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Jena Six: The Case and the Protests

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Darryl Fears
Washington Post National Reporter
Thursday, September 20, 2007; 3:00 PM

Washington Post national reporter Darryl Fears was online Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the huge demonstrations in Jena, La., to fight what protestors say are excessive criminal charges against six black teenagers involved in a schoolyard brawl.

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Protesters to Converge on Louisiana Town (Post, Sept. 20)

The transcript follows.

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Darryl Fears: Hi everyone, I'm Darryl Fears. Thanks for joining the chat. Jena is a lively topic. There are plenty of questions already, so let's get started.

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Albany, N.Y.: Today is the first day I have heard about this story and I have read several articles about it. It seems to me that the hanging nooses are a red herring which is being used to minimize what the six black students did. Was the victim of the beating implicated in the noose incident? If not, one thing doesn't seem to have anything to do with the other, in the same way the Rodney King verdict could not justify the Reginald Denny beating.

I would agree that the initial attempted murder charges were excessive, but it seems as if the charges are more proportionate to the crime now. When these demonstrators argue to "free the Jena Six" they are ignoring the fact that six guys kicking and beating one guy is pretty serious, and worthy of some pretty strong charges.

Darryl Fears: Obviously, opinions vary on this subject, often depending on a person's background. If you read the few stories there have been about Jena, then you know that racial fighting started after the nooses were hung. The victim in the beaten that resulted in the charges was said to have been one of the participants in hanging the nooses. That couldn't be verified. He was also accused by black witnesses of racially taunting the students who attacked him. Also, the victim returned to the high school in the weeks following the incident with a loaded weapon. He was expelled, but not charged.

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McConnells, S.C.: I understand charges against Michael Bell have been dropped. Why is he still incarcerated?

Darryl Fears: Good question. An appeals court threw out Bell's conviction, saying he should not have been tried in an adult court. But they said it was too soon to render a judgement on whether he should be released. Also, the prosecutor could decide to re-try him in juvenile court.

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Washington: When did nooses become racist symbols? When I was a kid we'd always make nooses in scout camp in Virginia to "string up the rustlers." It was a Western symbol with roots in all the Western movies we grew up with -- something dangerous that knot-tiers could make, but always about the Old West. Later in high school depressed friends would make them for what you'd now call "Goth" culture, but back then it was more Alice Cooper. About five years ago an African American friend said that nooses are "always about lynching." I never thought that my entire life and it's totally news to me. Is this a symbol with strong meaning in the South?

Darryl Fears: Considering the history of lynching in this country, this is an odd question. For more than 50 years African Americans were routinely lynched, often by hanging, particularly in the South. I'll refer you to a book called Festival of Violence by a Univ. of Georgia professor. Because of that half century, and a history of hangings during slavery, the noose became a racist symbol, especially in the South.

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Washington: Hi Darryl. It seems obvious from the comments online that people really believe that people of color want the Jena Six to go without punishment. Is there any way to get across to people that people simply expect fair punishment and that all who participated in misconduct should be punished, not just the black youth, and that an event -- such as hanging nooses -- is not simply nooses beig hung, but is a blatant symbol of horrible acts that went unpunished during slavery and is indicative of injustices that are going unpunished today? Can you articulate this to the readers? They seem so misguided to think we are people with no sense of logic or reason.

Darryl Fears: In my reporting on this subject, no one among black people I interviewed felt that the teenagers in Jena shouldn't have been punished at all. They thought the original murder charges and the battery charge were excessive. And they were upset because white people involved in fights were not charged at all. Nor were they charged for bearing guns in two incidents. So there appeared to be a racial disparity.

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Tree-hugger: Just heard on NPR that the Jena tree got cut down. Doesn't seem fair to the tree.

Darryl Fears: Yes, the tree was chopped by order of the local school board as a solution. The back story about the tree is that it was planted some time ago by both white and black students as a show of unity.

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London: Why did it take so long for the media to get involved in this case? Was this another case of ignoring it because it involved black youth? Would the media have treated this case differently if it were white kids on the end of injustice?

Darryl Fears: Again, good question. This event happened in a tiny town, very much under the radar. It wasn't just the media that caught on late. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, TD Jakes, the Congressional Black Caucus and even radio personality Michael Baisden, who played a major role in driving this protest, didn't hear about it until around August. I heard about it in June and wrote a story in July and I was among the first to do so. The media is at fault for coming to the story late, but sometimes stories develop like this. Such as the immigrant marches last year.

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Jeffersonville, Ga.: If the powerful black leaders of this country want to make a stand and defend the wrong that is being done and call for justice in this country, then why don't they let their voices cry out for justice in what is taking place in Africa! They like to refer to themselves as Africa Americans. Then why not march for justice for the thousands of people being raped, tourtured, and killed in Africa!

This is a very terrible thing that these kids have done to one another, but if African Americans want to take a stand that should have been taken before so many lives were lost, they should be marching on Washington to stop the deaths of their fellow African American Christians in Africa and around the world. Jessie and Al, don't just limit your voices and marches to African Americans here. You call yourselves African Americans and men of God. Then why do you just pick certain times to use your voice and power in the safe places in the world so to speak? Go to Washington and cry out for justice in Africa!

Darryl Fears: I'm not sure they haven't spoken out about what's happening in Darfur and other African nations. Can you prove that they haven't?

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Laurel, Md.: I can't believe the DA in Jena said this case isn't racial. They made it racial by supporting a so-called "white tree" and then acting like hanging nooses is "just a prank." This case is all racial, and it baffles me how some white people can't see the case for what it really is. What if it the situation were reversed? Would they still think it had nothing to do with race?

Darryl Fears: Some say the situation was reversed, at Duke University. That case was also racial and messy.

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Washington: I've heard a lot about the alleged disproportionate punishment given to the black youths who beat up the white student and the white youths who beat up the black student but I haven't heard any comparison of the extent of the injuries sustained. Do you know what the facts are? Were the attacks comparable?

Darryl Fears: I'm going to refer you to today's story in the Post, and to the Post story in July. You should also read stories in other papers. Plenty of information has become available in recent days.

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Washington: Why isn't the Federal Hate Crime Law being applied in this case? Is this a decision that a prosecutor can make arbitrarily, when the circumstances of a case suggest otherwise? Is the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Department involved in the case? More importantly, why hasn't President Bush made a public statement about the Jena Six case,w hich has the makings of a modern-day Scottsboro Nine incident minus the white women?

Darryl Fears: Interesting question. The noose hanging incident was never officially reported to police, who might or might not have alerted the federal prosecutor. As I understand it, not much could have been done because hate crimes generally aren't applicable when the suspects are juveniles.

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Arlington, Va.: I know that the marches and rallies are to bring awareness to the situation, but what is the expected outcome? I've seen footage of people rapping and beating on drums ... what is the purpose for that? I'm not naive to the cause, just to the events that coincide with the cause...

Darryl Fears: I'm not sure what the ultimate purpose of the marches are. I'll leave it to the organizers to explain that. But I know they drove extensive coverage of the event on CNN and,honestly, the front page of today's Washington Post.

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Washington: Why wasn't Justin Barker charged with any crime?

Darryl Fears: Justin Barker was the victim of a beating. In that sense, he didn't commit a crime. I'm not sure why he was not charged for bringing a loaded gun to school a few weeks after he was beaten.

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Fears, do you think that what happened in Jena, La., is a reflection of what is happening all around this country -- Genalow Wilson and other black youth (male and female) being treated harshly by the criminal justice system? It seems to me that these injustices are a reflection of the attitudes in our current administration -- a disregard for the law. It seems to be having a trickle-down effect in our courts. Your thoughts?

Darryl Fears: I think Jena is more symbolic to people because there are six defendants, rather than one.

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Anonymous: I read in an article the Mychael Bell had four previous juvenile charges on his record -- is this true? Also, have you had a chance to sit down with Mychael recently? How does he now feel about the situation?

Darryl Fears: Originally it was said that Mychal Bell had no prior record. But just today, a past record is apparently being unearthed. The prosecutor refused to speak with reporters until, apparently, today, as thousands of people inundated Jena. That's unfortunate. He could have explained a lot by talking earlier.

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Washington: Wait, are you and that one poster suggesting that hanging a noose in a tree was a crime?

Darryl Fears: Yes, hanging a noose could be considered a crime.

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Washington: Hi Darryl. What is the atmosphere in Jena right now? Are the protestors peaceful? What is the reaction to them by the public? Are there many counterprotestors?

Darryl Fears: I can't really answer this question. I'm typing at my desk at the Post. I haven't heard about any arrests or other incidents resulting from the protest.

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Detroit: I get it, the Jena Six were overcharged and should not have faced attempted murder charges. But lets be realistic, the crimes they committed or engaged in were horrific -- it was a mob of African Americans beating a Caucasian, that is an estblished fact. For African American leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to equate this to Selma is embarassing for the entire civil rights movement. In fact, Mychal Bell has four previous run in with the law, so the Jena Six are not innocent victims here.

Darryl Fears: There are some who believe this. Others say these type of fights happen all the time in school without resulting in attempted murder charges, or even battery. But since the Columbine incident, schools have been much harsher on people who commit school violence. In this case, according to witnesses, the victim was knocked out by the very first punch and was kicked and punched while on the ground. It was a very ugly incident that deserved a response. Of course, the victim walked out of the hospital after little treatment and attended a ring ceremony the same night.

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Washington: Can a prosecutor publicly comment on a juvenile's record under Louisiana law?

Darryl Fears: I'm the wrong person to ask. I don't know Louisiana law. It seems he can, if the prosecutor is in fact commenting now.

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Washington: Are black leaders concerned that this is the right issue, but the wrong instance to be protesting? In reading the stories about this case, there seems to be a trend of prosecutors and authority figures having one set of penalties for whites, and another for blacks, but these six kids aren't exactly the model causes to get behind. On washingtonpost.com's front page right now, there is a protest sign reading: "They stood for us, now we stand for them. Free Jena 6." In what world is six kids beating up one kid "standing for us," and behavior deserving of going free?

Darryl Fears: I understand this question when people are out there shouting, "Free Mychal Bell" and "Free the Jena Six." But people have been consistent in saying to me that the punishment in this case doesn't fit the crime. I haven't spoken to anyone who said they should not have been punished at all. People are saying Bell should go free now because he's spent a year in prison during the course of his trial.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I am an African American female, age 38. I have supported mass movements like the Million Man March and the protest at Howard University in 1989. My question is this: Why do we as African Americans put so much energy into an incident like this, which does require our energy and activism, but not an equal amount of energy into the black on black homicide rate, for instance? Yes, injustice in our court system does and will exist, but a black man is more likely to die on the streets of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia or Chicago at the hands of another black man, than a black man is likely to be wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit (statistics bear this out).

Darryl Fears: Your point is well taken. It makes you stop and think about people's priorities. I'll have to ask this question the next time I speak to the organizers of the Jena 6 protest.

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St. Louis: You are simply reporting things as factual that are not true. The truth is the victim was not involved in the noose incodent, the FBI did investigate the noose incident and the U.S. Attorney could not find enough evidence to bring hate crime charges, and three months passed between the noose incident and the assault -- the linkage is hardly clear. Please comment.

Darryl Fears: Where are your facts. The U.S. Attny. never investigated the case. In fact, at a community forum in Jena, he said he didn't act because there was no police report. The noose incident happened in September, raising tensions. During those tense months between September and December, a wing of the high school was burned and there were several fights, some involving guns. You can say the events have no connection. But black residents in Jena believe otherwise.

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Anonymous: What does divulging Mycal Bell's past juvenile cases have to do with him serving half of his life in prison for a fight that could have been avoided if the adults in the community had addressed the obvious racial tension already present in Jena?

Darryl Fears: If Mychal Bell has priors, I think that's part of the story. I'm not sure what impact it should have on this particular case, but as a reporter I'm bound to give readers that information to digest as they see fit.

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Denver: To the poster from Washington who didn't thhink hanging a noose could be a crime: The definition of criminal assault includes making threats that put another person in reasonable fear of imminent physical harm or death. It's hard to imagine a situation where hanging a noose from a tree while racially taunting someone would not qualify under that definition.

Darryl Fears: Thanks for the clarification.

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Huh?:"Yes, hanging a noose could be considered a crime." Excuse me, but as repugnant as that symbol may be -- it's still protected free speech. If you can't charge a black rap group for singing "---- the Police," you can't charge someone for making a blatantly offensive statements, remarks or speeches. That's nothing more than Orwellian punishment of thought-crime. As much as I despise what the ACLU has become, this is what they meant by defending the Nazi marchers in Skokie, Ill.

Darryl Fears: You can test whether hanging a noose is a protected form of free speech by doing it at your job. I certainly wouldn't recommend it. You might not like the consequences.

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Fort Washington, Md.: With all the money that has been raised for the Jena Six, why hasn't Mychal Bell been bailed out of jail? I understand the reason he has stayed in jail this long is because his parents couldn't afford to make bail.

Darryl Fears: You're correct. His bail is at or in excess of $100,000. But he's not the only defendant. The money is being raised for the Jena 6.

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Champaign, Ill.: News accounts include an incident where a white young man retreived a shotgun from his truck to confront a group of black teens at a convenience mart. The black kids took the shotgun from him and the white man fled. The black kids were arrested and charged with robbery and theft of the shot gun. The white who pulled the gun and leveled it at the blacks was not charged. Do you know the disposition of that case?

Darryl Fears: You state the facts correctly. It seems odd. Police say the charges were based on witness statements.

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Bowie, Md.: As an African American woman, I have two comments. One, I cannot believe that some of the posters have even questioned what a noose hanging on a tree would mean to an African American. African Americans were lynched in huge numbers throughout our history here in America. A noose means the same thing to me that a swatiska means to a Jewish American. The persons who hung the noose knew just that. And I would also like to say that I am not asking for the Jena Six to be freed; I'm asking that they receive a fair sentence. They should not be tried as adults for attempted murder. They were not trying to kill anyone. A simple assault charge as juveniles is more than fair.

Darryl Fears: Thank you for commenting.

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Darryl Fears: It appears our hour is up. Thank you all for a lively discussion. I appreciate your interest and your comments.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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