Tipping the Scales of Justice in Jena
The tree at Jena High School has been cut down, but the furor around it has only grown.
"What did the tree do wrong?" asked Katrina Wallace, a stepsister of one of the Jena Six, when I interviewed her at the Burger Barn in Jena, La. "I planted it 14 years ago as a tree of knowledge."
It all began at the start of the school year in 2006, at a school assembly, when Justin Purvis asked if he could sit under the schoolyard tree, a privilege unofficially reserved for white students. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from its broad, leafy branches.
African-American students protested, gathering under the tree. Soon after, the district attorney, Reed Walters, came to the school with the police, threatening, "I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen." Racial tensions mounted in this 85 percent white town of 4,000. In December, a schoolyard fight erupted, and the district attorney charged six African-American high school students, the soon to be dubbed Jena Six, with second-degree attempted murder.
I recently visited Billy "Bulldog" Fowler in his office. He’s a white member of the LaSalle Parish School Board. He says Jena is being unfairly painted as racist. He feels the hanging nooses were blown out of proportion, that in the high school setting it was more of a prank: "This is the Deep South, and [older] black people know the meaning of a noose. Let me tell you something — young people don’t."
That night, I went to see the Baileys in their mobile home in Ward 10, one of the black neighborhoods in Jena. Two of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey and Theo Shaw, were ironing their clothes. I asked them what they thought when they saw the nooses. Robert immediately said: "The first thing came to mind was the KKK. I don’t know why, but that was the first thing that came to my head. I used to always think the KKK chase black people on horses, and they catch you with rope."
Theo said he thought the students who hung the nooses "should have got expelled, cuz it wasn’t no prank. It was a threat." School principal Scott Whitcomb thought the same. He recommended expulsion of those who hung the nooses, but the superintendent overruled him, imposing three days of suspension. Whitcomb resigned.
The African-American teens were dealt with differently. They were expelled, but appealed to the school board. The school district had conducted an investigation, but the school board was not allowed to review it. The school board’s lawyer was none other than the prosecuting district attorney, Reed Walters.
Board member Fowler recalls the January meeting: "Our legal authority that night was Mr. Walters."
I asked, "And he told you, you couldn’t have access to the school proceedings, or the investigation?"
Fowler replied: "That’s right. [Walters said] it was a violation of something." The board voted, without information. Fowler recalls: "It was unanimous. No, no it wasn’t. There was one board member who voted no, and that was Mr. Worthington." Melvin Worthington, the only African-American on the school board, voted against upholding the expulsion of the black students.
Asked if he felt that Walters had a conflict of interest that night, Fowler replied, "Well, I’m assuming that Mr. Walters knows the law."
Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t agree. The court just overturned Walters’ first conviction in the Jena Six case (by an all-white jury), that of Mychal Bell, ruling that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Walters pledges to challenge that ruling in the Louisiana Supreme Court, while continuing to pursue the other five prosecutions.
Bell remains in jail, where he has been since last December. Although yet to be tried, the others were jailed as well. Theo Shaw just got out earlier this summer. Imprisoned with adults who were maced repeatedly, Theo’s asthma was triggered, and he was hospitalized.
National organizations like the NAACP have called for a major march in Jena on Sept. 20, the day Bell was to be sentenced. Although his conviction has been overturned, the march will happen, with thousands expected.