joking about it. All this doesn't at all prove that the action was not racist. It would indicate that not all the students took it too seriously. Is that the case, Howard Witt? Did that happen?

Mr. WITT: That's the first I've heard of that. Every bit of story that I heard from folks down there was that these nooses were regarded as a real affront from the get-go. I didn't hear anybody making light of it.

YDSTIE: How about you, Professor Ogletree?

Prof. OGLETREE: I think you'll also hear - You'll hear a lot of this disinformation, all these reports are coming up. At some point, you might even ultimately hear that blacks prepared the nooses. I mean, I think we got to be careful about the facts that are coming through.

And even if any child, black or white, posed for a picture, that shows us the lack of understanding, lack of education and the lack of sensibility about race relations. It's inexcusable and it tells us that the whole community of that school is affected if no one understands or has been taught or lived through grandparents the history of what happened in places like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other places during the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century.

YDSTIE: I want to quickly get to a caller, Paula(ph), in Indianapolis. Paula, you have a question for Professor Ogletree?

PAULA (Caller): Hello?

YDSTIE: Hello?

PAULA: Can you hear me?

YDSTIE: Yes. Go ahead.

PAULA: Yes. I just have a couple of observations for Professor Ogletree. I - it was about a deputy prosecutor for a long time here in central Indiana and I was a charging deputy. And from what I understand, here, this case was grossly overcharged. I mean, it's such a stretch. The specific intent to kill, I would firmly doubt, was present in these adolescents' minds and I guess, I have a couple of remarks.

And one is that I wonder if he agrees with me that another issue here is that prosecutors don't really - they have so much wiggle room that there's very little scrutiny of their charging decisions or their lack of charging decisions until the ballot box time. And a lot of our poor citizens who are more disaffected from the system and don't vote or don't remember at voting time, you know, they can really go a long way without a whole lot of oversight, which really concerns me, given the facts that I'm hearing.

And the second thing is that ironically - something he brought up. I, once as a juvenile prosecutor, had the occasion to charge a child who drew a swastika on African-American man's snow. It was a large swastika, and I had a devil of it, trying, persuading the court that that constituted an actual threat. All I was really after - because this child was so young - was probation supervision.

But it's very interesting how people have to be talked into the idea that some symbols carry so much weight even without a verbal threat to accompany it. At any rate, I felt - those are the two observations. I just wondered what he thought.

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, both of your observations were first right on the money, and thank you for making them. And as Howard Witt has written another - have done stories about this, the question about the prosecutors' conflict, they were actually charged with attempted second-degree murder for school fight. And the penalty within the school rules was three-day suspension, three-day suspension, but they were charged with second - attempted second-degree murder, could have faced up to 100 years in prison.

And the fact that the prosecutor is correcting some of that now doesn't change the fact that this was over prosecuted and no one pays serious attention to it as well. It also says something about race relations, what we need to do. I think it would be amazing to look at the conflicts that the prosecutor has working with the school board and being the prosecutor, how those rules were balanced.

I don't know if Mr. Witt has done a story on that, but there is a whole series of conflicts here as well that - we're going to make sure that they're properly aired in the courtroom, outside the courtroom, in the court of public opinion.

Mr. WITT: In fact, if I could jump in for a moment, professor, there were other irregularities in the trial. One of the most dramatic to my eyes was one of the prosecuting witnesses - one of the witnesses the prosecutor called was one of the three white kids who hung the nooses to begin with.

Prof. OGLETREE: That's right.

Mr. WITT: So he was allowed to give testimony against Mychal Bell. The defense attorney, as you mentioned before, utterly failed to bring this out during the trial. But, you know, again, it just creates this whole kind of odor, if you will, about what happened down there.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much. Professor Ogletree. We're going to let you go. We know you've got a busy day today. Professor Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard University. Thanks very much.

Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being with you.

YDSTIE: Howard Witt, just a quick question. Has there been any idea of who actually started this fire, this arson fire?

Mr. WITT: No. No one seems to have any confidence whether it was black kids or white kids, whether it was related to these racial tensions or not. Interestingly, it was the second arson at that high school. There was one previously a year earlier - somebody burned down the school kitchen. So it's a tense place. But, you know, it's just not been established what, if any, connection that arson had to the other events.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. We want to go down to Jena, Louisiana, and to Billy Wayne Fowler, who sits on the La Salle Parish School Board, which includes the town of Jena. He joins us by phone from down there. Thanks for being on the program, Mr. Fowler.

Mr. BILLY WAYNE FOWLER (Board Member, La Salle Parish School Board): Thank you for having me.

YDSTIE: You joined the school board in December. Have you and the other board members actually been involved in this case, or did it come before that you got on the board?

Mr. FOWLER: It occurred before we got seated on the board.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. But you've had to deal with it?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, I've learned a lot since being seated on the board. I couldn't help but overhear these two gentlemen speaking before I came on. And I can tell you right now they do not have their facts straight. I don't know where they got that information from, but it is just like all the other inaccurate reporting being made on my town.

And I hear intelligent people, like they obviously were, saying this on national radio when they don't have their facts straight. Does anybody care about the FBI report that was given by a black U.S. attorney? When he gave the report, does anybody care about that in order to get the facts straight? It's okay to paint my town as the most racist town in the world based on inaccurate information.

YDSTIE: Mr. Fowler, let me - I have to say one thing for just a moment. We'll be right back with you. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. FOWLER: Okay.

YDSTIE: Mr. Fowler, have the white students involved in all of this been punished equally with the black students, do you think?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, let's take the noose instant. I heard the comments being made. The FBI report, he did call it a joke in bad taste. Now, what he didn't say - and which is accurate - white and black students were hanging their heads through those nooses, poking fun at one another. Now, I don't think there were any pictures being taken. But that's why a hate crime was not placed on anybody. And this is the FBI department.

And the Justice Department coming in here - and I can assure you, they would have liked to have charged somebody with something here and couldn't find any law broken. And he said in his educational forum that they could find nothing wrong done by any of the officials here in Jena, even though he had some serious reservations about the harsh charges.

YDSTIE: Do you think the white students who scuffled with the black students, broke a bottle on one black student's head and...

Mr. FOWLER: I'm sure it's not accurate either.

YDSTIE: That's not accurate either?

Mr. FOWLER: It's not accurate either. My - the source - my sources, and I live here, tell me those boys went to a private party and tried to break in to the party, and they come in anyway, and there was a white guy, jumped on one of these six. It was broken up real quick, and both sides were asked to leave.

YDSTIE: Is that the story that you got, Howard Witt?

Mr. WITT: No. In fact, my information comes from the court records regarding that case and the guy - there did appear to have been an altercation at the party, that's correct. But the guy who was charged in then admitted his guilt for striking the kid with the bottle. You know, he did that. So it's (unintelligible)...

YDSTIE: It's a matter of public record, court record.

Mr. WITT: Exactly. And I also just like to say to Mr. Fowler, with regard to the report from the U.S. attorney, absolutely, you're correct. The U.S. attorney and FBI determined that there was insufficient evidence prior to...

Mr. FOWLER: You fail to say it when you were speaking, sir.

Mr. WITT: Well, I could say it now...

Mr. FOWLER: I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to make our town look bad.

Mr. WITT: No, I'm not.

Mr. FOWLER: You're an educated man.

Mr. WITT: I'm trying to - I don't want to make your town look bad. I want to portray what's going on in your town. And...

Mr. FOWLER: Well, do it right then, sir.

Mr. WITT: Okay.

YDSTIE: Mr. Fowler, do you...

Mr. FOWLER: Don't paint lies out there.

YDSTIE: ...do you feel that Jena is like any other town in America?

Mr. FOWLER: I really do.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOWLER: You are the 25th person that I have talked to about this incident, this situation. Most of them just come in here and spend some time here. They leave town saying two things. Number one, what a friendly town Jena, Louisiana is. And secondly, this is not a racial issue. The FBI reports given by the black U.S. attorney clearly said this is not a racial issue.

YDSTIE: Thank you very much. Billy Wayne Fowler sits on the La Salle Parish School Board, which includes the town of Jena. He joined us by phone from Louisiana. And Howard Witt is a senior correspondent from the Chicago Tribune, based in Houston. He joined us from the studios KUHF in Houston. Howard Witt, thanks for being with us.

Coming up, as Congress hears from General Petraeus about the conditions in Iraq, a new poll of Iraqis is out. We'll hear what they have to say.

I'm John Ydstie. And it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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