JENA, La.– Looking for the mood in Jena is like looking for the truth – it all depends on who you talk to.
The day after 17-year-old Mychal Bell was released on $45,000 bail, things are quiet. But, of course, in a town of just 3,000 it's almost always quiet.
The satellite trucks, with the exception of our own, have shut down their generators, folded their dishes and moved on. Across the street from the LaSalle Parish Courthouse at the McCartney Slay GMC dealership the cars are back on the lot. When we were here last week for the large demonstration, the owner had moved them, fearing the worst.
Now that Bell's out on bail, there is a sense of relief.
Family and supporters are happy to have the young man back after 10 months in jail. But since he still faces trial in juvenile court, it is a cautious kind of celebration.
Bell's attorneys say the teen can't talk. Even his parents have gone silent. At Bell's home a couple of cars sit in the driveway and the yard. But there is no sign of activity. Except in the church parking lot across the street where two unmarked vehicles sit in the shade with plainclothes officers inside.
They are there to safeguard the home after a hate group published the address on the Internet. According to Bell's lead attorney, Lewis Scott, the 17-year-old is confined to staying at his mother's or father's house in Jena, which are two blocks away from each other.
Scott says they want to get the teen back in school since he's missed a lot, but there is no way he can go back until the juvenile trial is over. And there's no way he could go back to school here, not with the memories and the feelings. They're thinking of something private.
'Why don't you tell the truth about Jena?'
On Main Street there is relief Bell's out since his continued time behind bars only seemed to reinforce the belief for outsiders that Jena is a racist haven. Of course they know that, thanks to the media, everyone continues to consider Jena a racist haven whether the youth is in jail or not.
Whenever I introduce myself as being with NBC News, the return greeting is usually the same. "Why don't you tell the truth about Jena?" The old white guy at the thrift shop said it was just the blacks that were labeling the community racist. I had to agree he had me there – not too many whites had come forward claiming their town had a race problem.
As I returned to the courthouse, a young African-American woman was telling my cameraman about how racism was very much still living in town.
Still, there was a crime
District Attorney Reed Walters said if he had it all to do over again, he would do things differently. He would not change how he prosecuted the case; instead, he would change how he communicated the case. He's been true to his word. In the past week he's held two news conferences and written an Op-Ed spot for the New York Times.
Walters denies the protests and the pressure have had any bearing on his actions. No one in town or elsewhere believes him.
This story has grown beyond Jena in many minds. Sometimes the facts seem to just get in the way. Jesse Jackson said all charges should be dropped against Bell and the other members of the "Jena 6." But there was a crime. Classmate Justin Barker was beat up by a group of youths last December at the high school. And it was not just a schoolyard fight. Barker was blindsided with the first punch as he stepped out the door. As he fell he struck his head. He was defenseless as he was repeatedly punched and kicked while he lay unconscious.
Should Jena ignore this crime for the greater good? Ignore it like authorities allegedly ignored white-on-black incidents in the town? Perhaps Bell, who some say wasn't even part of the assault on Barker, should use the line some fostered in the high school after nooses appeared in a tree on campus, that it was "just a prank."
City officials openly lament that if the noose incident had been dealt with much more harshly and right away, Jena wouldn't be the modern synonym for Selma.
In other words – if the town had spoken out and hadn't remained so quiet.