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.”

The district attorney, J. Reed Walters, does not know whether he ever saw Bell play, since he and his wife (who works for the school system) took a break from games after their sons graduated from Jena High. Nearly four decades earlier, Walters had played high-school football himself, in the nearby town of Olla, but he was no Mychal Bell. His aspirations lay elsewhere, in becoming a lawyer. He loves being a small-town prosecutor, and having never craved the spotlight, he feels only “puzzlement” at the global storm he generated. But thanks to the legal discretion that Louisiana grants its district attorneys, it is Walters’s character, not any “Jim Crow” statute, that has shaped the course of Bell’s case. That character, in turn, reflects in no small measure the character of his community.

Raised in Olla by a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked in the timber industry, Walters has spent most of his life in LaSalle Parish. As he entered adolescence, the parish, like many places across the South, was fighting a rear-guard action against school desegregation, a battle chronicled with unabashed bias in its newspaper. The first blacks didn’t enter Jena High until 1969, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education. The following year, the first black faces appeared in the football team photo; from what I could see, those players also integrated the pages of The Jena Times, which was owned and edited then, as now, by Sammy Franklin. A 1971 photo of Olla’s high-school football team included Walters, then in 10th grade, and one black player. In that same issue, a columnist argued that just because “a Black man cannot work as well as can a White with ideas, symbols, numbers and the like,” he was not inferior—just different.

Over the next decades, Jena settled into its post-segregation identity. Blacks could walk in the front door of the Burger Barn, instead of going to a side window. Relations were cordial, barring a few incidents of white-on-black violence recounted with the horror of legend and occasional school fights stemming from interracial dating. Gas-and-oil exploration joined timber as a stalwart of the economy. Walters settled in Jena in 1981, after law school at Louisiana State University, and has never left. He raised his sons in a large house with a swimming pool on “Snob Hill,” as Jena’s wealthier section is called. He handled the routine cases of a small-town lawyer, and was also drafted into defending the poor. In fact, Walters’s sense that he was winning too many cases for his indigent clients helped inspire his run for district attorney. “Walters Elected D.A., LaSalle Goes for Duke,” reported The Jena Times on October 10, 1990. Sixty-eight percent of voters in LaSalle Parish had turned out, and 63 percent of them had voted for David Duke, the ex-Klansman, for U.S. senator, giving him one of his highest margins in the state. Walters won 51.6 percent of the vote—3,212 votes. By the time Mychal Bell turned 16, Walters had been reelected twice. By statute, he also advises the police jury (akin to a parish council), the school board, and the hospital. The lifelong son of the parish has become a town father.

A number of those town fathers—the police chief; Sammy Franklin of The Jena Times; Walters himself—attend the same church, Midway Baptist, which sits on Highway 84. Midway is among Jena’s larger and more prosperous churches, and Walters is among its pillars. A licensed minister who pinch-hits for the preacher, he also sings (off-key, by his own admission) in the choir, heads its pastor-search committee, and teaches Bible study twice a week. Along with the small-town culture in which he was raised, Walters’s Southern Baptist creed—his certainty of the path to eternal salvation—helps to explain him: in matters of faith, or law, he has the confidence of his convictions.

On the October Sunday morning when I visited, he began Bible study by taking attendance (six adults, including his wife) then turned to the Sermon on the Mount, explaining why Jesus had come to reconcile man to the law of God. Human beings who kept trying to bend the law to their convenience and desires needed an “attitude adjustment,” he said, offering a modern example of bending the law: even though the speed limit is 55, we interpret it as 64 because that’s what will trigger a ticket.

Walters believes time is “critically short” before the Second Coming, when everyone will have to stand before Jesus, and all must perfect themselves for that moment. He strives for that perfection—taking Jesus’ injunction against tearing asunder “what God has joined” so literally, for example, that he frets about the prospect of ever having to pronounce divorces. He actually tries to drive 55. When I asked if he had ever made a mistake, he thought for a moment, then cited a 25-year-old case in which he had misread a report and failed to file a lawsuit in time.

Walters remained convinced that everything he did in the case of the Jena Six was “absolutely 100 percent correct—without question.” Never mind that even some of Walters’s white friends say he charged too severely, not least because the victim was able to attend a school function that night. Walters believed his decision to charge Bell as an adult with attempted murder reflects both the facts of the case, including Bell’s history, and the values that his community holds dear—“conservative,” “help-oriented,” and “Christian.” (I spotted a photocopy of the Ten Commandments hanging on the courthouse bulletin board, next to the bail-bondsman and paternity-testing ads.)

Walters says he does not look at race in his prosecutions. But that does not mean the racial boundaries of his community do not influence him. Whites outnumber blacks by 7-to-1 in the parish; beyond one black member apiece on the 10-member school board and on the 10-member police jury—both from a racially gerrymandered ward—no black has a position of power. There are four black teachers on a parish staff of 196. Black-owned businesses? Sammy Franklin could think of two: a car-detailer and a funeral home.

As for Walters himself, his world—like that of many white Americans—is white, as is most of his neighborhood. The restaurants he frequents rarely have black employees or black patrons. The worshippers at his church are white, as are the small-town-elite circles in which he moves. In 17 years, he says, he has never had a black employee, beyond some who helped him “privately.” He offered as evidence of Jena’s “perfect” race relations that the high school’s white quarterback throws to both black and white players. The white kids who hung the nooses were of Walters’s world—indeed, one of their families attends his church. Mychal Bell was, in essence, a stranger.

That reality was not lost on Jena’s black residents, including Mychal Bell’s mother. She told me a story about going to pick up Mychal’s grades in 2006, before he “got locked up.” Mychal had been failing math, and the teacher was regularly sending him to the principal’s office for clowning around and sleeping. As Bell stood in line, she says, she watched the teacher, who was white, embrace and smile at Jena’s better-off whites, even as she greeted black and lower-class white parents much less warmly. Bell confronted her: “I said, ‘You ain’t got no business being around black kids, because you don’t even want to teach them. You just showed your cards right here: everyone you knew—everyone you knew who got money—they was all good with you.’”

The teacher, Kim Franklin, happens to be married to Craig Franklin, the assistant editor and heir apparent of The Jena Times, which has presented uncritically Walters’s account of the events. (In an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, Craig Franklin dismissed the entire affair as journalistic malfeasance, calling Jena a place “where friends are friends regardless of race.”) Kim Franklin says she has always treated all of her students the same, and she and Melissa Bell clearly don’t like each other. But their polarized perceptions, as much as the legal encounter between Walters and Bell, seemed to capture the competing truths of the Jena saga: Bell’s denial of her son’s responsibility, and the town’s denial of its racial cliquishness. The white residents’ loving solicitousness toward their own was subtler than crude racism—which Jena also had—but no less powerful. It reflected a conception of “separate but equal” communities that ultimately weren’t equal at all. Witness the town’s selectively fluid geography: even as black areas have remained unincorporated—unable to vote for mayor or police chief, ineligible for town services like garbage collection—in 2005 Jena annexed a new subdivision to the north of “Snob Hill.”

On September 20, for a span of hours, Jena’s demography inverted: suddenly, the protesters against the status quo outnumbered its defenders by at least 6-to-1. But although the protesters passed right over the town lines, they didn’t take up the cause of moving them. For all its noise, the Jena Six movement lacked a clear sense of where to apply its force. It probably helped reduce the charges against the boys, although Walters denies that public pressure swayed him. Vigorous defense lawyering got Bell’s conviction as an adult overturned earlier that month. And it’s unlikely that, at least in Jena, public officials will treat noose-hanging lightly in the future. But so much else was left untouched. The protesters didn’t press to improve the parish’s indigent-defense system, poor even by the standards of Louisiana; didn’t ask why two schools in the southern part of the parish are still effectively segregated, providing an escape valve for white Jena parents who wish to avoid sending their children to integrated schools; and didn’t talk about the habitual-offender law Walters used to send a peer of Bell’s father to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for life for three nonviolent offenses. “We will not stop marching until justice runs down like waters,” Jesse Jackson said. But the Jena Six movement seemed like a mighty flood that left bent and broken twigs in its wake—and the contours of the riverbanks unchanged.

Less surprising is that the movement avoided the other side of Mychal Bell’s story: his own choices, for starters, or the link between the generational disintegration of black families and black incarceration. The lip service about not excusing Bell’s past or the boys’ attack on Barker didn’t diminish the hagiography, which climaxed in a standing ovation for two of the Jena Six when they appeared as presenters at the Black Entertainment Television awards (dressed in hip-hop gear, which coach Fowler says they never wore in Jena).

Anlynne Hart, the mother of Bell’s earlier victim, says his parents should have acknowledged his history up front and declared that he deserved help in spite of it. But would such a movement have grown around an icon with a tragic flaw? There is a reason we tell these stories as we do. On Melissa Bell’s wall hung a commendatory plaque from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization Martin Luther King Jr. co-founded and led. Simply by mothering Mychal and standing by him, she became a heroine of this civil-rights movement, an elevation that perhaps spoke more to its character than to hers.

On the gray day when I met Melissa Bell, her mood was as dismal as the weather. Her son’s future seemed unpredictable. His conviction in the Justin Barker case had been overturned on the grounds that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult, but he faced retrial as a juvenile. He had come home in September after more than nine months in prison—then been returned to custody two weeks later because of his previous juvenile offenses. He had missed Christmas and his birthday and at least one U.S. Army National Combine game, a national forum where high-school players show their stuff. He was, even at that moment, missing his senior season of football, and all the promise that had portended.

One weekend last year, Marcus Jones drove north from Jena to visit his son in prison. He was excited: a recruitment letter for Bell had come from LSU, whose football team is revered here.

“Now this is the college,” he told Mychal, handing him the letter. He realized his mistake only with his son’s rueful reaction: “Oh Lord, that was a dream right there.”

Instead of a bright future, as Jones had initially thought, the letter evidenced only how much Bell had thrown away—or had had taken from him, depending on whose version you believed. From then on, Jones said, when Bell asked whether other letters had come, his mother lied and said no.

But in December, Bell’s forecast changed. Days before his trial was scheduled to start, he and Walters made a deal: Bell pleaded guilty to second-degree battery, a misdemeanor; acknowledged in open court that he had punched Barker; and agreed to testify against his co-defendants should they go to trial. He was sentenced to 18 months, including time served, which means he should be out by summer. Even as both sides claimed victory of a sort, it was hard to escape the sense that they had fought to an exhausted draw.

Under the terms of the deal, Bell will be admitted into a high school yet to be determined, which means he could be playing football again by fall. He now has a second chance at that LSU scholarship—to the extent, that is, that he ever had a chance at all.

As it turns out, Fowler, Bell’s former coach, didn’t think Bell would make it to LSU, as he told me when we met in October. The rain was beating through the pine thicket around his home, and dark had fallen early. His cat, Fancy, nestled on his belly. Fowler, who spent his life in sports and education, had retired prematurely at the end of the school year, his spirit broken in part by the jailing of Bell and two other players who were part of the Jena Six. He struck me as wanting to unburden himself—even if doing so exposed his own clay feet.

As talented and versatile as Bell was, Fowler said, at 5 feet 9 inches or so, and maybe 190 pounds, he probably wasn’t big enough for LSU, and likely could have played only for a Division II or a small Division I school. Those prized recruitment letters? Fowler, like every other coach, put his best players’ names out; the schools then blanketed prospects with pro forma letters of interest. “I’m gonna tell you, these colleges, they send 1,000 a day,” Fowler said. Until the college recruiters look at game film, they can’t say whether they’re truly interested or not.

Bell and the other players didn’t know that, and Fowler and the other coaches didn’t tell them. During the off- season, the letters helped propel the kids through the tedium of running and lifting weights—keeping them working, so their high-school teams could keep on winning.

Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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