Strife has Jena talking about racism

JENA — It’s not yet 8 a.m. but there’s a line of men waiting for a $10

haircut at Doughty’s Westside Barber Shop.With customers sitting in a

row of chairs under a line of antique mirrors, waiting for no-frills haircuts —

short styles mostly accomplished with clippers — the conversation usually

runs to hunting and fishing.

Except lately. Last week, the first trial took place for one of six black teenagers accused of attempted murder, aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy after a white classmate was attacked. Talk around town took a racial bent, a tough issue in the rural South.”I don’t think we’re racist here,” barber shop owner Billy Doughty, 70, said. “People work together, go to school together. We never talk about race.”

But Doughty does not cut black men’s hair. Never has, never will. He tells that to the occasional black would-be customer.

“That’s the thing about working for yourself,” he said. “I don’t do shaves. I don’t do shampoos. I don’t cut black hair. I don’t think it’s racist. I just don’t do it.”

And that, many black people say, is the key to race relations here — you’ll get along as long as you don’t want much.

“This is a good town to live in for things like no crime, it being peaceful,” said Caseptla Bailey, whose son is facing attempted murder charges. “But it’s very racist, and they don’t even try to hide it. It’s like, stay in your place or else.”

Last fall, racial tension built at Jena High School.

Hostility ratcheted up after a black student sat under a tree on campus where white students traditionally congregated. The next morning, three nooses — symbols of lynching in the old South — were hung in the tree.

“That was just a prank,” Doughty said. “They had those nooses from a football rally. They had used them to hang the mascot from the other team. There wasn’t anything racist in that.”

School officials agreed, suspending the students who hung the nooses for three days.

Black residents saw the incident differently.

“When a black person sees a noose, he doesn’t laugh,” Bailey said. “They don’t stand for any thing funny for us.”

There were fights between black and white students. A white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white off-campus party. A few days later, a young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at the Gotta Go convenience store.

The white person was not charged with a crime. But the three black teens who took the shotgun from him were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft. They claimed they wrestled the weapon from the man in self-defense.

Then on Dec. 4, six black students were accused of jumping Justin Barker, 18, who is white, and beating and kicking him.

A motive for the attack was never established, but two witnesses during Mychal Bell’s trial said they heard one of the attackers shout that Barker was the person who had been “running his mouth.”

Barker was treated at a hospital emergency room and pictures shown during Bell’s trial showed him swollen and cuts to his face. He was released after three hours, he said, and that same evening went to a school function. But he said he took pain medicine for about a week and a half.

Bell, a star athlete — he scored 16 touchdowns for Jena High’s football team last year, and, though just a junior, was being courted by schools from UCLA to Louisiana State University —was tried on reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He was found guilty and could face as much as 22 years in prison. Sentencing is set for July 31.

Trials for Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones and Theodore Shaw — all 18 — who still face attempted murder and conspiracy charges, and an unidentified juvenile — have not been set.

There was immediate outcry in the black community when the attempted murder charges — rather than battery charges —were filed. The group was overcharged for what was essentially another school fight in which the victim was not even hospitalized, Bailey and others said.

“I’ll tell you one thing, when the DA filed attempted murder charges against them, the fights at school stopped,” said Tommy Randall, whose daughter, Kari, is Barker’s girlfriend. “It at least made those kids stop all the fighting.”

But such charges are a “vast overreach,” said David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana. He felt the bond set for the youths — $138,000 for Bailey, later reduced, and $90,000 for the other defendants, was likewise out of line.

“In any other circumstance it looks like no more than a school house disagreement,” Utter said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been in town since March monitoring the case. The group is also trying to obtain records from the District Attorney Reed Walters to see if black and white suspects are charged differently in similar cases.

“We want to see what charges have been filed so we can look and see if there is a pattern of charging blacks differently from whites,” said Tory Pegram with ACLU of Louisiana.

The ACLU has also helped residents form an NAACP chapter.

Jena has about 3,000 residents, and only about 350 are black. The same holds true for LaSalle Parish, where about 11 percent of the residents are black.

Many residents know each other by name, and outside the courthouse black and white citizens exchange friendly greetings, hugged each other and chatted.

State statistics for 2005, put 18.9 percent of LaSalle Parish’s 14,000 residents below the 1999 poverty level and list the average family income as $31,792.

Still, it’s a great place to live in many ways, said John Jenkins, father of Carwin Jones. There’s little crime in the mostly rural parish, the area is scenic, with good fishing and hunting.

“I work with white people, play baseball with them, coach their kids,” said Jenkins, who coaches a group of 7-year-olds in baseball. “Before this happened, I can’t say I really had a problem. Not that we really hang out together. Whites and blacks don’t really socialize.”

In an area where the oil and timber industries are the biggest employers, blacks are not well represented in local businesses.

When Patty Randall, who is white, moved to Jena 21 years ago she said she was struck by the lack of racism.

“I managed a store in town and we had black customers and white customers and nobody was treated any differently,” she said. None of her three employees were black, however, she said.

“It took me a long time to get a job here,” Randall said. “Most of the businesses are family businesses and they just hire family.”

Bailey, 56, who returned to Jena after serving in the Air Force, has a degree in business management, but said she was unable to get a job as a teller in the city’s banks, where there are almost no black employees.

“How are you supposed to build a life when you can’t get a decent job?” Bailey said. “And if you’re black, you can’t get a decent job around here.”

The employment problems in the area are more about the economy than race, Tommy Randall said.

“If you want to excel around here the only way is to get a college degree and get out of here,” he said. “That’s true for blacks and whites.”

Cleveland Riser, 74, a former assistant superintendent of schools, believes an underlying tension pervades Jena High School.

Of more than 100 teachers in the parish schools, only five are black, Riser said. That, and what he calls a sense that the school belongs to the white community, has left black students feeling alienated, Riser said.

“People have not bought into their having to educate their kids at home, at school and in the community to respect each other,” he said. “White people here feel the way things have always been is the way they’ll always be.”