Revolution #108, November 11, 2007
Jena 6: Gag Order and Media Blackout
We received the following correspondence from a reader.
Before I speak to the way the juvenile “justice” system is being used to persecute Mychal Bell of the Jena 6, I want to start with a personal story. My son is dark-skinned and was constantly stopped by the police for being out of place in the mainly white, suburban, middle class community where his grandparents live and near where he grew up. Once, the police were called on him at a 7-11 store because the clerk was afraid that he might not pay for some item. My son was so outraged that he wasn’t cooperative with the police who hauled him off and was charged with resisting arrest.
When he was brought to the court for a preliminary arraignment, the judge glanced at the arrest report and launched into a tirade about what a menace to society my son was, that he was obviously a repeat criminal, and how he should be locked up for at least 6 months on a good day. The judge said he was going to sentence him right then. This was the arraignment—which is supposedly when a defendant finds out what his or her charges are, not when they get convicted and sentenced! The lawyer finally got to say, “My client would like to plead not guilty.” The judge looked shocked. The lawyer went on about his client’s ties in the community and that he should be granted bail, pointing out that his mother was on hand to arrange this. The judge looked out at me—white, middle-class looking—and said, “That’s his mother?” Then, like a scene from The Exorcist, his head spun around, and he gave the speech reserved for the middle class: “Son, you are such a disappointment to your parents” and released him on bail.
Afterward, the young lawyer was beside himself—he could not believe what he had witnessed, it was just so blatant. Unfortunately, most young defendants never get to hear the second speech—they just hear the jail door slam shut. Most of my white, liberal relatives do not understand or believe how widespread this type of thing is.
I have been closely following the Revolution coverage on the Jena 6, which has been outstanding—not only reporting on the developments in the case and the protests but also going into the big questions provoked by the case: why is this happening; what does it have to do with the history of oppression of Black people in this country; why did this strike such a deep chord among Black people; why aren’t more people diving into protest around this case, especially white people?
As the public outcry about this case grew, a Louisiana appellate court vacated Mychal Bell’s conviction in September, finding that District Attorney Reed Walters and Judge J.P. Mauffrey had improperly tried Bell as an adult rather than a juvenile. On September 27, Bell was released from jail for a brief time. But as Revolution reported in issue #105 (“System Lashes Back, Mychal Bell Back in Jail,” online at revcom.us), in the wake of the historic September 20 protests in Jena, Mychal Bell was thrown back into jail—only this time to a juvenile facility by the same judge and prosecutor who originally tried and convicted him.
Given all the interest in this case—how is it possible that no one can examine what the motives or legal basis were for the judge to re-jail Mychal Bell? There was a complete blackout on information coming out of the courtroom. No media were allowed into the hearing and all the participants, Mychal Bell’s lawyers and relatives were placed under a gag order by the same judge who had already WRONGLY tried him as an adult and as a result caused him to serve 10 months in ADULT prison instead of attending his last year of high school. The same judge threw him back into juvenile jail! (Juvenile jails in Louisiana have been the focus of Human Rights Watch investigations throughout the ’90s for the horrendous treatment of children.)
Using Juvenile Court to Turn Out the Lights
The DA and the judge have shown that they are determined to get a conviction and punish Mychal Bell and the Jena 6. Walters wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times defending his decision to charge the Jena 6 with serious felonies. He held a press conference after the Sept. 20 protest, thanking the lord for intervening to “protect” Jena from Black protesters.
After all this, the SAME judge and the SAME DA are trying Bell in juvenile court. And on top of that, they have seized on the fact that the higher court found that Bell should never have been tried as an adult, to retry him only in juvenile court and then use the juvenile court setting as the PRETEXT to put a complete blackout on the proceedings.
Juvenile courts were instituted in the first place so that society could supposedly take into account that these are children and give special attention to protecting their interests and rehabilitating them (including by protecting their privacy). This is not really how these courts operate, as millions of parents can testify. Judging Amy was a TV show.
In Louisiana, a 2004 Louisiana Supreme Court ruling held that all juvenile proceedings involving certain categories of violent crime—including aggravated second-degree battery (i.e. the charge in Bell’s case)—must be conducted in open court.
So in Mychal Bell’s case, to use the very fact that it is a juvenile court as the reason to shut the curtains and turn out the lights—while Mr. DA and Mr. Judge carry out their version of “just us”—is a violation of Louisiana’s own laws and a complete travesty. While Mychal Bell’s attorneys and parents are stifled by gag orders, details of Bell’s juvenile arrests are all over the media. How is any of this in the interests of the juvenile in this case?
The message being sent out by the gag order and barring the media is: YOU ARE NOT GOING TO PUT A SPOTLIGHT ON OUR TOWN. WE HAVE THE POWER TO TURN OUT THE LIGHTS AND YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO SEE WHAT WE DO. YOU PROTEST AND DEMAND YOUR RIGHTS—YOU’LL PAY.
A coalition of major media companies filed a legal motion in the LaSalle Parish District Court, challenging the decision by Mauffrey to close the proceedings in Mychal Bell’s case and order everyone involved not to speak about it. The Chicago Tribune is the lead plaintiff in the petition, which has been joined by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Co., the Associated Press, the Hearst Corp., the Belo Corp, the Gannett Corp, CNN, and ABC News.
The court motion filed by the media coalition involves a number of very important legal issues, including the First Amendment rights (supposedly the right to free speech) of the participants in the trial to be able to speak out about the case; the freedom of the press to be able to cover the story and get access to the relevant documents in the case, and the right of the public to know what is happening.
The Chicago Tribune reported, “Mauffrey’s reasons for sending Bell back to jail are unknown because the judge ordered all of Bell’s juvenile proceedings to be conducted in private.” The news organizations’ legal petition also contends that Mauffrey improperly imposed a gag order on lawyers in the case: “The underlying facts of this case have been published, broadcast, editorialized about, blogged and talked about throughout the country and across the globe,” the petition states. “There is simply no reason to refuse to allow the trial participants to comment as well.” Mauffrey has recused himself (stepped down) from hearing the media's challenge to open the courtroom he presides over. A new judge has set a hearing date of November 21.
Re-Criminalizing the Jena 6
On one side there is a gag order and a blackout and Mychal Bell sitting in jail. On the other side—a counter-offensive. The assistant editor of the Jena Times published a piece in the Christian Science Monitor on October 24 called “Media Myths about the Jena 6.” This myth piece has been picked up and spread all over the media and the Internet. While Bell’s defenders are silenced, this editor is free to talk about Bell’s four prior juvenile “violent crime arrests” and probation.
After September 20, those who want to punish the Jena 6 for standing up to racist outrages have tried to seize back the initiative, including through the courts. Throwing Mychal Bell back into jail is an attempt to sway people who do not see—or don’t want to confront—the grossly unequal treatment of Black youth by telling them: “See, he really is a serial criminal, don’t get upset about a ‘miscarriage of justice,’ in fact to let him go would be a miscarriage of justice.” And, by widely spreading the story that Bell has a record (while gagging his attorneys and conducting the hearing to jail him in secret), the authorities aim to isolate the Jena 6 from their supporters, and confuse people by taking the focus off the real reason the Jena 6 were persecuted in the first place: as retaliation for Black students at Jena High first daring to sit under a “whites only” tree, and then defiantly standing together under the tree when nooses were hung from it.
Mychal Bell already spent 10 months in jail on the adult charge for which Louisiana courts have ruled he never should have been tried in the first place!! The DA in the Duke Lacrosse rape case was disbarred and prosecuted for being too zealous in his prosecution of white students, while this DA is given a page in the NY Times to defend his persecution of the Jena 6.
I recently watched the film Mississippi Burning. Leaving aside how the FBI is portrayed as playing a positive role in the civil rights struggle (which is contrary to historical evidence), the movie is worth watching in light of the Jena 6 struggle—and especially for anyone who doesn’t know or is confused about what the noose means historically and in terms of the current-day reality for Black people. The racists in Mississippi portrayed in the film who night-ride with the Klan, lynching Black people and beating children to keep them “in their place”—these “good citizens” talk a lot about how it’s the “outsiders” like the civil rights activists who are causing all the problems, and how everyone would get along just fine otherwise. The sheriffs and the courts play a critical part—giving the whole white supremacist set-up the full protection and backing of the law.
That same white supremacist system locked up Mychal Bell to send a message that Black people better stay “in their place.” This needs to be exposed, as part of the struggle to Free the Jena 6.
Revolution newspaper correspondent Alice Woodward and her colleague Hank Brown have been reporting from Jena, Louisiana since July 2007. Having reporters on the ground following events, as well as learning from the experiences of people there, is essential to telling the full story, and strengthens all Revolution’s coverage of Jena.
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