One Year After the Jena Tree Was Cut, Little Progress Has Been Made

Thursday 31 July 2008


by: David A. Love, The Progressive Media Project

We have made some progress since the ugly incidents in Jena, La. But we still have a long way to go to make the noose a thing of the past.

On August 31, 2006, a black student at Jena High School asked the principal if he could have permission to sit under the "white tree," the tree where white students typically congregated. The principal told the student to sit wherever he liked. The student and his friends decided to sit under the white tree.

The next day, three nooses - a potent symbol of racial hate - were found hanging from the tree, the act of three white students at the high school. This prompted a protest under the tree by the school's black students.

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters told the black students they were making too much of the "prank."

"I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen," Walters told the students.

It was a vow that Walters made good on.

After a fight on December 4, 2006, between black students and one of the white students who had done some of the racial taunting, Walters charged six black students with attempted second-degree murder.

Mychal Bell, 17, the first of the students to stand trial, eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile facility with credit for time served. Charges were reduced for a number of the other men as well, but their cases are on hold as an appeals court decides whether to remove the judge in the case for showing bias in the proceedings.

On July 31, 2007, the tree was cut down. And on Sept. 20, tens of thousands of marchers converged on the town of 3,000 residents to protest racial discrimination in Jena's legal system.

But those who believe that the Jena was an isolated incident should give it a second thought.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of noose hangings since the Jena incident, according to DiversityInc magazine. It notes about 80 noose incidents in schools, government offices, the workplace and public places in the last 11 months. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in America has increased from 602 groups in 2000 to 844 in 2006.

The good news is that Louisiana, New York and Connecticut have made noose hanging an offense punishable by prison. Hopefully, other states will follow suit.

But it will be difficult to do so if broadcasters keep tossing the word around. In January 2008, when Golf Channel commentator Nick Faldo suggested that other professional golf players should "gang up" on Tiger Woods to beat him, broadcaster Kelly Tilghman added that they should "lynch him in a back alley."

And on Feb. 19, 2008, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said on his radio program: "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels - that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever - then that's legit. We'll track it down."

We should have zero tolerance for nooses in America. And lynching is not a metaphor to be thrown around lightly.

Some 3,500 blacks were lynched in this country between 1882 and 1968.

This should not be the stuff of pranks or cranks.


David A. Love is a lawyer and writer based in Philadelphia. His blog is davidalove.com. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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