In a small
still mostly segregated section of rural Louisiana, an all
white jury heard a series of white witnesses
called by a white prosecutor testify in a courtroom overseen
by a white judge in a trial of a fight at the local high school
where a white student who had been making racial taunts was hit
by black students. The fight was the culmination of a series
of racial incidents starting when whites responded to black students
sitting under the “white tree” at their school by hanging three
nooses from the tree. The white jury and white prosecutor and
all white supporters of the white victim were all on one side
of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17-year-old Mychal Bell,
and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted
Mychal Bell of two felonies - aggravated battery and conspiracy
to commit aggravated battery. Bell, who was a 16-year-old sophomore
football star at the time he was arrested, faces up to 22 years
in prison. Five other black youths await similar trials on attempted
second-degree murder and conspiracy charges.
Yes, you read that correctly. The rest
of the story, which is being reported across the world in papers
in China, France
and England, is just as chilling.
The trouble started under “the white tree” in front of Jena
High School. 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. They
The next day, three nooses, in the school
colors, were hanging from the “white tree.” The message was clear. “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.”
The African-American community was hurt
and upset. “Hanging
those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” according to
Tracy Bowens, mother of students at Jena High.
But blacks in this area of Louisiana have
little 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, with a population of less than 3000,
is the largest town in the 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% 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% of the national average. The Census Bureau reports
that less than 10% of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black
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
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.
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
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.
Many of the young men, who came to be known
as the Jena 6, stayed in jail for months. Few families could
afford bond or private attorneys.
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 a powerful story
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
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
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
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. He faces up to a maximum of 22
years in prison.
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,
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.”
Tory Pegram with the Louisiana ACLU has
been working with the parents for months. “People know if they don't demand equal
treatment now, they will never get it. People's jobs and
livelihoods have been threatened for attending Jena 6 Defense
meetings, but people are willing to risk that. One person
told me: ‘We have to convince more people to come rally
with us.....What's the worst that could happen? They fire
us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the town anyway. They
burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All
of that has happened to us before. We have to keep
speaking out to make sure it doesn't happen to us again, or our
children will never be safe.’"
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.”
Hebert McCoy, a relative of one of the youths
who has been trying to raise money for bail and lawyers, challenged
at the end of the rally when he said **“You better get out of
your houses. You better come out and defend your children…because
they are incarcerating them by the thousands. Jena’s not the
beginning, but Jena has crossed the line. Justice is not right
when you put on the wrong charges and then convict. I believe
in justice. I believe in the point of law. I believe in accepting
the punishment if I’m guilty. If I’m guilty, convict me and
punishment, but if I’m innocent, no justice…” and the crowd joined
with him and shouted “no peace!”
What happened to the white guys? 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.
The people in Jena are
fighting for justice and they need legal and financial help. Since the arrests, a
group of family members have been holding well-attended meetings,
and have created a defense fund – the Jena 6 Defense Committee. They
have received support from the NAACP, the Louisiana ACLU and
Friends of Justice. People interested in supporting can contact:
the Jena 6 Defense Committee, PO Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342 firstname.lastname@example.org; Friends of Justice, 507 North Donley
Avenue, Tulia, TX 79088 www.fojtulia.org;
or the ACLU of Louisiana, PO Box 56157, New Orleans, LA 70156 www.laaclu.org or 417.350.0536.
What is next? The rest of the Jena 6 await similar trials. Theodore
Shaw is due to go on trial shortly. Mychal Bell is scheduled
to be sentenced July 31. If he gets the maximum sentence he
will not be out of prison until he is nearly 40. Meanwhile,
the “white tree” outside Jena High sits quietly in the hot sun.
Audrey Stewart contributed to this article.
BC Columnist Bill Quigley is a
human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University
New Orleans. He has been an active public interest lawyer since
1977 and has served as counsel with a wide range of public
interest organizations on issues including Katrina social justice
issues, public housing, voting rights, death penalty, living
wage, civil liberties, educational reform, constitutional rights
and civil disobedience. He has litigated numerous cases with
the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the Advancement
Project, and with the ACLU of Louisiana, for which he served
as General Counsel for over 15 years. Click
here to contact Mr. Quigley.