Not since a million men crammed buses headed to the national capitol to atone for their sins, has there been a need for the vigor of black collective voices to merge in one place. It’s time to dig deep into the back of your closet to locate those marching shoes, and get on the bus headed down to the small Louisiana town of Jena to shout Hell no to the lunacy that is taking place.
Sadly, the national media has failed to seize hold to the amazing injustice unfolding down in Jena. In case you haven’t heard, Mychal Bell, 16, a former Jena High School football star, and five other black students had been facing up to 100 years in prison if convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy and other charges for the December beating of a white student who was knocked unconscious but not hospitalized. The episode capped months of swelling racial tension at the high school that began after several white youth hung nooses from a tree in the school courtyard in a deride aimed at blacks.
The case against the "Jena Six," as the defendants have come to be called by their supporters, received national notice after it was featured in a May 20 Chicago Tribune report that detailed how racial animus had divided the mostly white central Louisiana town of 3,000 and erupted into repeated incidents of violence between blacks and whites."The DA is trying to use my son as a scapegoat for these ridiculous charges," Marcus Jones, Bell’s father told the Chicago Tribune after the district attorney reduced the charges to aggravated assault. "He knows there's no proof showing that my son and those other kids were trying to kill that boy. It was a simple high school fight. How can you turn that into attempted murder?" Bell was found guilty and faces a potential 22 year sentence. He will be sentenced on September 20, 2007."I think the district attorney is still overreaching," Darrell Hickman, an attorney for one of the other youth charged in the case, said after charges were reduced. "The new charge is aggravated second-degree battery, which requires use of a weapon. There's no evidence that any weapon was involved."
It all started when black students broke the unwritten rule-never sit under the “white tree”. The white tree is where the white students, 80% of the student body, would always sit during school breaks.
In September 2006, a black student at Jena high school asked permission from school administrators to sit under the “white tree.” School officials advised them to sit wherever they wanted.
The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the “white tree.” “Those nooses meant the KKK, they meant ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die,’” Casteptla Bailey, mom of one of the students, told the London Observer.
The Jena high school principal found that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools over-ruled the principal and gave the students a three day suspension saying that the nooses were just a youthful stunt. “Adolescents play pranks,” the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
“Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” according to Tracy Bowens, mother of students at Jena High. It’s hard to press your point when you lack political power.
The ten person all-male government of the parish has one African-American member. The nine member all-male school board has one African American member. (A phone caller to the local school board trying to find out the racial makeup of the school board was told there was one “colored” member of the board). There is one black police officer in Jena and two black public school teachers.
Jena is the site of the infamous Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth that was forced to close its doors in 2000, only two years after opening, due to widespread brutality and racism including the choking of juveniles by guards after the youth met with a lawyer. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the private prison amid complaints that guards paid inmates to fight each other and laughed when teens tried to commit suicide.
Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the “white tree” at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging white students.
The white District Attorney then came to Jena High with law enforcement officers to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court, the DA reportedly threatened the black protesting students saying that if they didn't stop making a fuss about this "innocent prank… I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen." The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
On the night of Thursday November 30, 2006, a still unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High School.
On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later arrested; no charges were filed against the white man.
On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student – who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African American students “niggers” while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party – was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social function that evening.
Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder. All six were expelled from school.
The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior whose bail was set at $138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw - bail $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones – bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis – bail $70,000; 16 year old Mychal Bell, a sophomore in high school who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.
Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his family was unable to post the $90,000 bond. Theo Shaw has also remained in jail. Several of the other defendants remained in jail for months until their families could raise sufficient money to put up bonds.
The Chicago Tribune wrote in a story headlined “Racial Demons Rear Heads.” The London Observer wrote: “Jena is gaining national notoriety as an example of the new ‘stealth’ racism, showing how lightly sleep the demons of racial prejudice in America’s Deep South, even in the year that a black man, Barak Obama, is a serious candidate for the White House.” The British Broadcasting Company aired a TV special report “Race Hate in Louisiana 2007.”
The Jena 6 and their families were put under substantial pressure to plead guilty. Mychal Bell was reported to have been leaning towards pleading guilty right up until his trial when he decided he would not plead guilty to a felony.
When it finally came, the trial of Mychal Bell was swift. Bell was represented by an appointed public defender.
On the morning of the trial, the DA reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the attack be with a dangerous weapon. The dangerous weapon? The prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by “the gang of black boys” who beat the white victim.
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty people appeared – every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all white group to the Alexandria Louisiana Town Talk newspaper saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. “The venire [panel of prospective jurors] is color blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial makeup of the community, but the system does not take race into factor.” Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were the only people who showed up.
The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people friendly with the District Attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others who were friends of prosecution witnesses.
Bell’s parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed to attend the trial despite their objections, because they were listed as potential witnesses. The white victim, though a witness, was allowed to stay in the courtroom. The parents, who had been widely quoted in the media as critics of the process, were also told they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial was in session. Marcus Jones had told the media “It’s all about those nooses” and declared the charges racially motivated.
Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of Bell were ordered by the court not to do so near the courthouse or anywhere the judge would see them.
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses - eleven white students, three white teachers, and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not.
The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge the all-white jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told the Alexandria Town talk after resting his case without calling any witnesses that he knew he would be second-guessed by many but was confident that the jury would return a verdict of not guilty. “I don’t believe race is an issue in this trial…I think I have a fair and impartial jury…”
The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. The public defender told the press afterwards, “I feel I put on the best defense that I could.” Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses, the attorney said “why open the door for further accusations? I did the best I could for my client, Mychal Bell.”
At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a Texas minister and leader of the Friends of Justice, said “I have seen a lot of trials in my time. And I have never seen a more distressing miscarriage of justice than what happened in LaSalle Parish yesterday.” Khadijah Rashad of Lafayette Louisiana described the trial as a “modern day lynching.”
Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism. "We don't have a problem,” according to one. Other locals told the media "We all get along," and "most blacks are happy with the way things are." One person even said "We don't have many problems with our blacks."
Melvin Worthington, the lone African American school board member in LaSalle Parish said it all could have been avoided. “There’s no doubt about it,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “whites and blacks are treated differently here. The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided.”
The white victim of the beating was later arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets onto the high school campus and released on $5000 bond. The white man who beat up the black youth at the off-campus party was arrested and charged with simple battery. The white students who hung up the nooses in the “white tree” were never charged.
Like I said, my feet are tired and I’m tired of marching, but there’s still work to be done. Too bad these boys didn’t play lacrosse at Duke University.