Revolution #98, August 19, 2007
Hundreds March Against “Legal Lynching”
Free the Jena 6!
The “Jena 6” are six Black students who face the possibility of going to prison for many, many years because of a schoolyard fight. This story began on September 1, 2006 in the small town of Jena, Louisiana. A group of Black students sat under a “whites-only” tree in the schoolyard. Racist students responded immediately and the next day nooses were hanging from the tree for all to see.
Tina Jones, the mother of Bryant Purvis who is one of the Jena 6, told Revolution what it was like hearing about the nooses hanging on the tree:
“I was like, what? [My son], myself and a lot of family members were really upset about that because 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? And then they walk under this tree and then you hang nooses. And you know what that represents and that means to us -- if you go under this [tree] we’re going to hang you. I mean there’s no other way to look at that, and there’s nothing funny about that.”
Soon after the nooses were hung, most of the 93 Black students (out of a total student enrollment of 546) at Jena High School stood together under the tree, in a courageous act of protest. After this, a school assembly was called where a white district attorney told the Black students to keep their mouths shut about the nooses. He told them if he heard anything else about it, he “can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen.”
When racist white students jumped a Black student, one white student got probation. But when a fight broke out that sent a white student to the hospital for an hour, the law came down on Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, and an unnamed minor--arresting these youth, who are now known as the Jena 6, and initially charging them with attempted murder. (see “Free the Jena Six! Jim Crow Injustice in Jena Louisiana,” Revolution #96).
Mychal Bell has already been convicted of second degree battery and conspiracy to commit second degree battery and could be sentenced to up to 22 years in prison. And the system is trying to make good on the threat to ruin the lives of the other five youth who still face serious charges. Many people still do not know about this tremendous outrage. But a nationwide struggle to free the Jena 6 is beginning to grow--and MUST get much bigger. The next court hearings for Mychal Bell and the rest of the Jena Six are scheduled to begin on September 4. Bell’s sentencing is scheduled for September 20.
“We Want the Entire World to Hear”
On July 31, some 300 people rallied in support of the Jena 6 at the courthouse where Mychal Bell was scheduled to be sentenced. People came from all over the country, including people from New Orleans fighting for justice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And a massive stack of petitions, which organizers said contained 43,000 signatures, was delivered to the Assistant District Attorney of Jena. On August 5, Al Sharpton spoke at a church in Jena. And while the story of the Jena 6 has been way downplayed in the mainstream media, these events helped get more national and international coverage.
Mychal Bell has now been sitting in jail since December 4 and was not able to graduate. His trial was a complete outrage, with the court-appointed lawyer not even calling any witnesses! Now, a group of lawyers from Monroe, Louisiana have come forward to take up Bell’s case. Bell’s new legal team says their goal is to overturn Bell’s conviction. Bob Noel, one of the lawyers now on the case, said they got involved not only because Bell came to them, but because it was the right thing to do. "The interest of justice cried out [for us] to get involved," Noel said.
The weekend before the July 31 scheduled sentencing of Mychal Bell, the “whites-only” tree in front of the high school was cut down. NPR reported that “Jena High School had the big shade tree in the courtyard chopped into firewood.” But the tree disappearing hasn’t in any way lessened people’s anger and their determination to spread the word about this case and build the struggle to free the Jena 6.
Talking about the significance of the July 31 rally, Caseptla Bailey, mother of one of the defendants, Robert Bailey, Jr., said, "This is a beautiful thing that I’m seeing here today— all types of browns, seeing all types of blacks, all types of whites. We love that, people coming together." And Khadijah Rashad, representing Lafayette’s Community Defender television show, said, "We must remember that the entire world is watching… When there is going to be sentencing again, we need to flood this area with as much people as we possibly can. We want the entire world to know” (thetowntalk.com).
Bell’s father, Marcus Jones, agreed: “Justice, that’s the main thing we want. He’s still in jail, and we want justice for him and the other boys. And now the whole world sees the wrong done to these boys.”
Bell’s mother, Melissa Bell, told The Town Talk (a paper in Alexandria, Louisiana) that the actions on July 31 should send a message to the community: “We are serious, and everyone is serious about freeing these kids.”
Confronting Reality in Jena and Beyond
School starts on August 17 and the school board is already setting a repressive tone and atmosphere. A “Resource Officer” from the La Salle Parish Sheriff's Department will be at Jena High School this year.
Meanwhile, an editorial in the local Jena Times, attacked the “outside” and “liberal” media for supposedly distorting the situation in Jena, saying, “The ‘racial unrest’ that has continually been reported simply does not exist here.” (“Outside Media has transformed Jena” 8-8-07) Things in Jena are very polarized—right now, there are very few, if any, white people who are even speaking out against the nooses on the trees or the unjust way the Jena 6 are being treated--let alone, taking a clear stand against white supremacy. And this reactionary editorial gave voice to those backward whites in Jena who continue to claim, “We’re good people. This is a good town”--which really amounts to defending the racist status quo.
In contrast to what anyone might declare about how nice a place Jena is, we’ve heard stories which show how the hanging of nooses on the tree at Jena High School and the violent enforcement of white supremacy afterwards is not an exception but is consistent with day-to-day reality in Jena. Black people say they cannot get their hair cut at the barber shop in Jena. Someone showed us photos of nooses that had been put on an offshore oil rig, laying about, and hung up in a bathroom--meant to intimidate Black workers. One parent told us that she overheard white people talking about how the “n*ggers“ who were relocated to Jena from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina “are worse than the n*ggers here in Jena.” This is the ugly history--and present reality--of not just Jena, Louisiana, but the USA.
At the same the whole struggle around the Jena 6 is shaking things up, forcing a lot of white people to think about the reality of relations between Black and white people in not only Jena, but this whole country. We walked in on a discussion going on among four Jena residents who were taking a break at the office where they work. One Black person was openly talking about how what was happening to the Jena 6 was outrageous—and bringing out the history of resistance and rebellion against racism and injustice, like the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. The white people were listening—one somewhat reluctantly, another with some interest nodded his head in agreement. A third said, “I don't think Jena's racist, it's not racist is it, do you think it is?” This shows how people fighting back and sharply polarizing things creates the basis for a realignment in society.
The significance and stakes of this struggle go far beyond Jena. Alan Bean, an attorney who works with the group Friends of Justice, recently wrote: “You probably won’t find 'white trees' and nooses in New York and Los Angeles—that’s a Southern thing. But you will find the same kind of racial profiling regime that insures that young black males are disproportionately watched, hassled and arrested by the police; and you will discover that the over-prosecution of young black males is just as rife in our coastal paradise as it is in our southern purgatory. That’s what Friends of Justice calls ‘the New Jim Crow’; and it ain’t just a Southern thing. Jena is America.”
People need to seriously ask: Why are the school and local authorities, courts, and federal officials all working together to ruin the lives of these six Black youth? Is it because they got into a schoolyard brawl where another kid was (not very seriously) injured? Or is it because these youth and nearly every other Black student at the school went and stood under the “white only” tree in defiance of the openly racist threat of the nooses on the tree? In the eyes of the system of white supremacy, these students crossed the line, they “forgot their place,” and must be punished.
Black students at Jena High have been talking about what to do on August 17, when school begins. One idea they have been thinking about is all wearing “Free the Jena 6” t-shirts on that day. And as people across the country learn about what’s happening in Jena, many are outraged and feel compelled to act, to stand with the Jena 6. In Cambridge, Massachusetts the City Council passed a resolution, going “on record in support of the young men and their families in Jena in their pursuit of justice” and stating that “This frightening example of racism calls to mind an earlier time in the United States in which segregation and the ‘lynching’ of African-Americans was common practice.” Some people in New York City who have heard about the case have put a call out to others to help organize support for the Jena 6. On August 14, Al Sharpton is scheduled to return to Jena, along with Martin Luther King Jr. III, to voice support for the Jena 6 with a service at Antioch Baptist Church and a town hall meeting.
People of conscience who know about the case of the Jena 6 cannot stand on the sidelines, which would amount to a form of complicity in this great injustice.
The struggle to free the Jena 6 must be spread far and wide. And a lot more people need to learn from the Black students at Jena High School who stood stood beneath the “whites only” tree and through their defiant action, said “NO MORE.”
Right away, and especially when Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced on September 20, many, many more people should come to Jena and help build the movement to free the Jena 6. And there should be rallies in many other places as well. In small towns, cities and suburbs, in colleges and high schools, people of ALL nationalities should make it clear that we will NOT tolerate white supremacy in any form and demand that ALL the charges be dropped on the Jena 6.
Everyone must take a stand. Are you for or against everything represented by those nooses hanging on the tree?
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.