After a deviant act is committed in America today, copycat behavior is inevitable. Whether mimicry is due to the excessive publicity that follows such behavior or criminal-minded people being inspired by others’ actions, imitations of school shootings, suicides and the asinine stunts performed on “Jackass” are practically expected.

The hottest form of deviance among copycats today? Hanging nooses.

The event that fueled this growing trend is the notorious incident that occurred in Jena, La. on Sept. 1, 2006. As students filed into Jena High School that morning, three nooses hung from what some call the “whites-only” tree. They were allegedly hung by white students in reaction to a black student’s decision to sit under the tree the previous day.

The motivation for hanging the nooses has been repeatedly contested – was it actually a hate crime or just an inside joke of the school’s rodeo team? Even if the nooses themselves are overlooked, however, what followed is undeniable. Days after the incident, black students silently sat around the “white tree” in protest, prompting the school’s administration to call a school assembly featuring Jena District Attorney Reed Walters. As black and white students sat separate from each other, the DA verbally threatened them, saying he could make their lives “disappear” with the stroke of his pen.

On Dec. 1, 2006, a black student, Robert Bailey, was beaten up after entering a barn dance with only white people in attendance; one white man was prosecuted for simple battery after the incident. Then on Dec. 4, a white student, Justin Barker, was beaten up in the Jena High School courtyard after bragging to friends about the barn dance fight. Five black students, including Bailey, were charged with attempted murder for the fight by the same DA from the assembly.

Since the incident, the tree where the nooses were hung has been chopped to pieces and the three white students accused of hanging the nooses are yet to receive anything more than school suspensions for their actions.

Ever since the incident, nooses have popped up in schools, offices, lockers and parks around the country. In early September, a noose was hung from a tree outside a black student group center at the University of Maryland. Since then, a noose was found outside a black professor’s office at Columbia University, at a John Mellencamp concert at Indiana State University and on a statue of Tupac Shakur in Georgia. One was drawn onto a high school student’s car in Alabama. Twenty more nooses have turned up in the Jena area.

Nooses have been hung for decades as a form of racial intimidation, but their augmented presence in America suggests that people have been incited by the highly public Jena events. The symbolic representation of a noose – a reminder of slavery and lynchings – is enough to make it condemnable by federal hate-crime laws. Last week, the New York state Senate was driven by the rise in noose hangings to make it a felony to threateningly display or draw them. This is a first step for halting the noose trend and combating similar hate-based crimes.

Yet beyond the legislation, how can we move past these recent incidents involving nooses? Is there any way to stop copycats from displaying their racial intolerance other than by legal intimidation? The short answer is no. The long answer is yes – if enough education, legislation and responsible guidance are pursued in every American community.

Call it dollar store philosophy, but if racial intimidation is not condemned in every community and if hate-crime offenders or racially divided communities are not rehabilitated so as to encourage more acceptance, the blatant acts of intolerance will continue.

It may be unfair to call out Jena for its symbolic racism; nooses are not specific to the city, and race problems exist everywhere. The DA has written a response in The New York Times defending his actions, and no connection has been officially determined between the nooses and the fighting. Yet despite the minutiae of the incident, with the publicity the city has received – and will continue to receive – it is imperative that Jena proceed in a racially conscious manner. Given how much the Jena incident was imitated, the city is likely to set a precedent by how it moves forward from this point.

If even all this publicity cannot drive racism from Jena, how can things change in the rest of the country?

– Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at thenelly@umich.edu.

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