Originally posted at Left Turn Magazine, August 14, 2007.
Almost a year ago, in the small northern Louisiana town of Jena, a group of white students hung three nooses from a tree in front of Jena High School. This set into motion a season of racial tension and incidents that culminated in six Black youths facing a lifetime in jail for a schoolyard fight.
The story that has unfolded since is one of racism and injustice, but also of resistance and solidarity, as people from around the world have joined together with the families of the accused, lending legal and financial support, adding political pressure, and joining demonstrations and marches.
The nooses were hung after a Black student asked permission to sit under a tree that had been reserved by tradition for white students only. In response to the three nooses, nearly every Black student in the school stood under the tree in a spontaneous and powerful act of nonviolent protest. The town’s district attorney quickly arrived, flanked by police officers, and told the Black students to stop making such a big deal over the nooses, which school officials termed to be a “harmless prank.” Walters spoke in a school assembly, which like the schoolyard where all of this had begun was divided by race, with the Black students on one side and the white students on the other. Directing his remarks to the Black students, District Attorney Reed Walters said, “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen.”
The white students who confessed to hanging the nooses never received any meaningful punishment. Nor did the white students who months later beat up a Black student at a school party, nor did the white former student who threatened two Black students with a shotgun. But, after these incidents, when Black students got into a fight with a white student, six Black youths were charged with attempted murder, and now face a lifetime in prison. The white student was briefly hospitalized, but had no major injuries and was socializing with friends at a school ring ceremony the evening of the fight. The accused students may not have been involved in the fight, but they were known to be organizers of the protest under the tree. They were also star athletes in the school football team, and had no history of discipline problems.
The Black students were arrested immediately after the fight, in December of last year. School officials and police officials took statements from at least 44 witnesses. The statements do not paint a clear picture of who was in the fight. Statements from white students refer to a group of “Black boys,” but most testimonies are unclear as to the identities of who was involved. Some of the arrested youths are not implicated in the fight at all.
Despite this, when Mychal Bell, the first youth to go to trial, refused to take a deal in exchange for testifying against his friends, he was quickly convicted by an all-white jury. Bell’s public defender Blane Williams, visibly angry at Bell and his parents because the youth did not take the deal, called no witnesses and gave no meaningful defense. This attorney’s behavior gives a vivid example of our nation’s broken and underfunded public defender system. Some have called Jena a throwback to the past, but in fact Jena presents a clear vision of the current state of our criminal justice system.
In Paris Texas, a white teenager burns down her family’s home and receives probation, while a Black student shoves a hall monitor and gets 7 years in prison. Genarlow Wilson, in Atlanta, is sentenced to ten years in prison for participating in consensual oral sex with a 15 year old when he was 17. Like these and many other cases, the case in Jena is textbook proof that there are still two systems of justice functioning in this country, one for Black people, and one for white. The unpunished incidents in the days and months leading up to the fight clearly demonstrate that the students of Jena would never have faced charges if white students had beaten a Black student.
Immediately after the arrests, parents of the accused began organizing. Their call, “Free the Jena Six,” was initially heard by activists from other parts of Louisiana, such as the Lafayette public access TV show, “Community Defender,” which was the first media from outside their immediate area to give coverage of the case. Noncorporate media has been vital in spreading word of the case, beginning with blogs and YouTube videos, which then led to articles in grassroots publications and high profile stories on Democracy Now and in The Final Call.
LaSalle parish, where Jena is located, is 85% white. The town is still mostly segregated – from the white barber who refuses to cut Black hair to the white and Black parts of town, separated by an invisible line. LaSalle is also one of Louisiana’s most wealthy parishes, with small oil rigs in many back yards contributing to area wealth. The parish is a major contributor to Republican politicians, and former klansman David Duke received a solid majority of local votes when he ran for governor in 1991 – in fact, he received a higher percentage of votes in LaSalle parish than in any other part the state. Jena was also the former site of a notoriously brutal youth prison, which was closed after years of lawsuits and negative media exposure. The prison is now scheduled to be reopened as a private prison for the growth business of immigrant detentions.
Only one church in town has allowed the parents to hold meetings. There has been local pressure on family members and their allies to stay quiet. However, in the face of opposition, their voice has grown louder. Without an infrastructure of support, without any paid organizers, this struggle was initiated and is still led by six courageous families.
Three hundred supporters, most from the immediate region, but some from as far away as California, Chicago and New York, descended on Jena on July 31 to protest District Attorney Reed Walters’ conduct and call for dismissal of all charges. The largest groups included Millions More Movement delegations from Houston, Monroe and Shreveport, and nearly fifty members of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children from Lake Charles and New Orleans. Other delegations from across Louisiana included members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance, Common Ground and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The demonstration marched through downtown Jena – reported to be the biggest civil rights march the town of 2,500 residents has ever seen – and delivered a petition with 43,000 signatures to the District Attorney’s office.
In the two weeks since the demonstration, more major allies have begun to come on board. The Congressional Black Caucus – representing 43 members, including Senator Barack Obama – issued a statement calling for charges to be dropped, while the city of Cambridge Massachusetts passed a resolution in support of the families of the Jena Six. Al Sharpton and other national leaders have visited Jena, while Jesse Jackson brought the support of members of the state legislative Black caucus and best selling author Mary B. Morrison offered one of the youths a full scholarship to the college of his choice.
ColorOfChange.org, which has coordinated much of the outside support, has gathered 60,000 signatures on a petition to Louisiana Governor Blanco, calling for her to pardon the accused, and investigate District Attorney Reed Walters. [OBA note: Click here to sign the petition.]
Blanco, a Democratic governor elected with the overwhelming support of Black residents of Louisiana, responded with a condescending statement, tersely informing petitioners, “The State Constitution provides for three branches of state government – Legislative, Executive, and Judicial – and the Constitution prohibits anyone in one branch from exercising the powers of anyone in another branch.” This is the same governor who, as Katrina approached, urged gulf coast residents to “pray the hurricane down” to a level two. When New Orleans was flooded and people were trapped in the New Orleans Superdome and convention center, she informed the nation that she was sending in National Guard troops, and “They have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will.” More recently, Blanco created a program to bring federal money to homeowners rebuilding after Katrina – the “Road Home” – that has been a dismal failure on every level.
Mychal Bell’s sentencing is currently scheduled for September 20. The families are planning another demonstration for that date, and also have assembled a legal team for Bell and the other youths. National organizations such as Southern Poverty Law Center and NAACP joined initial supporters such as Friends of Justice (from Tulia, Texas) and ACLU of Louisiana. Legal expenses for the youths could be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and funding is still needed. Except for Mychal Bell, who has a bail hearing scheduled for September 4, all of the youths are out on bail.
The case of Jena Six has served as a wake-up call on the state of US justice. It shows vividly the racial bias still inherent to our system. But is has also shown something else. That this group of families refuses to be silent in the face of injustice, and that hundreds of thousands of other people around the world have chosen to stand with them. Together they have said that we are drawing the line, here, in Jena Louisiana.
For more information, see the Jena 6 Resource Page
About the Author
Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His May 9, 2007 article from Jena was one of the first to bring the case to a national audience. Please see http://www.leftturn.org and http://www.freethejena6.org/ for more coverage of the Jena case.