Over the weekend I detected two distinct backlashes in the Jena saga.
First is the backlash from racist copycats and full-fledged, card-carrying white supremacists. On Friday an 18-year-old named Jeremiah Munsen and his 16-year-old accomplice were arrested in nearby Alexandria, Louisiana, for parading around town (drunk) with two nooses hanging off the back of Munsen’s pickup truck. Also on Friday four nooses were found strung around campus at Andrews High School in High Point, North Carolina. And since Thursday’s rally in Jena neo-Nazi websites have been overflowing with vitriol; a particularly resourceful activist in Roanoke, Virginia, published the names and addresses and phone numbers of the Jena Six and encouraged fellow haters to “drag them out of the house.” The LaSalle Parish police have stepped up patrols, and the FBI has launched an investigation. It’s a troubling development, and should surely give pause to anyone who thinks that old-school racism is a problem that’s local to Jena.
The second, perhaps more interesting, development is the backlash from the media. We’ve clearly entered a contrarian phase where the frame shifts a bit and the picture gets muddier. Today the AP ran a long piece revisiting the case with skepticism and calling many of the “distorted” facts into question. The Chicago Tribune, whose Howard Witt has been on the story since the beginning, published an op-ed by Dawn Turner Trice titled “Jena 6 Case Isn’t Perfect, but It’s Clear” in which she acknowledged that justice was not being meted out equally in Jena but argued that the Jena Six may not be the best poster boys for civil rights version 2.0. “If you look at it straight on, it’s not totally clear-cut,” she writes. “And that’s true even if you’re not a presidential candidate who may be skittish about losing votes in key Southern states. The violence, the beating, complicate things, even though the case may appear black and white. Many of the 1950s and 1960s civil-rights era cases presented far more moral clarity. There were distinct rights and wrong with little overlap. You felt it in the gut.”
And speaking of poster children, Richard Thompson Ford has a piece in Slate called “The Wrong Poster Children” arguing that it’s “plausible” that the prosecution was motivated by a racialized sense of justice; that the protesters’ demand to “free the Jena Six” was inappropriate because “these young men weren’t exactly engaged in peaceful civil disobedience”; that you can’t compare the series of incidents leading up to the fight with the fight itself. Ford ends his piece wishing he knew more about the students who defied the school’s unwritten code by peacefully standing underneath the “whites-only” tree in a protest that reminds him of the civil rights era of the 1960s. Those students are the movement’s true symbols, he concludes. Unfortunately, “they have received so little attention that I don’t even know their names or how many such brave and defiant young people there were.” I know at least one of them, Mr. Ford. His name is Bryant Purvis, and he stands accused of aggravated second-degree battery.
Fighting the first backlash is a matter for the authorities. Fighting the second requires some rhetorical skill. It seems crucial to me to make sure that the story begins with those nooses, not with the fight. And to acknowledge that the Jena Six are not angels; they don’t have to be.