The Common Good

Competing Narratives: Lessons from the Jena 6, Part 2

Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones and Robert Bailey

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[continued from part 1]

The Jena phenomenon demonstrates the power and the limitations of public narrative. Jena happened because public officials like Reed Walters and school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt didn't want to revert to the apartheid world they were raised in, but they deeply resented the civil rights movement that had swept it all away.

Therefore, when Kenneth Purvis asked the high school principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree in the school courtyard, these men froze. When white students sent a "hell no" message by hanging nooses in the school colors from that very tree, school officials insisted that the act was devoid of racial significance. When black students voiced their incredulity by gathering around the tree, Superintendent Breithhaupt called an emergency assembly in the school auditorium where DA Walters laid down the law. Turning to the black students who had been causing all the trouble, Walters reminded them that "with a stroke of my pen" he could make their lives disappear.

If Breithaupt and Walters had called a hate crime by its proper name, they would have validated the civil rights narrative they resented so deeply. So they resorted to threats. Nothing was going to change at Jena High School, and the black students would just have to suck it up.

Asked to explain his "stroke of my pen" remark at a pre-trial hearing, Walters admitted that he was angry with the students causing the unrest. The kids, he explained to the court, needed to "work out their problems on their own."

Tragically, that's precisely what happened.

Ultimately, Jena was a Lord of the Flies story about adolescent males functioning without adult guidance. If any of the remaining Jena cases had gone to trial, this version of the Jena story would have taken center stage. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), this was not the way the Jena narrative unfolded in popular culture.

In Jena two powerful narratives competed for dominance. A "thug narrative" was concocted for folks who resented the civil rights revolution. Jena was about six black thugs doing what comes naturally and a Bible-believing prosecutor gutsy enough to hold them accountable. The hero of the thug narrative is Reed Walters, the victim is Justin Barker, and the villains are six black misanthropes. In the thug narrative, the noose incident in September was utterly disconnected from the the "attempted murder" of Justin Barker in December.

The people behind the massive September 20th protest embraced a "noose narrative," which contrasted the lenient discipline meted out to the noose hangers in September with the grotesque prosecutorial over-reaction following the "schoolyard fight" in December. Reed Walters was a racist, this narrative argued, because he was way too soft on white kids and way too hard on black kids. In the noose narrative, the noose hangers are the villains, the Jena 6 are the victims, and the folks rushing to their assistance are the heroes.

While the noose narrative reigned in the blogoshpere, the thug narrative showed up in publications like the Jena Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Weekly Standard.

The "objective" mainstream media fell back on a "town divided" storyline in which angry proponents of the two competing narratives were given 15 seconds of fame.

This kind of noncommittal reporting left both sides vulnerable to criticism. Thug narrative people sounded racially insensitive and parochial; noose narrative folk appeared callous when they minimized the seriousness of Justin Barker's wounds.

Lost in all of this back and forth was a simple irony: Reed Walters' "stroke of my pen" oratory unleashed a chain of violence that reached a violent crescendo in the December 4th altercation he was now trying to prosecute as attempted murder.

What are the implications of all of this for criminal justice reformers? Are we doomed to hawk simplistic morality tales to a tiny demographic of like-minded activists, or is honesty still the best policy?

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The goal isn't just to get the facts straight or to rev up the faithful; we are trying to change public perception. Cases must be carefully selected. If we want to gain and hold an audience, even the most compelling stories must be pared to their essentials.

But even stripped-down narratives must comport with reality. Both sides in the Jena imbroglio wowed the faithful at the cost of losing credibility with the general public. If we are trying to change public perception, an ear for nuance is essential. America has changed dramatically from the day when a reformer like Fannie Lou Hamer could be beaten half to death in Winona, Mississippi, for advocating racial equality. "Nothing has changed" rhetoric appeals to impatient reformers, but it won't get a hearing in middle America. Similarly, crude references to the depradations of "black thugs" may play well in the small-town southland, but this kind of talk doesn't work in the wider world.

The public officials at the heart of the Jena story personify the southern dilemma. They were raised with one set of rules, then forced to adopt a new rule book. No one helped them negotiate these troubled waters; they simply had to make the best of a bewildering circumstance. No wonder they are confused

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