Revolution #102, September 23, 2007
The Story of the Jena 6
It is a late summer day in September 2006, the beginning of the school year, in the small town of Jena, Louisiana. A Black student ASKS FOR PERMISSION to sit beneath the shade tree in front of the high school. A tree known as a “WHITES-ONLY TREE.”
The principal says they can sit wherever they want, so they do.
The next morning when students come to school, three NOOSES are hanging from the tree.
Tina Jones, the mother of Bryant Purvis, one of the Jena 6, told Revolution:
“To Black people that is offensive because you know over the years Black people were hung in trees. So I mean we felt like the white people were saying, ‘Well if you sit under this tree, we’re going to hang you.’ That’s how us, as Black people felt, even though the white people said it was a prank. How could it be a prank when something like that was done to Black people over the years?”
After dozens of Black students courageously stand under the tree in a defiant act of protest, the principal and superintendent bring in District Attorney Reed Walters and local police officers to an all-school assembly. The DA threatens Black students, telling them that if they do anything else about the nooses: “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” Police officers are stationed in the halls of the school that week.
Meanwhile, no real punishment for the students who HUNG THE NOOSES. The school board steps in to prevent them from getting expelled and they only get a three-day suspension.
On November 30, 2006, the main school building is mysteriously burned to the ground. That weekend when Robert Bailey, a 17-year-old Black student, tries to attend a school dance, he is punched in the face, knocked on the ground and attacked by a group of white youth. Only one of the white students is arrested—and then only given probation and asked to apologize.
The night after that, a white youth pulls a gun on a group of Black youth. A Black youth wrestles the gun away to prevent the white youth from using it. And for this he is arrested and charged with theft.
The following Monday a fight breaks out at school. A white student, Justin Barker, goes to the hospital for a few hours and then attends a school ring ceremony that night.
The next day, December 4, six Black students—Robert Bailey Junior, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell, and an unidentified minor—are arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit attempted second degree murder. Outrageously high bail is set for each of them, ranging from $70,000-$138,000, and most of them end up in jail for months. Mychal Bell is still in jail.
Like a scene from the Jim Crow South, Mychal Bell is tried on June 25-28 by an all-white jury, in a courtroom run by a white judge. The prosecutor calls 16 witnesses, mostly white students. The court-appointed defense attorney calls NO WITNESSES ON BELL’S BEHALF. The DA argues that the tennis shoes on Bell’s feet were a “dangerous weapon.” Mychal Bell is convicted of two felonies: aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.
On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice hosts a “community forum” in Jena, run by Lewis Chapman, assistant special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office and U.S. Attorney Donald Washington from the U.S. Justice Department. Discussing how all this has been handled by the authorities, Washington states that “all of their procedures were ‘regular’ and not ‘irregular.’” In effect, he says six Black youth should go to prison for standing up to racism, that white supremacy is the REGULAR workings of this system.
AT EVERY TURN, city and federal officials, the police and courts have stepped in to officially enforce white supremacy and insure the prosecution and persecution of these Black youth.
The Struggle to Free the Jena 6
On July 31, 300 people come from all over the country to rally in support of the Jena 6 when Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced. The weekend before, the school administration removes the “whites-only” tree.
In August, a new legal team from Monroe, Louisiana, steps forward to represent Mychal Bell and handle his appeal, pro bono. Bell’s sentencing is postponed and the team files a number of motions—that Bell did not receive a fair trial, that his constitutional rights were violated, that the convictions should be thrown out, and that a new trial be held or the charges dropped.
At an August 24 court hearing, family members and others step forward to testify that they will ensure Bell will be in the care of the community if he is released on bail. But the judge summarily dismisses this and denies bond. He declares Bell a “danger” to the community, citing a so-called “criminal record” of minor offenses. And then in a blatant racist insult, he compares the Black community to a “fence erected around the cattle” and criticizes them for not erecting this fence around Mychal Bell earlier.
Students at Jena High continue to resist. On August 28, eight or nine students go to school wearing t-shirts that read, “Free the Jena 6.” Again the hammer comes down: The principal gets on the loudspeakers and announces that the t-shirts cannot be worn because they “offend” some people. The t-shirts are officially banned.
All that set the stage for this month. On September 4, Mychal Bell's lawyers presented arguments before the 28th Judicial Court showing numerous violations of constitutional rights during Bell's original trial. Judge J.P. Mauffray, Jr. denied every appeal by Bell's lawyers except for one. He did however throw out the conspiracy conviction, on the grounds that Mychal Bell should not have been prosecuted as an adult on that charge. But he did NOT overturn Bell's conviction, as an adult, on second-degree battery charges. At that point, Bell still faced the possibility of 15 years in prison.
Then, on September 14, in response to an emergency appeal by Bell's lawyers and in the face of a mushrooming nationwide movement to free the Jena 6, Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Mychal Bell's conviction of second-degree battery, on the grounds that he should not have been tried as an adult on this charge either. This marked an important victory, but it is still very partial and initial. As we go to press, the D.A. has vowed to appeal to higher courts to re-instate the adult charges, Bell remains in jail, and the rest of the 6 still face very serious charges. And even this initial victory only came about due to the courageous stand of people in Jena and the growing nationwide political movement to free the Jena 6. The struggle to completely free the Jena 6 and force the system to drop ALL charges is far from over and must continue to grow, by leaps and bounds.
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