by Daniel T. Smith
The miscarriage of prosecutorial justice and subsequent peace protest in Jena, Louisiana has now officially been crowned a major national news story. The prosecution of the Jena Six is only beginning, relatively speaking, and that it is now being featured by CNN in primetime specials this weekend speaks to its staying power. Americans interested in social justice are paying close attention to ensure that LaSalle Parish and the State of Louisiana will not over-prosecute—or convict on insufficient evidence—any of the individuals accused with injuring fellow student Justin Barker.
Friday evening on Anderson Cooper 360, guest hosted by Soledad O’Brien, Alexandria was introduced for the first time as being centrally connected to the ongoing story in Jena, Louisiana.
There is a reason that Alexandria was chosen as the place from which to stage the demonstration. There is a reason that the elected representatives of our city met with national civil rights leaders and accommodated them with logistical and moral support. There is a reason our businesses and workers and communities opened our doors to the droves of state and national visitors to Rapides Parish. Alexandria hosted tens of thousands of activists without incident. The rally this week was a testament to the inclusive and forward-thinking spirit of the City of Alexandria.
In spite of all this, Alexandria did not enter the national media spotlight in a positive light. After briefly passing over the day’s most significant update to the story—that Mychal Bell was yet again denied bail—Soledad brought up an isolated incident perpetrated by two out of town teenagers in downtown Alexandria in the same breath as neo-Nazi web postings that called for violence against the incarcerated African-American teens in Jena. When introducing the Alexandria segment, she did nothing to contextualize what was made into a sensational aspect of the story:
Nooses, dangling from the back of a pick-up truck, unmistakable symbols of hatred and racism in the Old South. Two men arrested in Alexandria, Louisiana, after repeatedly driving past groups of demonstrators who were in nearby Jena earlier in the day in support of the so-called Jena Six.
Soledad O’Brien completely failed to mention that the eighteen and sixteen year old involved in the incident are from Colfax and Dry Prong, respectively. Both towns are in Grant Parish and are a significant distance from Alexandria, considering the size of our city. And yes, Alexandria is indeed a city with a racially-balanced elected government, not a small backwards “town” from the “Old South” as it existed on Soledad’s script.
She then proceeded to interview Richard Cohen, the CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, for a general legal interpretation of hate crimes. Hate crimes and inflammatory bigotry was the day’s juiciest possible angle for the Jena Six. Cohen explained himself well, but he is a go-to guest on CNN for judicial issues and the South. He and Soledad came off as so completely unfamiliar with Central Louisiana and the background of the Jena Six that they seemed to have not been following the case for very long.
CNN also went with the citizen reporting of an auspiciously-named Alexandria native. Thursday night, Casanova Love took personal video from the Main Street A-Trans station near which Jeremiah Munson and his underage accomplice circled with yellow extension cords tied into nooses hanging from the back of their truck. Love’s impressive recording from a centerpiece of our riverfront has been successfully mediated into a sixty-nine second CNN video clip viewable after a thirty-second advertisement.
CNN’s David Mattingly also interviewed Alexandria Police Chief Daren Coutee, but only for an opinion on whether or not what the boys did on Thursday night constitutes a hate crime. They were not interested in airing any comment or making any mention of the nearly Herculean job Alexandria law enforcement performed in order to support the week’s visitors.
Alexandrians watching 360 tonight may have found themselves in the all too common position of being mischaracterized by an unfamiliar American national media. The local media earlier in the day had covered the story in a far more responsible way. This is a situation in which many of the residents of Jena now find themselves, their whole town now implicitly linked to a series of racially toned incidents in their community. Former and current residents of New Orleans have understood this for years, and many are well familiar with Anderson Cooper due to his personal diligence in distilling the complicated events that surrounded Hurricane Katrina.
To their credit, CNN did a better job on their website in a story on the incident titled “Two Arrested in Noose Incident Near Jena, Louisiana.” The online angle at least includes mention of the fact that the racial agitators arrested in Alexandria were not native to Alexandria:
Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy said those involved were “from around Jena” and not from the same parish as his city. <See where the incident occured>
Roy said he is looking into whether the incident was a hate crime.
A photograph of the truck was sent to CNN by I-Reporter Casanova Love, 26, who said he is in the U.S. military. He’s visiting his family in Louisiana and said he witnessed the event.
After the arrests, Roy came out to address the crowd and apologized, saying he does not condone racism, Love said.
Love added, “If the police had not stepped in, I fear what might have happened.”
Love explained why he sent the photo to CNN: “People need to see this. It’s 2007, and we still have fools acting like it’s 1960.”
Roy said the matter is “not indicative” of Alexandria and that local authorities will look into it “completely, thoroughly and transparently.”
In spite of immediately following Mayor Roy’s clarification that the accused teens were not even from Rapides Parish, the picture following the link <See where the incident occurred> shows a Louisiana map with only three cities labeled: Baton Rouge, Jena, and Alexandria. The map doesn’t even have Alexandria properly placed, showing it far south of the banks of the Red River.
By failing to report their actual places of residence (which we know thanks to KALB, a local news affiliate), both cable and online CNN news leave national readers to connect the recently arrested teenagers with one location: Alexandria, Louisiana.
To be clear, those of us who has been following the Jena Six story for months are very happy that CNN has led big box media in bringing this story to the national fore. On the other hand, we know that Anderson Cooper’s people and other national media staff have been in Jena and Alexandria gathering information for weeks to prepare for this story. CNN waited to use this week’s demonstration to actually lead with Jena Six on primetime cable.
Knowing all of this, it’s all the more insulting that on the eve of a weekend of specials on the Jena Six, CNN would allow Soledad O’Brian to completely mishandle the issue on Anderson Cooper’s show. CNN and Soledad O’Brian could have emphasized the role of Alexandria’s businesses and government officials in ensuring that the march organized in part by Friends of Justice could be a peaceful and historic landmark for our region and culture.
Ultimately, CNN is right to have reported heavily on the incident in Alexandria, but a responsible media must not let two potentially violent individuals overshadow the success of thirty-thousand peaceful protesters. Indeed, spoiling such an incredible gathering of political activism was their very motive.
Alexandrians are not ignorant of the embedded racial and social injustices in our country and area, and the current leaders of our city are not ignoring their duty to do everything possible to foster an inclusive, prosperous and united community. Alexandria celebrates diversity, and is re-envisioning itself as a leader in progressive social policy and community-based planning. We are only asking that the national media not undue all of our efforts in their rush to cut a big story before the deadline.
UPDATE: CNN has rectified their error in the above map, which I had linked to in order to better get their attention. The initial incorrect map is below: