A few weeks ago, I got a last-minute call to do “something” for Race Equality Week at the University of Tennessee. I agreed to conduct a one-hour open discussion about the Jena, Louisiana, racial conflict and its layers of meaning.
Here’s a brief recap. First, I read the students a chronology of events:
8/31/06 In an assembly, a black student asked if he could sit under the single shade tree that white students always sat under.
9/1/06 Three nooses were hung from the tree. The Principal wanted to expel the responsible students but the Superintendent overrode his decision.
9/6/06 The District Attorney (Walters) was invited to a school assembly. Black students reported that he was looking at them when he said, “With a stroke of a pen, I can make life miserable or I can ruin your life.”
9/10/06 Black students asked to address the school board but were denied.
11/20/06 There was arson of a school building.
12/1/06 There was a private party at the Jena Fair Barn; a few black students tried to enter and a fight broke out.
12/4/06 A white student (Barker) was beaten by black students and sustained injuries. He attended his school’s ring ceremony that night.
8/31/07 The school cut the tree down.
11/20/07 The New York Times reported that over 10,000 people marched for civil rights in Jena.
The six students were charged with attempted murder (weapon: a running shoe) and conspiracy, with a possibility of up to 100 yrs. imprisonment. Mychal Bell was tried by an all-white jury and found guilty of aggravated assault (with a sneaker), with a possible sentence of up to 22 years.
Then I read a few demographics about the town:
1 Population is fewer than 4000. 85% are white; 12 % black. 27% are under 18.
2 The median income is $27,321. 15% of adults are college graduates.
3 There are 499 students in the high school. 81% are white; 18% black. 37% are eligible for free school lunches.
4 It was once a lumber an oil town. It now has a few banks, as Wal-Mart Super Store and a new detention center for undocumented immigrants who are held there awaiting deportation. This detention center was formerly operated by Wackenhut for 280 youth, but was closed because of widespread allegations of abuse of detainees. A private group, GEO of Florida, is now building it (reportedly with immigrant labor) as a regional center to detain 750 immigrants. It will provide 754 jobs, and GEO, to show its good faith, is providing 10 scholarships of $1000 each to students from Jena.
This information was all the students needed to engage in a wide-ranging discussion. Some of the issues they covered:
1 How Jena has come to symbolize the widespread injustice that black communities experience throughout this country: great disparity and mistreatment in schools and the criminal justice system, creating a path directly from the cradle to prison for black children.
2 Whether the nooses were just an “overblown incident,” with no particular racial message, as many townspeople and school board members said, or whether it was possible for anyone, young or old, to live in the U.S. and not recognize the noose as a symbol of terrorism, in particular for the black community.
3 Concern about the kind of opportunities and hope for the future were available for all low income students in Jena: taking up guns in the military with pay and healthcare; taking up guns here with healthcare in prison; working as guards in the detention center; working at Wal-Mart as low-paid employees in the corporate strategy that has destroyed small towns all over the South.
4 Systemic racism on the part of the school board and its refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for creating the climate for this violence, as well as its denial of root historic and current causes of the conflict.
5 The symbolism of the tree in a region where shade is extremely cherished and sought after in the fierce heat. White privilege determined who got to sit under the tree. No student could quite believe that the tree was punished as the perpetrator of racial conflict.
6 The irony of a regional detention center being built for immigrants in a town where there is historic racial conflict, with the probability of low-income black and white people being hired to guard brown people. For many students, there seemed good possibilities of cross-race organizing here—or more racial conflict.
It was a very short hour. The discussion led the students to understand that racial injustice revealed in Jena is not particular to that place but is emblematic of what goes on throughout the country, including the town and university where they currently reside.