State of the Union January/February 2008

The Truth About Jena

Why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality
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In the fall of 2006, Mychal Bell was a football hero, and his hometown, Jena, Louisiana, loved him for it. As his high-school team posted its best season in six years, Bell scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,006 yards, and was named player of the week three times by The Jena Times. The paper celebrated his triumphs in articles and photographs, including a dramatic one in which Bell, who’s black, stiff-arms a white defender by clutching his face guard. But within weeks after the season’s end, Bell was transformed into a villain, accused of knocking out a white student, Justin Barker, who was then beaten by a group of black students. The parish’s white district attorney charged Bell and five others with attempted second-degree murder. Six months later—after the DA had reduced the charges against Bell—a white jury convicted him, as an adult, of aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that carried a possible 22-year prison sentence. By then, he, along with his co-defendants, had been transformed yet again: together, they’d been dubbed the Jena Six and had become icons of a 21st-century civil-rights movement.

That movement swelled through an electronic underground of blogs and black radio and Web sites, then burst into the national spotlight. On September 20, 2007, it culminated in a protest march that drew some 20,000 people to Jena, a town of roughly 3,000. The movement’s grievance wasn’t just the severe treatment of the Jena Six, but the light treatment of white youths who’d been in fights or hung nooses on a school tree—the “white tree”—after a black student asked if he could sit under it. Together, the galvanizing facts tapped into a larger ache: the record incarceration of African American males—the shift “from plantations to penitentiaries,” as the Reverend Al Sharpton put it at the protest. All of the frustration at the disproportionate imprisonment of black men seemed to find its way to Jena, as if here, at last, in a small town’s idea of justice, was an explanation. At home and around the world, the media found answers in the black-and-white clarity of Race Hate in America, as the British Broadcasting Corporation called an early documentary.

But soon the simple narrative began to fray. For every fact, a countervailing one emerged. Blacks had sometimes sat under the “white tree.” Justin Barker had not been involved in the noose-hanging or in the interracial fights that had occurred over the weekend before he was attacked. Mychal Bell, described in news reports as an “honor student,” turned out to have racked up, along with good grades, at least four previous juvenile offenses. He was said to be living with a white friend, suggesting that black-white relations in Jena were more complex than people assumed, and so on. Skeptics seized on each such revelation to argue that the case was more about black criminality than white racism—a manufactured racial drama à la Tawana Brawley (with Sharpton once again playing a role) or the Duke rape case.

Neither version was correct—and both were. The reality was complex enough that people could assemble a story line, buffet-style, to suit their outlook. The proliferation of media outlets made this even easier. New “facts” popped up everywhere. The Nationalist Movement, a white-supremacist (“pro-majority”) group, ran interviews on its Web site with the victim and the town mayor, providing ammunition for those seeking to prove the town’s racism. On MySpace, a picture appeared of one of the Jena Six posing with $100 bills coming out of his mouth, providing ammunition for those who said the families were milking the cause for money. Anonymous readers posted the arrest record of Mychal Bell’s mother, and other allegations about the family, in an online forum of The Town Talk, a daily newspaper based in nearby Alexandria. It was Wikinews with no mechanism for achieving consensus on the truth—making it maybe the truest version of all.

Even as events refused to cohere into a sensible whole, activists, reporters, and participants kept trying to package them into a recognizable story line. Bell was used to affirm white racism or black thuggery, as two-dimensional as a Kara Walker silhouette but without the artist’s irony. J. Reed Walters, the white district attorney, devolved into caricature, as did Jena itself. The pieces didn’t add up to real people or a real place, and that argued for checking the math.

Along with football, church, and hunting, the most popular pastimes among young Jena residents include “looping”—driving up and back the length of the town, which sprawls along Highway 84 in central Louisiana. After a day or two in Jena, where I went a month after the marchers and other reporters had left, I took to looping myself, past Maw and Paw’s and the Caboose Café, past Blade-N-Barrel and the town hall, past Papa Ron’s Drive-Thru convenience store and Gracie’s Hair and Tanning Salon, past church after church after church. As I did, I noticed that most of the areas where blacks live are outside the official town limits. As it turned out, all of the Jena Six lived outside of Jena.

I found Melissa Bell, the 38-year-old mother of Mychal Bell, in one such black neighborhood, “The Quarters,” in the trailer she and her children have called home for the past four years. On an unseasonably cold day, she lay huddled beneath a blanket on her couch, with a space heater plugged in, the oven on and open, and four gas burners flaming blue into the darkness.

Until her son’s arrest, Melissa Bell’s life had been both prosaic and emblematic. Her father was imprisoned when she was 16. She graduated from Jena High and at 20, after half a year of college, gave birth to Mychal. She had a daughter and another son and by 23 was largely on her own with three children, working nights and relying on her mother’s help. She and Mychal’s father, Marcus Jones, were never a couple, Jones told me; and when Mychal was little, she took Jones to court for child support. In 2000, when Mychal was 10, Jones decamped for Dallas, returning only for intermittent visits until 2007, when he came to free the son he’d left behind. “He has not been there,” said Anthony Jackson, a teacher at Jena High who is related to Marcus Jones. “The mother has had the responsibility of raising Mychal.”

Melissa Bell worked a series of low-wage jobs—at a hospital, Burger Barn, Procter and Gamble—and had her own run-ins with the law, including a stream of bounced checks, for amounts as small as $4, in 2005. To her son, she was more friend than limit-setter, according to Mychal’s best friend, John McPherson. And she was often at work. At 16, Bell was coming into manhood on his own. By the first semester of his junior year, he was spending most of his time with McPherson and his wife in their nearby trailer. McPherson, an oil-field worker, is white—a fact that defenders of the town have made much of—but for him, race was irrelevant. He bonded with Mychal over football and became a mentor to him. “I just knew he needed somebody to give him a break,” says McPherson, who is now 20.

Given the poverty of Bell’s background, the odds were against him: black men in Louisiana are five times as likely to go to prison as to college; in LaSalle Parish, they are incarcerated at twice their proportion in the population. But Bell’s athletic gift gave him a shot at a college scholarship. He combined a knack for the game with the work ethic to make it look easy. After the team watched a game film together, Mychal would borrow it to study more. When opponents lined up, he knew exactly what they were going to run, Mack Fowler, his former coach, says: “He was like a coach on the field”—a leader. As a junior, Bell was already one of the 10 best players Fowler had seen in a 34-year career.

The erratic, and occasionally embarrassing, performance of Jena High’s football team has never diminished the town’s devotion. Schools love to play Jena because of its “gates”—so many townspeople turn out. The Wal-Mart Supercenter sells Jena Giants clothing, and local businesses sponsor the player of the week and plaster the playing field with ads, making the games profitable for the school, too. Bell was a draw, which helps explain why, when he began to get in trouble—to be trouble—so many adults looked the other way. Or as his father put it, “He couldn’t have been too bad—I mean, y’all didn’t prosecute him all this time here.”

In the year leading up to the attack on Barker, Bell had punched a girl, physically assaulted a man, and committed two acts of vandalism—four offenses he was found guilty of in juvenile court. (His father called it “kid stuff” and complained about “Uncle Toms” running to whites at the courthouse.) Fowler, a jowly white man of 56 who says he was “like a granddaddy” to his players, told me of other incidents that he had heard about involving the crowd Bell ran with, which included some of the Jena Six. In the summer of 2006, for example, that crowd had attacked a black ex-convict who had himself once been feared in the neighborhood.

As a child, Bell was “scared of everything,” his mother says—fire engines, police sirens. But as he grew up, his temper began to scare others. “He was hotheaded a lot—that was his only flaw, I believe,” McPherson says, along with “hanging out with the wrong people.” Bell also had a father who believed that no slight should go unanswered—that if you were in the right, as Jones put it, “you have the right to be a man.”

Bell’s volatility became evident in dramatic fashion when he assaulted a female student, LaTara Hart, on Christmas Day, 2005. She got in the middle of Bell’s long-running dispute with her cousin, and ended up at the hospital with injuries—to her eye, jaw, and chest—that her family describes as more serious than Justin Barker’s.

Like John McPherson, LaTara Hart has become ammunition in the information wars, used, in her case, by those seeking to prove that Bell was violent. She has no interest in playing that role, she said when I found her at her family’s comfortable brick house on a weekend back from college. (While Hart had been anonymously, and inaccurately, described in Web accounts, this was the first time she had spoken on the record.) In a community so small that, as Marcus Jones puts it, “if you burp you can hear it all over town” (perhaps on the police scanners that many residents have in their homes), the families are connected: Jones was best man at LaTara’s parents’ wedding. Partly for that reason, the Harts did not press for anything more serious than probation and an apology. LaTara and her mother forgave Bell, although her father has not. (His initial reaction to Bell’s arrest in the Barker case was “They ought to lock him up forever.”) Anlynne Hart, like her daughter, joined the protests against the charging of the Jena Six, but she also believes the whole drama need never have come to pass. “The boy had a history of getting in trouble,” she says, and it should have been reckoned with. At the time he punched LaTara, he seemed to be going through something, “just butting heads” with everyone. The coaches and school officials had to know, she says, because other players told them: “They wanted the child to bring them their touchdowns—and that’s not fair.”

Bell’s legal troubles never cost him a game. Nor did the problems he began to have in school during the fall of 2006, when his grade-point average, which had been above 3.0, slipped substantially. According to Fowler, Bell and another member of the Jena Six were written up so often that school officials asked the school board whether there was a policy on excessive infractions. There wasn’t. The coach said that if necessary, Bell should be sent to an alternative school. He wasn’t. The assistant principal was “sports-minded, you know, so he didn’t want to disrupt,” Fowler says. “And we finished 7 and 3 and barely missed the playoffs. But you look back and wonder—well. But [Bell] was never nothing but ‘Yes sir, no sir’ around us.” Still, Fowler knew enough to warn Bell that if he didn’t watch out, the streets would “whup” him and he would end up with nothing.

That Bell failed to heed that warning is perhaps understandable. As a football star, he seemed to have found the loophole in his father’s lesson that a black man can’t get a break. No wonder he didn’t see that punching a white boy at school could change the rules. “This is Jena,” Anlynne Hart says. “You had the judge and DA at those ball games Friday night, clapping them on—you see what I’m saying? And all this is going through the courts while they’re clapping him on, running up and down the football field, and then the minute this happened to the white boy—it’s like, uh-oh—click-click—he going to jail.”

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