Like a game of telephone, the story of the “Jena Six” appears to have gotten a bit mangled as it leaked from a small Louisiana town to worldwide recognition over the past nine months.
And while the central facts of the case — the hanging of nooses on a tree on the Jena High School campus and the racially charged fights between black and white students that culminated in six black teens being charged in December with attempted murder and conspiracy for attacking a white fellow student — have not shifted very much, other details have reportedly been lost in translation (see “Jena Six: What Sparked Protesters To Descend On Small Town In Louisiana?” ).
Even here at MTV we have reported some of these “facts,” plucked from local and national stories on the incidents, which, according to an Associated Press story, did not accurately tell the whole story.
Following interviews with a number of townspeople, both black and white, AP reported that the citizens said the story has taken on a life of its own during repeated retellings, which have made Jena — a town whose race relations they admitted are not “unblemished” — seem like a broiling cauldron of bigotry and intolerance, something they argue it is not (see “Jena, Race And The N-Word, By Shaheem Reid, Reporting From Louisiana” ).
After speaking to teachers, officials and students at Jena High, reviewing court testimony and going over public statements from a U.S. attorney who reviewed the case for possible federal intervention, AP uncovered these inconsistencies among others in many accounts:
» The only one of the six to be tried and convicted so far, Mychal Bell, 17, was widely reported to be an honor student with no criminal record. Though he kept a high grade-point average, Bell was on probation for at least two counts of battery and a count of criminal damage to property prior to the beating of Justin Barker last year.
» The so-called “white tree” at Jena High — which many reports said was almost exclusively used by white students — is a myth, according to teachers and school administrators, who said students of all races congregated under it.
» Though it is no less horrific, it was two nooses, not three — the latter thought by some to be code for white-supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan — that were found dangling from the tree last year. In addition to being offensive to blacks, the nooses were cut down because students, both black and white, were “playing with them, pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them,” according to a black teacher at the school.
» The three white students accused of hanging the nooses were not suspended for only three days, as has been widely reported. AP said they were isolated at an alternative school for about a month and then given an in-school suspension for two weeks.
» And while most reports on the story have made note of the fact that Bell was convicted by an all-white jury — a conviction that was later overturned — few stories have mentioned the fact that, according to AP, black residents were randomly selected by computer and summoned for jury duty in the Bell case, but none showed up. One in 10 people in the parish is black.
In a related story, the FBI is investigating a white-supremacist Web site that allegedly lists the addresses of family members of five of the Jena Six teens, according to AP. FBI spokeswoman Sheila Thorne said the site essentially “called for their lynching,” prompting authorities to look into whether its content breaks any federal laws. The FBI has “gathered intelligence” on the matter, but Thorne would not say how the agency became involved.