The Atlantic Monthly sends Amy Waldman down to Jena, LA to uncover what was behind the vast civil rights brouhaha, and she comes up with the same thing I did back in September from my house: football.
Why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality
In the fall of 2006, Mychal Bell was a football hero, and his hometown, Jena, Louisiana, loved him for it. As his high-school team posted its best season in six years, Bell scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,006 yards, and was named player of the week three times by The Jena Times. The paper celebrated his triumphs in articles and photographs, including a dramatic one in which Bell, who’s black, stiff-arms a white defender by clutching his face guard. But within weeks after the season’s end, Bell was transformed into a villain, accused of knocking out a white student, Justin Barker, who was then beaten by a group of black students. The parish’s white district attorney charged Bell and five others with attempted second-degree murder. Six months later—after the DA had reduced the charges against Bell—a white jury convicted him, as an adult, of aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that carried a possible 22-year prison sentence. By then, he, along with his co-defendants, had been transformed yet again: together, they’d been dubbed the Jena Six and had become icons of a 21st-century civil-rights movement. [More]
As I wrote in The American Conservative:
Similarly, in September, when Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led thousands of demonstrators in a march on the small town of Jena, Louisiana to protest supposed racism in the treatment of six black high-school students accused of beating unconscious then stomping the body of a white schoolmate, the assembled national media got the story almost 180 degrees backward. We weren’t witnessing a revival of the Emmett Till Era of lynchings, as the pundits insisted, but another example of the O.J. Simpson Age of stars athletes whose off-field misdeeds are excused until they finally go too far.
The Jena Six hadn’t been despised outcasts: they were the best football players in a gridiron-obsessed small town. Mychal Bell, the only one of the Six tried so far, was an All-State junior who scored 18 touchdowns in the 2006 season. A local minister, Eddie Thompson, explained, “For the most part, coaches and other adults have prevented them from being held accountable for the reign of terror they have presided over in Jena.” As Abbey Brown wrote in the Alexandria-Pineville Town Talk: “Bell was adjudicated—the juvenile equivalent to a conviction—of battery Sept. 2  and criminal damage to property Sept. 3. … A few days later, on Sept. 8, Bell rushed 12 times for 108 yards and scored three touchdowns.”