A bunch of folks jumped on a bus and ran down to Jena to holler and shake their fists, then went home and split to their severely segregated churches and social clusters. This army of the righteous, now returning to their normal lives: how many of them will actually attend the same church on Sunday? With all of this hollering about racial divides and discrimination, we still continue to gloss over the point that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week for Christians. In many ways, we all live in Jena. Just, perhaps, a more polite version of it.

I'm sure somebody thought it was funny.

Hanging three nooses from the big, shady oak tree behind Jena High School in Louisiana. The nooses grimly echoing lynching of black men and women common in those lands for centuries. The nooses hung there as both a prank against and a warning to black students—the tree was for whites only, an unwritten but commonly known rule at Jena High School. Blacks were simply not permitted to sit under this tree. And when several black students did last year, the nooses were left as a warning. Sadly, this isn’t some sad and terrible tale from the dark ages of this country. Not from the 30’s or even the 50’s. Not from the civil rights heyday of the 1960’s. This happened last year. And it is a shock to the system of most black Americans to discover this kind of thing actually still goes on in this country. Many of us have risen into the middle class, moved from the hood into plush, landscaped neighborhoods, many integrated with whites and other ethnicities. We’re more worried about our property values and stock portfolios, our kids’ SAT scores and, most certainly, the president’s sad and ultimately pointless war. Nooses hanging from a tree at a school our children attend is not something anyone reading this essay would tolerate under any circumstances. Heck, I had to look up the *spelling*. I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “noose” before. But the black parents of Jena were asked to tolerate it. Asked to put up with it, the incident having been dismissed by Jena authorities as a “prank.” Unthinkably cruel, certainly. Inexcusable and certainly not to be tolerated, but, boys will be boys, the black parents were told, and the matter was dismissed.

It was only when a group of black boys got into a schoolyard fight with white students that Jena authorities chose to take action. Perhaps seeing the approaching storm of Jena’s racial divide exploding to consume the town, Jena authorities seemed to want to get out in front and put a halt to the racial strife immediately, choosing to make an example of the first perps they’d get in cuffs. Only, those perps happened to be black.

The commonly known and open secret that the high school’s oak tree was reserved for whites only was an issue neither the school nor the Jena authorities bothered to investigate or do much about. Even though the threats leveled at black students were clear civil rights violations, and the nooses left at that scene were, in fact, a hate crime. The schoolyard fight among boys, however—a rite of passage common to all high schools on the planet—the authorities took issue with, throwing he book at six black students, charging them with attempted murder. Realizing, perhaps, they had an unwinable case, the Jena D.A. eventually dropped attempted murder charges against all but one of the students—Mychal Bell—whom, at age 16, they charged as an adult. A higher court eventually ruled that Bell could not, in fact, be charged as an adult, and the attempted murder charge was dismissed. However, Bell, who’d been incarcerated for ten months without bail awaiting trial, was not released. The authorities refused to release him, even though his charges had been dismissed, pending new filings by the Jena D.A. Bail for Mychal Bell was again denied and, even though he had no charges against him, this now-17 year old remained behind bars.

And, no, this isn’t some riveting Civil Rights Era tale for us to doze off to during social studies class. This happened last week.

Kids are cruel. They just are. I know this from firsthand experience: kids, in their immaturity, will give voice to the most venal, most hateful, most terrible thoughts and impulses human beings are capable of conjuring. While most adults will at least wait until they are alone or at least among like-minded idiots to voice hateful things, kids have sloppy impulse control and an, at best, growing sense of morality. So long as they are not afraid of getting beaten up, kids will blurt out every impulsive thought the moment it pops into their head, you’re fat! And disparage one another with a severity and cruelty rarely matched by adults.

Which is ironic, considering adults are where they learned that behavior.

Last week, thousands of protestors (I’ll assume rallied by The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push among others) descended on Jena to voice their opposition to the treatment of Mychal Bell and the five others. This kind of blatant discrimination is bread and butter for Jackson, The Reverend Al Sharpton and others, whose well of racial complaint appeared ton have lately run dry. These men always seem to be within lurching distance of a podium whenever race-based issues assert themselves. I have mixed feelings about their line of work, legitimate concerns about men whose income, fame and prosperity is so linked to the misery of others, but I also realize this is work that needs to be done and which can only be done effectively by men and women of high enough profile to warrant the media’s attention. Thus, it’s a double-edged sword: we certainly need these reverends, even if the notion of their profiting from this tends to upset my digestion.

My larger concern is this, given all the black-white unity we saw in the marches, all of the cross-cultural investment in this case we witnessed: what happens after the march is over? I don’t mean with Michal Bell and the five others, but with the army of the righteous, now returning to their normal lives? How many of them will actually attend the same church on Sunday?

With all of this hollering about racial divides and discrimination, we still continue to gloss over the point that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week for Christians. The largest black church in this town is, perhaps, half the size of the average white church and one-twentieth—one twentieth—the size of the major white churches in this town. Black Christians here have the choice to either attend struggling, underfunded, tiny churches run, for the most part, by severely out-of-touch, ego-driven, stubborn and backwards-facing country Church Folk, or to leave their culture in the parking lot by attending the white mega-churches, losing themselves in the throng. Churches which pay lip service to the notion of inclusion, flying flags of many nations and so forth, while engaging in the hateful practice of cultural elimination, blending everyone into one voice—that of the pastor, who is, inevitably, white.

I have no way of knowing if any of that was addressed by Reverend Jackson and his allies, but I tend to doubt it was. A bunch of folks jumped on a bus and ran down to Jena to holler and shake their fists, then went home and split to their severely segregated churches and social clusters.

In many ways, we all live in Jena. Just, perhaps, a more polite version of it. Our impulse control is a bit better, and we give lip service to tolerance and equality. But, my goodness, we hate gay people. We look down our noses at broke people. And, Sunday morning, the vast majority of people in our churches tend to look like us.

I believe, if we really want to do something for Jena, we can start by ending the bigotry in our own hearts. We can start there. Because, until we start dealing with the underlying problem, all the bus trips in the world one make one bit of difference. It’s all just glossing over the real problem while these reverends get a check.

Solving The Problem.
Sometime ago, as a result of the resultant social unrest, they cut down the offending tree in the Jena schoolyard. Which was precisely the wrong thing to do and the wrong message to send. It was just as bad as the busses rushing to Jena, only to have the riders split off into factions soon as they arrived home. Cutting the tree down might make a good clip for the six o’clock news, but it accomplishes nothing. It solves no real problems, and it doesn’t engage the sinful and evil practice of racial bias that obviously continues to flourish in Jena. Hatred that is passed on generationally from parents to children. Which earmarks the parents of Jena as ignorant, immature, lost and, ultimately, selfish people who insist on passing this poison on to their children, keeping hate alive in this country.

And they’re not alone. Everybody seems to be exploiting this place, exploiting these kids. The parents, the school, the cops, the Klan—white supremacists now threatening the families of the Jena 6—Reverend Al. Everybody wants a piece of Jena all of a sudden. When all that really needed to happen was to let the kids work it out for themselves. A white kid got jumped. And, yes, that was bad. But it was also, in my opinion, well deserved and probably long overdue. And there were a few more butt whuppin’s that needed to happen as well. In my experience, once the racist bastards realize you’re not afraid of them, they tend to fold up like girl scouts caught in the rain.

I’m not saying beating up the offenders is the answer. I’m saying this is what happens when kids are mean to other kids. Sooner or later, somebody’s getting whupped. And, maybe, if everybody else had stayed out of it, a better result might have happened: black kids and* white kids hanging out under the tree.

Instead, we have elevated threats and thousands marching and all of this noise. Reverend Al and Reverend Jesse all over CNN. And nothing getting solved, the wounds only going deeper, the disparate parties only becoming even more polarized in their positions. And nobody, the reverends least of all, are behaving anything even remotely like Jesus. As with the Don Imus mess, the reverends have, once again, apparently forgotten they arte Christians, preferring instead to exploit every opportunity to get themselves on TV instead of advocating real and lasting solutions to deeply entrenched problems.

Everybody here is acting quite selfishly. I wish we’d all have stayed out of it, instead letting the kids solve their own problems and design solutions that might have led this backwards little hick town out of the stone age. Instead, everybody’s making a mess, causing everybody to dig in deeper.

Which is why I miss Dr. King so much. He was infinitely smarter than either Jackson or Sharpton, and far less selfish. His standard was the personal example of Jesus Christ, and he was more invested in finding solutions than in his taking credit for them.

Boy, could we really use a guy like that in Jena.

Christopher J. Priest
23 September 2007

Legacy 2007   Cynthia McKinney   Don Imus   Adrianne Archie   THE JENA 6   Fear of Canaan   Pilgrim's Progress   An Innocent Man   The Bush Legacy   2008