Revolution #96, July 22, 2007
Free the Jena Six
Jim Crow Injustice in Jena, Louisiana
The story of the Jena Six began on September 1, 2006 -- a hot late summer day, in the southern town of Jena, Louisiana. Bryant Purvis, a Black high school student, asked permission to sit beneath the shade tree known as the “white tree,” in front of the town’s high school. It was unspoken law that this shady area was for whites only during school breaks. The vice principal said nothing was stopping anyone. So Black students sat underneath the tree, challenging the established authority of segregation and racism.
The next day, hanging from the tree, were three ropes, in school colors, each tied to make a noose. The events set in motion by those nooses led to a schoolyard fight. And that fight led to the conviction, on June 28, 2007, of a Black student at Jena High School for charges that can bring up to 22 years in prison. Mychal Bell, a 16-year-old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested, was convicted by an all-white jury, without a single witness being called on his behalf. The remaining five Black students still face serious charges stemming from the fight, their lawyers and parents estimate they will go to trial this fall.
While this particular story begins in September of last year, the background story goes way back. In a previous article in Revolution, I used the “white tree” of Jena as a metaphor for all the racism, and systematic oppression of Black people, which dates back to the founding of this country. Right now, that is what is being enforced with the persecution of these young Black men.
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The town of Jena, like rural and urban areas throughout this country, is a segregated place. In an article called, “Racism Goes on Trial Again in America's Deep South,” the British newspaper The Observer (Sunday, May 20, 2007) described: “Jena's major industry is growing and marketing junk pine. Walk down the usually deserted main street and you will not find many Black employees. [Caseptla] Bailey, 56, is a former air force officer and holder of a business management degree. ‘I couldn't even get a job in Jena as a bank teller,’ she said. ‘Look at the banks and the best white-collar jobs and you'll see only white and red necks in those collars.’” The local barber is still a white-only business, they have never cut the hair of a Black person.
I spoke with Mychal Bell’s father, Marcus Jones, by phone, and he gave me a picture of how this breaks down in the Jena schools: “Young white kids, most of them don’t have contact with Black people until they get to high school. They got a school, their junior high here, what they call Fellowship, and another school called Nebo—a little neighborhood that is part of Jena—they got an elementary school—a junior high school, or a middle school—one or the other. Those schools are being funded by government funds, but no Black kids go there.
“They don’t have contact, any interaction with Black kids until they get to high school. When white kids leave their school, and get to high school here, this is their first time ever playing ball with Black kids, being in classroom with Black kids, talking to Black kids, if they even talk to them, which I doubt.”
I mentioned to Marcus Jones that I had recently seen the movie Remember the Titans (about the integration of a school and its football team in 1971 in Virginia), and that the situation he was describing reminded me of scenes in the beginning of that movie. He kind of laughed, and said, “Some of that Titan’s stuff is not too far from this.”
Protesting the Noose Incident
In response to the noose incident, several Black students, among them star players on the football team, spontaneously staged a sit-in and protest, under the tree. The principal reacted by bringing in the white district attorney, Reed Walters, and 10 local police officers to an all-school assembly. Marcus Jones described the assembly:
“At any activity done in the auditorium—anything—Blacks sit on one side, whites on the other side, okay? The DA tells the principal to call the students in the auditorium. They get in there. The DA tells the Black students, he's looking directly at the Black students—remember, whites on one side, Blacks on the other side—he's looking directly at the Black students. He told them to keep their mouths shut about the boys hanging their nooses up. If he hears anything else about it, he can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen.”
DA Walters concluded that the students should “work it out on their own.” Police officers roamed the halls of the school that week, and tensions simmered throughout the fall semester.
In November, as football season came to a close, the main school building was mysteriously burned down. In the wake of this, tensions erupted in a weekend of whites lashing out to enforce white supremacy in Jena.
On a Friday night, Robert Bailey, a 17-year-old Black student and football player, was invited to a dance at the “Fair Barn,” a hall considered to be “white.” When he walked in, without warning he was punched in the face, knocked on the ground and attacked by a group of white youth. Only one of the white youth was arrested—he was ultimately given probation and asked to apologize.
The night after that, a 22-year-old white man, along with two friends, pulled a gun on Bailey and two of his friends at a local gas station. The Black youths wrestled the gun from him to prevent him from using it. They were arrested and charged with theft, and the white man went free. The following Monday students returned to school. It was then that a fight broke out that sent one white student to the hospital. He was treated, released, and seen at a social event that evening. In contrast to how the authorities handled the assault on Robert Bailey by white students – where one white student got probation and apologized – for this incident, six Black students face serious criminal charges and decades in jail.
Marcus Jones told me what happened: “The next day, when they get back to school, the Barker boy called one of them a ‘nigger.’ We have a statement from a white kid, saying that he was right there when he called him ‘nigger boy’ or something like that. They charged them with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree attempted murder. Alright, the boy was knocked unconscious. But by the time they called for the medic to get there, he was walking. They took him to the hospital. He don’t stay in there probably no more than an hour, tops. They released him, parents come to the hospital to get him, everything, took like a whole hour. Later on that evening, they held the ring ceremony, you know where they get their rings—he comes up there all fine and dandy. He had a little black eye, little bruise on his lip, you know, but he wasn’t nowhere close to no death. He laughed and talked with everyone up there, and everything.”
Justin Barker was allegedly knocked down, punched, and kicked by a number of Black students. In December of 2006 six Black students—Robert Bailey Junior, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell, and a still unidentified minor, allegedly the attackers of Justin Barker—were arrested, charged with attempted second degree manslaughter, and expelled from school.
The outrageously high bail ranged from $70,000-$138,000, leaving most of them stuck in jail for months. Mychal was 16 years old at the time he was arrested, the judge removed him from the juvenile facilities and brought him to the Jena Parish jail to charge him as an adult.
A Jim Crow Trial
What kind of trial did Mychal Bell get in the town of Jena, Louisiana?
Without any explanation, both of Mychal Bell’s parents were put on the “witness list” and therefore were not allowed into the courtroom. They were never called to testify, but they were not allowed to go into the trial. In this way those in charge of this courtroom prevented Mychal Bell's parents from attending the trial of their own son.
Mychal was judged by an all-white jury, in a courtroom run by a white judge. Whites sat with Justin Barker and his white lawyer on one side. Blacks sat with defendant Mychal Bell, who was represented by a court-appointed attorney.
The prosecutor called 16 witnesses, mostly white students. The court-appointed defense attorney called none. Barker’s attorney argued that Bell’s tennis shoes on his feet were a “dangerous weapon.”
The trial was so outrageous that when a Louisiana TV station polled viewers, 62% said that Mychal Bell was not getting a fair trial.
Mychal Bell was convicted of two felonies: aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. Mychal faces up to 22 years in prison for a schoolyard fight. Compare this to the white students who attacked Robert Bailey at the Fair Barn and have been allowed to go free with barely a slap on the wrist.
The threat of a similar so-called trial hangs over the heads of the other accused Black students.
Marcus Jones said, “Now remember, who created this atmosphere of this Black and white stuff? The DA done that. ’Cause when he let those boys get away with hanging those nooses, and when they had the fight with the Barker boy, he was telling them, ‘Listen, you niggers, don’t put your hands on nobody white. If you do, I’m gonna show you. I’ll put charges on those boys.’ And lately he was saying, ‘It’s alright for those whites to do what they want to do, because I ain’t going to do nothing to them.’ Black kids see he didn’t do nothing to them about the noose incident, you know? So he’s the one that created all this racial tension here, you see. He let one race slide. But you’re going to try to enforce the law on another race.”
In an interview from an upcoming documentary that aired on Democracy Now (7/10/07), Marcus Jones showed for the camera the stack of college scholarship offers his son Mychal had received to play football at many different schools. Marcus Jones commented solemnly, “One of the best lessons that my son could learn, that’s one of the best lessons, to know what it is to be Black now, ya know, if this don’t teach him what it is to be Black now, I don’t know what will. He’s 17 now, he’s got a lot of life ahead of him. The day he sets foot out of jail, I’m going to tell him again, you know what it is to be Black now, here it is.”
Free the Jena Six!
In scenes from the documentary aired on Democracy Now, Caseptla Bailey, the mother of Robert Bailey, who also awaits his trial remarked, “They want to take these kids, my son as well as all these other children, lock them up and throw away the key, that’s a tradition, for Black males, so they want to keep that tradition going because they want to keep institutionalized slavery alive and well.”
In the face of this heart wrenching and outrageous reality, a battle is being fought to defend the Jena Six. Family, friends, and supporters of the young men are protesting and struggling. The Black community in Jena and people from across Louisiana and Texas have come together to support the Jena 6 and fight the injustice of their trials. People have put their lives on hold, and churches have opened their doors.
Marcus Jones told me, “I’m still in need of a lawyer for my son and one more of the kids. So we opened up a defense account for trying to get some good legal representation. Because my son was really just sold out by the court-appointed lawyer. Oh man, that’s so devastating. So now we’re just trying to generate some money to get good legal representation.”
All those who oppose racism, all those who watched in horror or themselves lived through the reality of Hurricane Katrina, all those who joined the debate around the Imus incident in opposition to racism and oppression, and those who have watched with horror as the clock was turned back 50 years by a Supreme Court ruling, undermining and doing away with what little rights were given by Brown v. Board of Education should join in demanding the charges be dropped against all of the Jena 6, and that Mychal Bell’s conviction be reversed!
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