Racial Tensions Rip Apart Tiny Jena, La.

It began with a seemingly innocuous question. At an assembly during the first week of classes last fall at Jena High School in rural Louisiana, Kenneth Purvis, a junior, asked the vice principal if he could sit under the shady boughs of an oak tree in the campus courtyard. "You can sit anywhere you like," the vice principal replied. Soon thereafter, Purvis and several black friends ventured over to the tree to hang out with some white classmates. According to the school's unspoken racial codes, however, that area was reserved for white kids; Purvis is black. Some white students didn't look kindly on the encroachment: the next day, three nooses hung from the oak's branches.

That provocation, which conjured up the ugly history of lynch mobs and the Jim Crow South, unleashed a cycle of interracial strife that has roiled the tiny town of Jena. In the ensuing months, black and white students clashed violently, the school's academic wing was destroyed by arson and six black kids were charged with attempted murder for beating a white peer. (The "deadly weapon": tennis shoes they supposedly used to kick the white student knocked unconscious by the first punch.) One of those black students—Mychal Bell, the only one of the "Jena Six" to stand trial so far—was convicted by an all-white jury in June on lesser felony charges of aggravated second-degree battery and is awaiting sentencing. He could face 22 years in prison. In the wake of that judgment, a host of national figures—from the Rev. Al Sharpton to the Nation of Islam to the American Civil Liberties Union—have descended on the town to inveigh against racial injustice. Billy Fowler, a white school-board member, has pledged that when the new school year starts, "we're not going to see black and white anymore. It's going to be right or wrong." But, says the Rev. Raymond Brown of Christians United, which has been working with parents of the Jena Six, "Jena does not want to come up to the 21st century. They are living deep in the past."

Decades of suppressed racial hostility spilled forth at the appearance of those swaying nooses. Word spread quickly that day; before long, scores of black students congregated under the tree. "As black students, we didn't call it a protest," says Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena Six. "We just called it standing up for ourselves." School officials convened an assembly in early September, where local District Attorney Reed Walters appeared, flanked by police officers. "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy," he told students, warning them to settle down. "With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear." A visit to the school, along with the fact that the three white boys who admitted to hanging the nooses were only dealt a few days' suspension, further inflamed the African-American community. "It felt like they were saying, 'We can do what we want to those n-----s'," says Marcus Jones, Bell's father.

Things reached a boil later in the semester. During the Thanksgiving holiday, someone set fire to the school, reducing the main academic wing to rubble (no one has been arrested, and though a link between what was ruled an arson and the racial discord hasn't been proved, many suspect there is one). The following day, Bailey was punched and beaten with beer bottles when he tried to enter a mostly white party in town. The white kid who threw the first punch was later charged with simple battery and given probation. The next day, Bailey ran into a young white man who was at the party. Bailey and parents of the Jena Six say that when the man pulled a gun on him, he tangled with him and stripped it away. He was later charged with theft of a firearm.

The tension culminated back at school the following Monday. Justin Barker, a white student who says he is friends with the kids who hung the nooses, reportedly taunted Bailey at lunch (Barker denies this). A while later, an African-American student allegedly punched Barker from behind, knocking him unconscious. Then, say white witnesses, a group of black students that included Bailey continued to assault Barker, kicking and stomping on him. (Jena High student Justin Purvis and other black witnesses dispute this.) Barker, who was treated for injuries at a nearby hospital, was released later that day, apparently in strong enough shape to attend a class-ring ceremony that evening.

Walters, the D.A., responded swiftly and severely. He charged six black students—Bailey, Bell, Theo Shaw, Bryant Purvis (Justin and Kenneth's cousin), Carwin Jones and an unidentified juvenile—with attempted second-degree murder. "Nobody tried to kill anybody," says Tina Jones, Bryant's mother. Their lethal weapon: the tennis shoes. ("You kick someone repeatedly in the head and that can be serious—deadly," says Barker's father, David.) So far, only Bell has been convicted on the lesser assault charges, for which he faces sentencing next month. No trial dates have been set for the other five, all of whom have been released—though three of the five spent months in jail until their families could raise enough money to pay the high bonds. Blacks in Jena seethed at what seemed to be flagrant inequities in the justice system: while Bailey's white assailant at the party got off with battery charges and probation, the Jena Six were hit with attempted-murder charges. Barker "didn't even stay in the hospital overnight," says Jones, Bell's father. "The D.A. is a racist. There's just no other way to explain it." (Walters declined to comment, but his supporters say he would not intentionally treat a black person unfairly.)

Racial enmity has deep roots in Jena, a former sawmill town in the central part of the state that struggles to live off the oil-and-gas industry. Like many parts of Louisiana and eastern Texas, Jena was "entirely bypassed by the civil-rights movement," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Though there is more of a racial mix now, African-Americans—who make up about 12 percent of the town's 3,500 residents—are concentrated in an area called "the country," a mix of tidy brick homes and rusted trailers. You won't find many of them in the middle-class white neighborhood with tall pines and manicured lawns known by blacks and whites as "Snob Hill."

Many whites in Jena deny that the town has a race problem. Frankie Morris, a barber at Doughty's Westside Barbershop, says: "There's a bunch of country boys around here. They're not prejudiced." But Morris's boss, Billy Doughty, has never cut a black man's hair because "the white customers, they might say something about cutting their hair with the same stuff," he says. Few have experienced the racial strain more than Marci and Chris Johnson, one of Jena's few interracial couples. When Marci, who is white, broke the news to a friend that she was dating a black man, the woman warned her that Marci would be ostracized. "It was true," she says. "I don't have one friend. They all stopped talking to me." Chris, a cousin of one of the Jena Six, adds, "I'm glad people are going to see how Jena really is, how racist this town is."

In this context, it is hardly surprising that views of the Jena Six controversy are skewed by race. Many whites claim that some of the black students had prior disciplinary problems. Or, whites say, the black kids were athletes who felt overly entitled. African-Americans argue that whites don't grasp how fraught a symbol the noose is. "It sent a message of hate for your race of people," says Caseptla Bailey, Robert's mother. "It said, 'Stay the hell away or you'll be killed'." Still, some blacks didn't want to challenge the status quo. "They said, 'Oh, you're going to make them white folks mad'," says Caseptla.

But she and other Jena Six parents began mobilizing. They reached out to the NAACP and formed a local chapter. They began meeting at Antioch Baptist Church, the only house of worship that offered them a gathering spot. And they sought to galvanize townspeople, eventually organizing a march on the parish courthouse that drew a few hundred supporters. But as recently as June, they still hadn't managed to elicit much national attention. "No one would listen," says Caseptla, now president of the local NAACP chapter.

That changed with Bell's conviction in late June. The ACLU, which had been monitoring the case since March, coordinated volunteer organizations with legal expertise. So far, the civil-liberties group hasn't taken legal action. If it determines that rights have been systematically violated, it may sue. Earlier this month Sharpton and other civil-rights leaders gathered in town. At a press conference, Sharpton said, "Six young black men ... [face] an overly oppressive charge in a manner that speaks to a South we thought we left in the last century."

Despite the sudden attention, the students face troubling outlooks. Now Bell has a team of private attorneys to handle his appeal—his court-appointed trial lawyer, Blane Williams, did not call a single witness to defend him. (Williams maintains that the prosecution did not prove its case.) And no matter how this ends up, he may never earn the college-scholarship offers that were likely headed his way as one of Louisiana's top football prospects. For the remaining five, all they can do is wait for the D.A.'s next move. One of them, Bryant Purvis, is now staying in Texas with his uncle, Jason Hatcher, a Dallas Cowboys football player who grew up in Jena. Purvis sounds lethargic and withdrawn, says his mother, Tina Jones. The murder charges "will forever follow him wherever he goes."

Meanwhile, Jena is struggling to find its way forward. "Outsiders need to stay away," says Fowler, the white school-board member. "Let local black and white people sit down and solve these problems." He's hoping the coming school year will be a fresh start. Students have endured a summer of racial conflict, but when they return, the charred remains of their school building will have been hauled away. The oak tree at the center of the storm is now gone; last month it was chopped down and converted into firewood by a timber company the school hired. "I watched that tree grow," says Ray Hodges, who planted it about 20 years ago. "It was planted as a tree of knowledge. But guess what it became? It became a tree of ignorance." Jena's residents can only hope that something more promising grows in its place.

Racial Tensions Rip Apart Tiny Jena, La. | Culture