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A Product of This Town: Jena, Louisiana-January 2008


ISSUE:  Summer 2008
White Protestor

The Loop

Outsiders, all of you.

Your presence here a judgment on us. It was worst last September, when thousands of you descended with the indignation of embittered preachers. Businesses shut down. People stayed home behind locked doors. The silence of those days still lingers, still carries a warning of approaching tumult.

We pray for the people who come to Jena. God loves them no matter what their agenda, although we feel their agenda is misplaced. We pray for our community to be patient. We pray for everything to be back to normal.

Your judgment felt on this January night, by boys looping Oak Street, trolling endlessly up and down and through the center of town. Cruising, you would call it, but in Jena, it’s called “looping.”

The loop starts in the darkened parking lot of Chamlen’s Furniture store where teenagers sit in their idling pickups and lean out their windows, talking on weekend nights. Boys mostly. Some with their arms draped around their girlfriends. Then, as if by migratory compulsion, they slip their gears into drive and turn east through the unlit, empty streets.

The boys roll past the Dollar General Store, Ace Family Hardware, and McDonald’s, where a teenager hands a sack of burgers out the drive-through window. A light illuminates the State Farm Insurance sign. A dog caught in its thin glow lopes past silent display windows. Brandon’s Nails, Reid’s Jewelry store, Honeycutt Drug.

Those white boys acted and we reacted. I’m just saying that’s the way things happen in this little town.

Three minutes from Chamlen’s, the boys turn into the parking lot of Mitch’s Restaurant (Today’s special: the catfish plate) and complete the loop. They pause, adjust their radios, and then retrace their steps like panthers in a cage, back and forth, back and forth all night.

That used to be the whole, limited journey. But lately, it seems the loop has expanded. As if some of the youngsters kept going, looping the whole damn country, and then pulling it with them each time they turned back to Jena. More of you keep coming. And still the loop gets bigger.

Some of you all have returned this week for the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday march on Sunday, haven’t you? You know about the protest by those fellas with the Nationalist Movement, right? A real party, yeah, buddy. Will there be fights? Will blood run? You’ll tar and feather Jena for your own sport, won’t you?

It’s about where we’re at. The South. This is being done to us because of geographics. We’re the South, so outsiders say Jena’s a racist town.

What is so different about Jena from your town?

What god made you judge and jury?

Just who are you anyway?

Black Man Next to Jukebox
Over the jukebox at the Yellow Cat hangs an anti-noose sign.

Crowd Control

In September 2006, nooses were hung from a tree in the high-school courtyard in Jena, Louisiana. The tree was on the side of campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the student body. But a few of the school’s eighty-five black students had decided to challenge the status quo by pointing out their de facto exclusion: they asked the school administrators if they, too, could sit beneath the tree’s cooling shade. The nooses were hung in retaliation, as a kind of threat.

Three white students were quickly identified as responsible, and the principal recommended that they be expelled. But Jena’s school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, who is white, intervened and ruled that the nooses were just an immature stunt. He suspended the students for three days, angering those who felt harsher punishments were necessary. Racial tensions flared throughout the month, and on November 30 a wing of the high school was destroyed by a fire; officials suspected arson. Tensions spilled out of the schoolyard and into the surrounding neighborhoods. One night at a predominantly white party, a young black student was assaulted by a group wielding beer bottles. In another incident, a white Jena graduate allegedly pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black students outside a local convenience store. The teens managed to wrestle the gun away from the twenty-one-year-old.

For the most part, local law enforcement stayed out of the way of these incidents, shrugging them off as testosterone-fueled teenage arguments. This approach shifted abruptly on December 4—more than a month after the black students sat under the “white” tree—when a fight broke out in the lunchroom between a white student and a black student. The white student was knocked to the floor and allegedly attacked by other black students, one of whom was the same student assaulted earlier at the party. The white student sustained bruises and a black eye. He was treated at a hospital and released. According to court testimony, he attended a social event later that same evening.

The black students were not reprimanded with school suspensions or misdemeanor charges, as their white counterparts had been. Instead, five of the six black teens involved were charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder and were given bonds ranging from $70,000 to $138,000. Sixteen-year-old Mychal Bell was prosecuted as an adult and assigned a public defender, a black man, who never called a single witness. Under pressure by watchdog groups, the district attorney abruptly reduced the charges against Bell from second-degree murder to second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. The aggravated battery stems from the prosecutor’s contention that the teen’s gym shoes were used as weapons.

Donald Washington, a black US attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, insisted race had nothing to do with the charges against Bell. He said that the hanging of nooses constituted a hate crime but that charges were not brought against those students because they were juveniles. Washington was unable to explain, however, why Bell was prosecuted as an adult by a white prosecutor. While teenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder, aggravated battery is not one of those crimes. An appeals court tossed out the conviction that could have sent him to prison for fifteen years. But the four remaining students who could be tried as adults, because they were seventeen or older, were arraigned on battery and conspiracy charges.

In response to the treatment of the “Jena Six,” more than five thousand protestors converged on Jena last September to express their outrage. The scene was reminiscent of a 1960s freedom march, and many of those old-school leaders, including reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were in attendance. But there were also some new faces. Young faces. All excited to play a part in what some of them called “our Selma.”

White supremacists did their part to resemble their 1960s counterparts as well. “The best crowd control for such a situation would be a squad of men armed with full automatics and preferably a machine gun as well,” advocated an online blogger on the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network. Another wrote, “I’m not really that angry at the nogs—they are just soldiers in an undeclared race war. But any white that’s in that support rally I would like to . . . have them machine-gunned.” Bill White, an especially virulent purveyor of race hate, posted the home addresses and phone numbers of some of the Jena Six under this headline: “Addresses of Jena 6 Niggers: In Case Anyone Wants to Deliver Justice.”

The Road to Jena

My drive to Jena started Saturday, January 19, 2008—three days after MLK’s birthday—and took me through Little Rock, Arkansas, where I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. On the editorial page, an article celebrated the birthday of Robert E. Lee (“It is January 19th again, Lee’s birthday, now an official holiday in this state”).

I was going to Jena in time to see the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday march, though I’d been warned that the Mississippi-based white supremacist National Movement was planning to disrupt the MLK march in Jena by demonstrating on the same day. The mostly black high-school marching band had already dropped out as parents became more and more concerned about safety. At the last minute, the march was moved to Sunday, January 20, a day before King’s official celebration, to avoid conflict with the National Movement’s Monday rally. Beth Rickey, the spokeswoman for Jena’s mayor, told me that Jena had been turned into an armed camp of plainclothes cops anticipating a clash between the groups.

Before I left for Jena, I learned some history. The town was settled in 1802. The Bakers built a water mill for cornmeal and gin cotton, and the post office was named for the Hempill family. Between 1882 and 1965, more than 330 people, all black, were lynched in Louisiana—more than four a year. When Klan member David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991, spouting anti-black and anti-Jewish slurs, the vast majority of Jena voted for him.

Man and Dog
Hughey Leggett with one of his dogs.

Three Snapshots

I pull into Hughey Leggett’s house just outside the Jena city limits. He is sipping a beer on the porch of his wood-frame house, which is a shrine to his dead brother, the country singer Johnny Leggett. A tiny bandstand is crowded with drums and cymbals, a small PA system, photos of Johnny. Dogs gambol in the yard beneath a Confederate flag. Leggett once had the stars and stripes but took it down. No particular reason. Louisiana is a Confederate state, Leggett tells me, as if that is explanation enough. He’s been to Jena a bunch of times. Lots of whites and blacks. They all seem to get along. As long as they’re involved in their own business and don’t stir nothing up, everything’s fine. No problems except last fall when Jesse Jackson and that Al Sharpton came here. They can’t win the presidency so they go around the country and cause trouble. You have a scab on your finger, scratch it and it starts bleeding. Those two, they’ve been doing some serious scratching. Caused some bleeding they have. He sips his beer and says no more.

Down at a ramshackle club called the Yellow Cat, cigarette smoke froths the stale air above the heads of black men. The building is basically a barn—thick with cobwebs and faded beer signs. An old jukebox hums with 45s: Bobby Bland (“I Just Tripped on a Piece of Your Broken Heart”), Johnnie Taylor (“Good Love”), Billy Ray Charles (“What’s Your Pleasure”).

“Hear there’s going to be another march.”

“Ain’t surprised.”

“Nothing in Jena surprises me.”

“Remember that black guy killed in ’64?”

“The shoe shop guy?”

“He made too much money as far as white folks was concerned.”

“Is it sleeting outside?”

“Raining. A bit.”

“’Sixty-four, ’04, makes no difference what year we in.”

“It’s 2008, fool.”

“Like I said, makes no difference. Damn this weather.”

Bernice Coleman Mack leans forward on her walker while a home-health nurse braids her hair. Her grandson, Robert Bailey, is one of the Jena Six. She suspects the Devil’s hand behind all this trouble. Old man Satan is busy going to and fro seeing who he can tempt. She doesn’t know why it all happened. The noose hangers heard they used to hang black folk. That’s why they put up those ropes. A signal. If you do anything wrong, you’ll hang. If they read Scripture they would know better. Something went wrong, but she doesn’t know what. At eighty-four, her face a canyon of wrinkles etched with worry, she knows a thing or two. Satan, she says again.

Elderly Black Woman
Bernice Coleman Mack, grandmother of one of the Jena Six.

Life Underground

My mother and father hail from Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively, but through the mysteries of genetics, I look as white as most Caucasians. As a boy, I would hear my friends’ parents discuss their dislike of minorities. I stopped introducing myself as Malcolm Garcia. I just said “Malcolm.” Without my troublesome last name, I could “pass,” but that never made me comfortable; I was always on the edge—both inside the white world and outside of it.

In 1997, I took a job in Philadelphia. I used to eat at a diner down the street from my apartment. One afternoon, I sat next to a man in a suit and tie, and we began exchanging pleasantries as we ate. I introduced myself and he paused, mouth open, full of partially eaten hamburger.

“Malcolm,” he said repeating my name. “Your parents liberal?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why else would they name you after Malcolm X?”

I told him I wasn’t named for Malcolm X, that my last name was Garcia.

“Garcia?” he asked. “You got a little color in you, don’t you boy?”

I approach the people of Jena with caution.

Church

Pastors joke that eleven o’clock mass in Jena’s thirteen churches is the most segregated hour of the week. Some black people have told white Pentecostal pastor Eddie Thompson they would attend his church, but they haven’t. And there are no white people listening to the services of Rev. B. L. Moran at Antioch Baptist Church in Ward 10. Two white men ran over his sign after an NAACP meeting last year. Drove a big old mail truck over it twice. Said it was an accident; they were just turning around.

Rev. Thompson calls that sort of thing “stealth racism.” You got some hotheads and knotheads, he says. Children of racism that have stained Jena and put the town up as a sacrifice on the racial altar of America. The country has not dealt with the spirit and hatred still lurking within. How, he asks, can we move forward if the heart has not been opened? America didn’t transcend racism during some march in the 1960s, Thompson says; it’s still floating down a river of racial divide. When the Jena Six came along, they poked everyone in the eye. A light was shined. He hopes Jena’s critics shine as much light on their towns as they shine on his. God knows this little town didn’t want the light. No town would. Will they see the way forward or is their shame too great?

Rev. Moran doubts most people are ready to see anything. Not yet. He tells his Sunday congregation, I have seen a lot of storms, but no storm lasts forever. There is something better in front of us all, amen. Change will come by the hand of our enemies—do I have a witness? They set off some things, those noose hangers. Sure did. To say they didn’t know—well—they know now, amen.

Minister
	Leading Prayer in Gymnasium
Reverend Eddie Thompson leads a unity gathering in prayer.

Snob Hill

Susan Ory Powers lives near First Street among Jena’s better-off, including some middle-class black families, in a neighborhood known as Snob Hill. In fact, the modest two-story brick homes on the hill stand just one floor higher than the low ranch-style houses a few blocks away. I see nothing particularly ostentatious about them.

We sit at the dining-room table for a dinner of rice and black beans and steamed asparagus. Her refined peppermint drawl, rising and falling with each enunciated vowel and consonant, suits the manner in which she presents herself: slight and trim, sun-colored hair, wearing a yellow blouse. Her grand-father was a mayor here in the 1920s; her uncle, a school superintendent. Her father owned a chicken farm and her mother handled loan closings. When Susan Ory Powers was a child attending grammar school, she and her mother drove past an American Indian girl. If you’re anything but nice to that little girl, her mother warned, you’ll be punished. You behave. No matter their color.

“That is the Jena I know,” Ms. Powers tells me.

She was raised by black women—hired nannies whose children are now nurses’ aides or cashiers. They live in the unincorporated side of Jena, called Ward 10, once referred to by whites as “the quarters.” It is much better now than it was then, she says. Nice homes coming up, not shacks. The people there have progressed. Not as much as she would expect of her own children, but considering where their families started out, enough.

After fourteen years in Los Angeles working as a set designer (“Every Southern woman knows how to set a table, so I went to USC and became a set decorator”), she returned to Jena and the white, box-shaped house she had grown up in. Just weeks later, the nooses appeared in the high school’s tree.

“What’s this about?” she had asked friends.

In Los Angeles, she sought out black people because they understood her Southern accent. A black man was a groomsman at her son’s San Francisco wedding. He’s family. If he wanted to marry her daughter, Powers would have no qualms other than her daughter’s having to get divorced first. That won’t happen, she trusts, and therefore is left with the comfort of her convictions. She would not wish divorce on anyone.

She recalls the 1960s when the term colored was replaced by black. In Jena, white people asked, What difference does it make? We’ve always called them “colored.” It’s part of our culture. What part of our culture are we allowed to keep without being accused of bigotry? “Hard to understand a word would make any difference then, isn’t it?” She poses the questions rhetorically.

“More wine?”

Two Hunters Holding Shutguns
Haze Harrison rabbit hunting with a friend.

Rabbit Hunting

A drizzly morning, first day of rabbit hunting season.

Haze Harrison hefts thirteen beagles, one after another, into cages on the back of his pickup. It’s sunrise in Ward 10, and he’s going hunting. Whatever rabbits he kills, he’ll give to old folks. As the son of a sharecropper, he grew up eating wild meat because they could afford little else. Long ago, he lost his taste for it.

His one-story ranch-style house sits on a wooded street lined with warped trailer homes black-streaked from rainwater, their backyards wet as marshes. The asphalt street buckles into long stretches of dirt and gravel. Ward 10 might have improved from the days when people called it the quarters, but Harrison says it still ain’t nothing to write home about.

Since 1970, Harrison has made Ward 10 his home. His front windows have looked out on burning crosses since then. For seventeen years he worked as the only black person among seventy-five white employees. He heard the word nigger at least three times a day, but Harrison won’t work a job where most of the employees are black. No benefits. Just a lot of hard work and low pay. And most black people don’t have money to hire anyone.

“Suzie, Sunshine,” he calls to the remaining dogs dodging his outstretched hands.

He disagreed with the attempted-murder charge for what he considers a schoolyard fight, but he won’t excuse the Jena Six for beating up that white boy. Kids aren’t raised now like he was. He doesn’t understand the younger generation of black people. He counts his dogs. These days, kids kill dogs if they get out of their pens and run loose. When he was a child, if it wasn’t yours you didn’t touch it.

“Spot, Shorty! Hush up!”

At Dewey Wells Preserve, about a half-hour drive from his house, Harrison parks on a mud road made gooey from rain and lets the eager dogs out of their cages. He listens to them howl and take off after something, rabbit or deer he doesn’t know, and follows eagerly, sinking into soggy ground.

As a black man, Harrison can go anywhere in Jena these days, eat anywhere, work anywhere—at least in theory. But blacks and whites still don’t mingle. There are no white faces in Ward 10, except for a few spouses from mixed marriages. The town has grown subtler in its expression of its likes and dislikes. They don’t just come out and say “nigger,” but Harrison believes they think it. If a child grows up with that kind of talk, by the time he turns thirteen he’s too far gone to think differently. Harrison doesn’t know why that is. It’s just what he has concluded about kids. Not all white teenagers. Some. That’s enough.

“Hup! Hup!” Harrison calls to the dogs.

He heard about the tree long before it became national news. Black kids told him nooses were routinely left in a high-school tree like it was nothing. He understood what was going on. It’s not like it’s anything new.

Harrison does not hate. His mother was religious. Not him, although he considers himself God-fearing. His older sister was killed by her husband. Harrison’s mother raised his sister’s children like her own and taught them to love their father despite his crime. Harrison visited with him when he was released from prison. Just the way Harrison was taught. Forgive the sinner. His stride picks up, propelling him through the woods after his dogs. Hate destroys you, he says.

Black Man Wearing Shirt Reading 'Nigger Made in America'
A protestor in Jena.

Her Town Now

When teacher’s aide Bobbi Cornett tells strangers she lives in Jena, she sees in their faces the hard look of distaste. You’re one of those noose hangers, they’re thinking, and she knows it.

The unspoken accusation burns. She’s half Mexican. The charge of racism is way off, she tells me. She feels misunderstood, abused. On the day of the big September demonstration, Cornett woke up to the sound of helicopters, busloads of people, police everywhere. It was as if she had awakened in Iraq. Yes, that’s it. She says that the demonstrators were misled about Jena, just like the country was misled about Iraq.

Cornett has lived in Jena with her husband and two children since 1980. Her father was an oilman, and as a child she roamed the world. Europe, the Middle East, Africa. Setting up house in Jena, she wondered, Where the hell did we move? At the supermarket she was unable to find fresh parsley and bottles of wine. Only beer. It took sixteen years before Jena no longer considered her an outsider. Now she stands up for her town.

The marchers were socially conscious, she’ll give them that. But terribly naïve. Cornett knows the mother of one of the noose hangers, a special-education teacher who ministers to the homeless and attends church. She had even helped some of the Jena Six boys. What Cornett has been told: The nooses were a prank. The boys didn’t understand how a noose would be perceived. They weren’t born in the time of Jim Crow. They had no notion. Who knows what kids are thinking? They aren’t talking now. Can you blame them?

She had no problem with the attempted-murder charge. Knock a boy down, keep hitting him in the head, what would you call it? A schoolyard fight? She doesn’t think so.

“Was there not violence implied in the noose?” I ask.

She waves the question away. She’s not a lawyer and won’t comment further on the attempted-murder charge. That’s for attorneys to decide, not the public.

“The Jena Six should be punished according to our laws,” she says.

Her husband wanted to leave town the day of the September demonstration, but Cornett refused. No one was pushing her out of her house. I’m planting my flower bed as I planned, she told him. If the demonstrations turned violent, she would shutter the house.

In fact, she says, the demonstrators were very considerate and stayed off everyone’s lawn. But they left Jena divided. This mess has plunged race relations back fifty years. She shakes her head.

“I’m half Mexican,” she tells me again. “Why is this happening to us?”

The Best Crops

When white people called Cleveland Riser “nigger,” he mocked them. You don’t have the education to pronounce Negro, he told them. Your parents didn’t teach you that. Their words didn’t hurt Riser. He knows that a lack of intelligence causes fools to say “nigger,” and he can get along ignoring them.

Riser is a retired assistant superintendent of schools. His defense is an educated mind. He dismisses racists by joking: They may hate him, but they still have to pay the taxes that support his well-earned Social Security checks. He just loves those people to death. “The money is not black or white,” he says and chuckles, covering his mouth to be polite.

He chose education over the plow and mule of his forebears, but his father and grandfather taught him the value of hard work and the self-esteem that comes with success. His grandfather grew the best crops, just outside Jena in Winnfield. Riser’s father worked in the salt mines, but he emphasized education second only to religion. School buses didn’t serve the black neighborhood they lived in, so every day he drove his son to the house of an elderly couple who lived along the bus route. He offered rides to fourteen other children, too. He asked the school district for help with gas money but was turned down. Instead, black families paid him half a ham, potatoes, a quarter a day, anything they could afford to get their kids to school. All but two of the fourteen children attended college. Now, Riser sees his education—the skills of the mind—as the best kind of empowerment, even against those who hate him for those skills.

Without skills, derogatory words cast a pall. Black people get tired of getting hit in the head with nigger. The Jena Six, he believes, reacted in a physical way because they didn’t have the words, the right words, to fight back with their tongues and intellects.

“Some people have not accepted the fact of all these ethnic groups in Jena,” Riser tells me. “You find this in any town. It exists wherever there are barriers.” Riser pauses, collecting his thoughts, the right words. You find this anywhere, he says. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Anywhere. Jena’s not so different in that respect. Barriers can be overcome, but conversation is better than battery. Words, used correctly, help to dispel fear. And fear, he says, still overpowers the residents of Jena. If your boss hates black people and you’re dependent upon him, what words do you use? Do you use any? I work for him, I attend his church. I keep my mouth shut when blacks are discussed. I say I don’t like them either to please him. I stop thinking for myself.

Riser was pleased to see all those people descend on Jena for the big fall protest. They brought an awakening to Jena. Good. Now some white supremacists plan to protest on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Good, Riser says. Let them come. Black folks should react by not showing up. Think of it. No audience. Don’t go, don’t listen. Nothing would happen except the hate would be ignored like so much wasted breath, wasted words.

Another Civil War

The two little Dupre boys, not yet teenagers, dress like their daddy and granddaddy—army fatigues and black lace-up boots. They know how to handle a gun though they don’t carry one holstered on their hips like the older men do. “It’s going to come down to another Civil War,” their granddaddy David Dupre Sr. says and strokes his white beard. “I might not live to see it, but these boys will.”

The boys look at him and then away, feeling awkward to suddenly be the center of attention. They play with a gray Chihuahua near a wall of mounted guns: .22 Magnum, .243 Remington, Winchester Model 94, Benjamin Air Rifle. Their mother works as a bank teller. This Saturday, the boys are alone with the men. “We have plenty of artillery. More in the attic,” their daddy says.

“Ain’t going to be between North and South, but between black and white,” Granddaddy continues. “Blacks make it a race issue. I got kinfolk way back in history hung with a noose. It’s a form of saying if you screw up, you get punished. It’s got nothing to do with blacks.”

He pauses, asks me if I’m all right. Am I sure I don’t want to hang my jacket? Am I sure I don’t want some coffee? Bathroom just down the hall if I need it. Something seductive in his hospitality. Gentle, so disconnected from his rage. You seem like a good fella, Granddaddy Dupre tells me. But if you’re not, if you’re some white liberal aligned with the Black Panthers . . . well, just because you got by me coming in, doesn’t mean you’ll get by me going out. Do you understand that?

The threat is expressed in such a quiet way that it doesn’t quite register with me. I can’t quite fully comprehend the fury beneath his soft tone of voice.

“Obama. Someone will kill him,” Granddaddy says of the senator’s presidential bid. “We’ll have Obama Day. Ain’t time for a black president. That nigger wins, I’ll pack my shit and go to Mexico.”

“I ain’t that extreme, like they should go back to Africa, or anything like that,” his son says. “I just don’t like them.”

He glances at his boys. Makes sure they’re listening and understand.

Young Boy Leaning on a Rifle, Gazing at a Handgun
The Dupre boys in the living room of their home.

Starting Over

Setting: Two seventeen-year-old boys, one black and one white, lounge on steps leading into the Jena courthouse on an overcast afternoon, waiting for a mutual friend who is inside appealing a speeding ticket.

White kid: There’s nothing to do here but go out of town. Ride around, watch ESPN.

Black kid: I’m trying to go to college. When I get my income tax refund, I’m leaving.

White kid: No future here. This mess with the high school, it’s so big it’s become my only memory of Jena. I don’t want to say I’m from Jena anymore.

Black kid: The nooses made black people further mad than they already are. What did that mean? They’d hang us for speaking the truth? I feel like whooping some ass.

White kid: I’m leaving. But you know those boys made some money. My momma’s boss is a black man. He said he saw one of the Six walking out of the mall in Monroe, hands full of bags.

Black kid: My manager at McDonald’s—he’s white, he’s nice. Most people aren’t racist. When I’m not at work, I stay in the house. I remember as a little kid selling blackberries in the white community. I was eight years old. Someone broke into a house somewhere around us. The police picked us up.

White kid: The way this has been handled, more mistakes are going to be made. My momma says I should go to New Orleans.

Black kid: Yeah, start over in a place where everyone’s starting over.

The Parade

There is no band. People silently carry placards. DR. KING SAID HATE CANNOT DRIVE OUT HATE. KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE. BLACK POWER IN JENA. IT’S A NEW DAY. Down Oak Street, cars follow the marchers. Their arms are linked; others throw candy to children on the sidewalk. Without music, the march assumes the funereal quiet of news footage from another era. Ignore the wrinkles and gray hair, and a moment of youthful 1960s activism seems to stand resurrected.

The opposition, carrying NO TO MLK signs, seems equally lost in time. Some of them stomp back and forth in army fatigues. Do we want the values of Jena or the values of a Detroit crack house? Handguns holstered on their hips, living caricatures of white rage. Some walk dogs with nooses instead of leashes, demand rights for the “white majority.”

Half a dozen rotund members of the “New Black Panther Party,” outfitted in black lace-up boots, black military uniforms, black berets, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, stand apart and refuse to speak with white people. They pick fights with police and shout triumphantly when one of them is handcuffed and dragged away, caricatures of a dated militancy that Jena’s black youth are too young to recall.

And then I see Susan Ory Powers holding hands with a black woman, and Bobbi Cornett in a van with black kids. I’m relieved by this, but their presence here isn’t enough, any more than mine is. We seek absolution, but we are not absolved.

“I tell you what, Jena became the perfect storm of racial incidents,” Rev. Thompson told me. “Yes sir, it became the perfect stage for America to play out its racial drama.”

The Loop

White Boy Carring Rebel Flag, with Dog Lead by Noose
A white supremacist protestor with his noosed Chihuahua.

On a wet Tuesday morning, I check out of my motel and join the small procession of cars on Oak Street. Our headlights sweep past the vacant parking lots of Chamlen’s Furniture Store, Sonic, and McDonald’s. The Martin Luther King Jr. birthday parade and the white rally that followed it left no trail of disruption. This new week brings a sense of relief that there will be no more commotion. For the time being at least, Jena will be quiet.

Dollar General, Auto Zone, Popeye’s. My headlights sweep the side streets and dark houses, as if to pinpoint a sleeping unease, the discomfort of distorted dreams, of something amiss. If it can be found, whatever it is, perhaps it will dissipate, be absorbed without interruption, or at least forgotten, in the days, weeks, months, and years that compose a life grounded in routine and unhindered by doubt. Or perhaps the marches will keep coming, the people will continue to talk, to try to understand, to forgive.

Minutes outside Jena, I merge onto Louisiana State Highway 127 and then onto US 165; hours later I reach Interstate 530 and US 71, and on and on, each household between Jena and my Kansas City home entwined in a loop of my own making, pulled together by our uncertainty and our yearning, each one of us an outsider in a collective search for common ground.

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yas's picture
yas · 5 years ago

why is the esssay broken up into many chapters 

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