"Jena is America," says Alan Bean, speaking of the Louisiana town where six black students are looking at decades in jail for a schoolyard brawl while white kids are facing nothing for hanging up nooses. Jena is America in the sense that the unequal justice there is not unique. There are "Jena Sixes" behind bars in every state. But it isn’t America in the sense that the country as a whole has had no trouble at all ignoring Jena.
Bean is a Baptist minister from Texas who formed Friends of Justice in response to the now infamous Tulia drug sting of 1999 in which over half of Tulia’s black males were convicted on the uncorroborated word of a corrupt and racist undercover cop. He was instrumental in getting that story out. In January he got busy in Jena. By that time, a young white man had already been beaten up and six young black students had been indicted, originally on attempted murder charges. One of the six, Mychal Bell, was legally still a juvenile when he was convicted of attempted second-degree murder with a deadly shoe. While five were released on bail, Bell remains in jail.
"If the media wasn’t watching what was going on then every last one of those kids would be in jail," one of the Jena mothers, Tina Jones, told the Nation’s Gary Younge.
Jones is generous. The truth is, "the media" haven’t been watching. Black radio has been listening, and the black blogosphere’s been buzzing, but the white "mainstream" and the white liberal media woke up to this story about a minute ago.
August 2006: that’s when the story began, when a black high school student requested permission to sit under a whites-only schoolyard tree. The next day, three nooses showed up hanging there. The following week, black students staged a protest and Jena district attorney Reed Walters, warned them at a school assembly: "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen." That was after that same DA and school officials dismissed the noose incident as a "prank." The December schoolyard fight took place after months of incidents in which the whites involved were charged with misdemeanors or not at all while the blacks drew various felony charges.
Bean says he started feeding stories to the Chicago Tribune, the BBC and the blogosphere back in April. "Some stories ran in May, but they didn’t catch. No magazines picked up. No nightly news. The New York Times studiously ignored it," he says. With the notable exception of Jordan Flaherty at Left Turn Magazine, lawyer Bill Quigley and a few others the so-called "progressive" white press was just as AWOL as the "mainstream." No turning point came until protests swelled in July. Democracy Now and the Final Call ran special reports after Bell was convicted (a conviction that has since been overturned although he remains in jail.) The Nation first mentioned Jena in its pages in the October 8 issue, which hit the stands after a 20,000 strong national protest march. (A couple of mentions appeared online in September.)