Last week in Detroit, the NAACP held a mock funeral for the N-word. But a chilling case in Louisiana shows us how far we have to go to bury racism. This story begins in the small, central Louisiana town of Jena. Last September, a black high school student requested the school’s permission to sit beneath a broad, leafy tree in the hot schoolyard. Until then, only white students sat there.
The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree. The black students responded en masse. Justin Purvis, the kid who first sat under the tree, told filmmaker Jacquie Soohen: “They said, ’Y’all want to go stand under the tree?’ We said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'If you go, I'll go. If you go, I’ll go.’ One person went, the next person went, everybody else just went.”
Then the police and the district attorney showed up. Substitute teacher Michelle Rogers recounts: “District Attorney Reed Walters proceeded to tell those kids that 'I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.' ”
It wouldn’t happen for a few more months, but that is exactly what the district attorney is trying to do.
Jena, a community of 4,000, is about 85 percent white. While the black community gathered at a church to respond, others didn’t see the significance. Soohen interviewed Jena town librarian Barbara Murphy, who reflected: “The nooses? I don’t even know why they were there, what they were supposed to mean. There’s pranks all the time, of one type or another, going on. And it just didn’t seem to be racist to me.” Tensions rose.
Robert Bailey, a black student, was beaten up at a white party. Then, a few nights later, Robert and two others were threatened by a white man with a sawed-off shotgun, at a convenience store. They wrestled the gun away and fled. Robert’s mother, Caseptla Bailey, said: “I know they were in fear of their lives. They were afraid that this man was going to shoot them, you know, especially in the back, running away from the scene.”
The next day, Dec. 4, 2006, a fight broke out at the school. A white student was injured, taken to the hospital and released. Robert Bailey and five other black students were charged … with second-degree attempted murder. They each faced 100 years in prison. The black community was reeling.
Independent journalist Jordan Flaherty was the first to break the story nationally. He explained: “I’m sure it was a serious fight, and I’m sure it deserved real discipline within the school system, but he (the white student) was out later that day. He was smiling. He was with friends … it was a serious school problem that came on the heels of a long series of other events … as soon as black students were involved, that’s when the hammer came down.”
The African American community began to call them the Jena Six. The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, 17 years old and a talented football player, looking forward to a university scholarship. Bell was offered a plea deal, but refused. His father, Marcus Jones, took a few minutes off from work to talk to me: “Here in LaSalle Parish, whenever a black man is offered a plea bargain, he is innocent. That’s a dead giveaway here in the South.”
Right before the trial, the charges of attempted second-degree murder were lowered to aggravated battery, which under Louisiana law requires a dangerous weapon. The weapon? Tennis shoes.
Mychal Bell was convicted by an all-white jury. His court-appointed defense attorney called no witnesses. Bell will be sentenced on July 31, facing a possible 22 years. The remaining five teens, several of whom were jailed for months, unable to make bail, still face attempted second-degree murder charges and a hundred years each in prison.
Flaherty, who grew up in New Orleans, sums up the case of the Jena Six: “I don’t think there is anyone around that would doubt that if this had been a fight between black students or a fight of white students beating up a black student, you would never be seeing this. It’s completely about race. It’s completely about two systems of justice.”
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco gained national prominence during Hurricane Katrina. There’s another hurricane that’s devastating the lives of her constituents: racism. The families of the Jena Six are asking her to intervene. The district attorney says he can end the boys’ lives with his pen. But Blanco’s pen is mightier. She should wield it, now, for justice for the Jena Six.