Since December 2006, the quiet town of Jena, Louisiana has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. The story of the Jena Six has made national and international headlines, causing many to ask serious and important questions about the present-day realities of racism in Louisiana. The Daily Kingfish provides a synopsis, courtesy of Pursuing Holiness. For the purposes of clarity, this is the full recapitulation provided by Pursuing Happiness:
On August 31, 2006, Jena High student Justin Purvis asked for permission to sit under the “white tree.” This is a tree in the school courtyard where whites typically sat. He was told by the school administration to sit where he liked. But three white students said it all – the next day, three nooses hung from that tree. Black parents were outraged and met at a church to discuss it on September 5th. Black students were outraged. De-facto segregation, where people tend to congregate with others in their race, is one thing. Enforced segregation via threats is quite another. The students stood up against it on September 6th.
JUSTIN PURVIS: It was like, the first beginning, in the courtyard, they said, “Y’all want to go stand under the tree?” We said, “Yeah.” They said, “If you go, I’ll go. If you go, I’ll go.” One person went, the next person went, everybody else just went.
The same day as the impromptu protest, an assembly was called. White students sat on one side of the auditorium, black students on the other. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters dropped what he was doing and, accompanied by the police, came out to threaten the black students. He faced their side of the auditorium and told them, ““See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” It was not an idle threat.
The three white students received three days of in-school suspension, over the wishes of the principal who wanted them expelled. He was overruled by school superintendent Roy Breithaupt who said, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.” On September 10th, black parents tried to address the school board but were refused. They tried again on September 18th, and were finally granted five minutes to speak with the understanding that the issue was closed and whatever they said, it would make no difference.
The tension and violence escalated. On Thursday, November 30, the academic wing of the school was burned. The next day Robert Bailey, one of the Jena 6, attended a party at the Jena Fair Barn. Upon his arrival, he was beaten with fists and hit with beer bottles by a group of whites. Only one, Justin Sloane, was later charged with simple battery and ultimately received probation. The next day, Saturday, Robert Bailey and two friends encountered one of the white men present at the previous night’s Fair Barn beating. The white man was afraid of retaliation and pulled a shotgun on the three teens. The teens wrestled the shotgun away from him and ran. When they reported the incident to the police, they were charged with robbery of the shotgun. Word travels quickly in small towns. Teachers at Jena High, fearing trouble, asked that the school be closed the next day. Their request was denied.
On Monday during gym class, Justin Barker and a group of whites, including the three noose hangers, taunted Robert Bailey and other black students. According to reports, they used the word “n*****” and mocked Bailey for having his “ass whipped.” When Barker left the gym, he was attacked by a group of black students – a mirror image of the attack on Bailey at the Fair Barn three days earlier, with two exceptions. Bailey arrived at the party expecting a fun evening, not trouble. He was attacked without provocation. Reports vary as to what happened outside the gym, but tend to agree on some points – Justin Barker was knocked unconscious by either being hit, or hitting his head on the concrete, and was kicked when he was down. An ambulance was called. Justin was conscious and standing by the time it got there. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he complained of eye pain, received a CT scan, and was released within three hours. He attended the school’s ring ceremony later that night, and says that he took pain pills for a week after the beating.
The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, after spending seven months in jail because he could not pay the extraordinarily high bail. Immediately before the trial, the charges against Bell were reduced to 2nd degree battery, also a felony. The prosecution called Bell’s parents as witnesses, so they were not allowed to be in the courtroom with their son, although they were not called to testify in the case. Bell was defended by a public defender who called no witnesses and put on no defense. The jury was all white, which is not surprising in a town where 85% of the population is white. What is surprising is that of the six person jury, according to CNN, “All of them said that they knew some of the witnesses that are expected to be called in this case.” The jury included a high school classmate of Reed Walters, the district attorney who threatened the black students after the white tree protest. It included the mother of one of the prosecution witnesses, and a good friend of Justin Barker’s mother. Bell’s attorney put on no defense whatsoever. He did not call a single witness to refute the prosecution’s case, including the Jena High coach, who had stated that Bell was not involved in the fight.
Bell was found guilty within three hours, and will be sentenced on July 31 for up to 22 years in prison for the December 4 school fight, for which he has already spent over seven months in jail. Four of the Jena Six are still waiting for trial, and one is being charged as a juvenile.
The following is offered as a compendium of news coverage, commentary, and video footage concerning the case of the Jena Six:
On July 30, 2007, National Public Radio featured a story by Wade Goodwin entitled “Beating Charges Split La. Town Along Racial Lines.” The story is available in streaming audio. From the report:
“Jena has always been a racist town,” says Bailey’s mother, Caseptla Bailey. “We’ve understood that….It has been that way since I’ve lived here.” But school board member Billy Fowler disagrees.
As far as racial problems, our community is no different than any other community,” Fowler says. Fowler is one of the few leaders with the school administration or local law enforcement willing to talk to the media. The principal, the school superintendent and the district attorney all declined repeated calls for comment.
Fowler says he is appalled at reports by outside media outlets that he claims portray Jena as a racist community. But he and many other white leaders agree that the charges are unfair.
“I think it’s safe to say some punishment has not been passed out fairly and evenly,” Fowler says. “I think probably blacks may have gotten a little tougher discipline through the years. “Our town is not a bunch of bigots. They’re Christian, law-abiding citizens that wouldn’t mistreat anybody.” But the black students and their families feel mistreated.The first to go to court was Mychal Bell, the team’s star running and defensive back. Bell’s court-appointed lawyer refused to mount any defense at all, instead resting his case immediately after two days of government presentation. An all-white jury found Bell guilty.
LSU Daily Reveille: “Legal Team Wants to Overturn Jena Verdict.” From the report:
Scott said their goal is to overturn Bell’s conviction. “The question is, considering the fact that [Bell] has been convicted, is what procedural route to take to overturn that Noel said the new legal team is qualified to handle the case and decided to get involved not only because Bell came to them, but also because it was the right thing to do.
“The interest of justice cried out [for us] to get involved,” Noel said. “We have an excellent chance at winning the case – he did not get a fair trial. I think we can handle ourselves, and we’ve got the experience to deal with this case. We fully intend to have this conviction overturned.” Noel said while race may have played a role in Bell’s conviction, he said he thinks emotions had more of an effect on the trial. “When emotion plays a part in a trial, it’s very hard to get a jury that can look at things [objectively],” Noel said.
Scott said problems with the trial would prevent a fair sentencing. “I feel it’s pretty much impossible for the sentencing to be just,” Scott said. “If a person is wrongfully convicted, it’s impossible for them to have a fair sentencing.” Scott said the first problem with the trial was the decision to have Bell tried as an adult. If Bell had originally been charged with battery – what his murder charges were reduced to – the case would have remained within the juvenile system.
“The worst thing that happened from a procedural standpoint [is] normally a person under similar circumstances would be in juvenile court,” Scott said. “But in this particular case, [Bell] was tried in adult court. We have already filed a motion relating to that issue.” Noel said another problem was the trial took place in La Salle Parish, where Jena is located, and the trial should have been moved. “Certainly the case should not be tried in La Salle parish,” Noel said. “That’s one of the issues we’re raising and feel very comfortable with. It’s obvious that there isn’t anybody in the parish that doesn’t have opinions of the case one way or the other. That certainly will effect anyone’s ability to get a fair trial.”
Abby Brown of Gannett: “‘Noose Tree’ Cut Down At Jena High.” From the report:
“A clean slate,” LaSalle Parish School Board member Billy Fowler said of why the tree was cut down in the past few weeks. “There’s nothing positive about that old tree. It’s all negative. And I’m serving on the new School Board, and we’re wanting to start fresh on some things.”
Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt authorized the tree to be cut down, Fowler said. Breithaupt on Monday refused to comment about the tree while discussing plans for rebuilding the school after an arson fire destroyed one the school’s buildings.
Fowler said the tree eventually would have been cut down for construction purposes, but that he also is hopeful its removal will help heal old wounds.
Indybay: “Racist Frame-up in Louisiana: The Case of the Jena Six.” From the report:
Local authorities, including the school superintendent and the district attorney, have provocatively sided with white students in the case and rigged the legal proceedings. On June 28, the first student to be tried, Mychal Bell, was found guilty of second-degree aggravated assault. He will be sentenced in September and faces up to 22 years in jail. Collectively, the six black students face more than 120 years in jail.
Democracy Now: “Hundreds March in Support of the Jena Six.” Quoting: “A movement is growing in support of the Jena Six — the black Louisana high school students charged with attempted murder for a school fight in which a white student was beaten up.”
Tom Mangold of the BBC reports on the Jena Six in a story entitled “‘Stealth Racism’ Stalks Deep South.” From the report:
Three rope nooses hanging from a tree in the courtyard of a school in a small Southern town in Louisiana have sparked fears of a new kind of “stealth” racism spreading through America’s deep south.
Although this sinister episode happened last August, the repercussions have been extensive and today the town of Jena finds itself facing the unwelcome glare of national and international publicity.
Jena has a mixed community, 85% white, 12% black.
The bad old days of the “Mississippi Burning” 60s, civil liberties and race riots, lynchings, the KKK and police with billy clubs beating up blacks might have ended.
But in the year that the first serious black candidate for the White House, Barack Obama, is helping unite the races in the north, the developments in the tiny town of Jena are disturbing.
JenaSix.org is a resource for anyone interested in supporting the cause. From the report:
How can I help
The Jena Six Defense Committee
PO Box 2798
Jena, LA 71342
Dr. E. Faye Williams, National Chair of the National Congress of Black Women has contacted President George Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco on behalf of the Jena-Six—the six black students jailed and promised extremely harsh treatment for a high school fight that grew out of black students being threatened with lynching when they “dared” to sit under “the white tree” at school.
Williams said in her letter to Governor Blanco, “As a native daughter of Louisiana, I have watched with great sadness the case of the Jena-Six played out as yet another extremely embarrassing and tragic situation in our state. By no stretch of the imagination are the black students being treated fairly. With the horrific Katrina situation that is still not resolved and the Vitter drama being played out all over the world, I am sure you would agree that Louisiana does not need another embarrassment to the state. Again, the world is watching and waiting for the leadership of Louisiana to do its job and make the state better for all of its residents without regard to race. I am calling upon you to intervene in this situation so that justice will be served.”
It’s a story that reads like one from the Jim Crow era, when judges, lawyers and all-white juries used the justice system to keep blacks in “their place”–but it’s happening today. The families of these young men are fighting back, but the odds are stacked against them. Together, we can make sure their story is told, that this becomes an issue for the Governor of Louisiana, and that justice is provided for the Jena 6.
Bill Quigley of Truthout writes about the trial in an article entitled “Injustice in Jena as Nooses Hang from White Tree.” From the report:
Jena, with a population of less than 3000, is the largest town in and parish (county) seat of LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. There are about 350 African-Americans in the town. LaSalle has a population of just over 14,000 people – 12 percent African-American.
This is solid Bush and David Duke Country – GWB won LaSalle Parish 4 to 1 in the last two elections; Duke carried a majority of the white vote when he ran for Governor of Louisiana. Families earn about 60 percent of the national average. The Census Bureau reports that less than 10 percent of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black owned.
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 a youth met with a lawyer. The US 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.
The Debate Link writes “The Past is Now: The Jena Six.” Quoting:
The case of the Jena Six is one of those that even I, massive cynic that I am on the state of America’s racial progress, thought was a thing of the past. It is reminiscent of nothing more than the “legal lynchings” that characterized the Jim Crow South. Its facts are appalling. It is an unbelievable display of state-sponsored racism that dwarfs even the Genarlow Wilson case in terms of raw injustice.
Harris Brio and Isabelle Ambrose write about the Jena Six in the Independent Media Center:
In the 1980’s, Michael Reich developed the Segmentation Theory or the Divide and Rule. This theory works wonderfully for the elite. The media is simply one tool for the divide and rule corporate interests. Keeping stereotypes and prejudices alive, ensures under privileged second class citizens.
Blacks have always been considered along with other minorities unimportant members of this society. And because of that, the media is going to ignore stories that may upset the social structure, a social structure based on economic benefits for the elite class of citizens.
Racism is an industry, which manufactures the suppression of the rights. This means that media racism, and stereotypes will continue to be employed so that those elites can be sure of their continuing economic stability.
Amy Goodwin at Creative Loafing asks “Would a white kid’s tennis shoes be a deadly weapon?” Quoting:
Right before the trial, the charges of second-degree attempted murder were lowered to aggravated battery, which under Louisiana law requires a dangerous weapon. The weapon? Tennis shoes.
Mychal Bell was convicted by an all-white jury. His court-appointed defense attorney called no witnesses. Bell will be sentenced on July 31, facing a possible 22 years. The remaining five teens, several of whom were jailed for months, unable to make bail, still face second-degree attempted murder charges and a hundred years each in prison.
Eddie Thompson, a Central Louisianan who has been covering this story since its inception, writes about the sudden national attention in a story entitled “Racism in Jena: Carpetbaggers and the Jena Six.” Thompson concludes with:
If the charges against “The Jena Six” are unjust they should be dropped. If the charges are supported by the facts of the case the defendants should suffer the consequences of their actions. However, any attempt by the carpetbaggers from news agencies around the world to re-create “Mississippi Burning” here in Jena, Louisiana, is unfounded and harmful to the process of healing our community has undertaken.
DailyKos features a series of diaries written by bloggers from across the nation.
Elle, an African-American academic from Texas, writes about the Jena Six on her blog, “Revelations and Ruminations from One Southern Sistorian.” She writes:
I attended the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and Arts which pulls students from all over the state, so I’m sending an e-mail to my classmates’ group to see if any of them who live there or are from there want to talk. The Town Talk’s archives contain stories from late last year about many of the events, including one that describes “racial tensions plaguing the Jena community” as the “biggest” story of the year in Central Louisiana. Jena has a weekly newspaper here.
Online, I’ve found the writings of a Pastor Eddie Thompson, a white Pentecostal preacher who lives in central Louisiana. Pastor Thompson was quoted by Witt as saying, “I’ve lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism—true racism.” But Pastor Thompson reminds me of the southern Senators during debates on the civil rights bills of the mid-20th century–he is incensed that, rather than letting the community heal itself, “Attorneys and leaders of national race-based organizations have hi-jacked any local efforts to overcome racial tensions.” And though he acknowledges the racism in Jena, he believes, “the racism found here in America is subtle compared to what is going on around the world.” Picture this American’s jaw dropping to the floor. His invoking of meddling carpetbaggers and noble locals who shall overcome is not surprising.
Jack and Jill Politics, a blog described as offering a “Black Bourgeoisie perspective on American politics,” also unpacks the story of the Jena Six. They write:
The New York Times has not covered it at all. Neither has the Washington Post, whose vast website carries a single AP article on the subject. CNN was presumably unable to adequately investigate because it was expending all of its journalistic resources attempting to fact check SiCKO and find out what Fred Thompson smells like. My mama has personally been on that ass trying to get me to blog about this and until now, I just haven’t had the words.
Consider the media attention given to Imus for his racial slurs towards the Rutgers Women’s basketball team, and consider the attention given to the Jena Six. Six young black men are about to be lynched in Jena, Louisiana, but there is no Hip-hop to blame, no “shock jock” culture, and no Al Sharpton to give the media a reason to change the subject. There is no Ray Nagin cussing on the radio, no corrupt congressmen, no looting, no lies about savagery in the Superdome.
The only thing in Louisiana waiting for the media is a mirror that shows everything that is ugly in this country that we have pretended to choke down in the name of tolerance.
Reddit, a national news forum, has a thorough thread on the Jena Six.
Of course, the forums on The Town Talk‘s website remain the most frequently updated threads on the Jena Six.
Sisyphus writes about the Jena Six in a post entitled “Southern Racism and the Jena Six.” Quoting:
The authorities have come down very hard on the black students while going easy on white perpetrators. Who got to sit under the “white tree” as school may have triggered this series of escalating conflicts between blacks and whites but the root causes of go much deeper. After all, why was it a tradition for white students only to congregate under the school’s shade tree? The BBC refers to this as “stealth racism.” And the conflict in the town continues.
Michael David Murphy’s While Seated presents a photographic journal (with audio) he compiled while visiting Jena on June 25, 2007. Murphy offers supplementary links, photographs, and commentary. Murphy is a solo journalist and photographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia.
The following is a six-part series about the Jena Six on “Democracy Now!”
Update: A special thanks to Loaded Orygon for placing this post (via the Daily Kingfish) on the 50 States Blog Network Update.