The story of the Jena Six started around an oak tree on Aug. 31, 2006 at the local high school in Jena, Louisiana. A little over a year later, on Sept. 20, 2007, approximately 20,000 people rallied in the town of 2,000 residents. How the story progressed from such a modest beginning to an international controversy reads like drama from the Jim Crow years. That a black student even felt it necessary to ask permission to sit where the white kids sat raises a new question: Did the civil rights movement forget about Louisiana?
The oak tree was commonly referred to as the ‘white tree,’ a place where white students sat at this informally segregated high school. In fact, the entire community still functions on these unspoken rules. A local barbershop won’t cut a black man’s hair, out of fear that a white customer will complain about the subsequently unacceptable cutting implements. A few black students, well aware of their hometown’s racial policy, asked the principal if they could sit under the tree during an assembly. He told them they could sit wherever they like.
The next day, on Sept. 1, 2007, three nooses were found hanging from the tree. The three white boys responsible were caught, and the principal recommended expulsion, but he was overruled by the superintendent. They served three days of in-school suspension, for what the superintendent deemed a simple prank. This is where the opinions regarding the incident become as racially divided as the town. Many white locals believe that the noose incident was adolescent misjudgment. But the minority black community of Jena, about 15 percent, insists that it recalls the South’s disturbing legacy of lynching, a threat that is impossible to brush off.
After the nooses, racial tension at the school reached incendiary levels. The district attorney, Reed Walters, appeared at a school assembly to quell the increasing unrest by encouraging the students not to make an issue of an ‘innocent prank.’ When the students didn’t calm down, he threatened them: ‘I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen,’ a threat which the black students claim was directed at their side of the assembly alone. The school’s main building was burnt down in November, though no one has been charged with the arson, and both groups of students blame each other.
In December, the culmination of all the threats and tension resulted in the first instances of physical violence. Robert Bailey, then 17 years old, and four other black friends were attacked when they tried to go to a party attended primarily by white kids. A beer bottle was broken over Bailey’s head, and the white male responsible was charged with battery. The next day, Bailey and a few of his friends were at a convenience store when they were confronted by another student who was also at the party. The white student retrieved a shotgun from his pickup truck. After Bailey and his friends managed to wrestle the shotgun away, they ran from the store. The student who produced the gun was never charged. Bailey, however, was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace.
The climax occurred a few days later, on Dec. 4. Bailey was taunted by a white classmate, Justin Barker, for getting his ‘ass whipped’ by the male at the party. Later, Barker was jumped by a group of black students, knocked unconscious and kicked while he was down. He received treatment at the hospital for a possible minor concussion and was released two hours later with a black eye and some scratches on his face, ear and hand, though he felt well enough to attend Jena High School’s ring ceremony the same night. Six black students were arrested for the fight six months later, and all but the youngest, who was 14 at the time, were immediately charged with assault. The same district attorney who had characterized the conflict as adolescent decided that those charges weren’t sufficient and charged them all with attempted second-degree murder. This is when the six teens became known as the Jena Six.
So far, Mychal Bell’s is the only case to go to trial thus far. He was tried as an adult, and though the sentence was reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, the guilty verdict given by an all-white jury held a possible 22-year sentence. Both convictions have been overturned in appeals courts, arguing that he should have been tried as a juvenile, since he was 16 at the time of the fight. Walters plans on appealing this decision to the Supreme Court.
In the recounting of these events, one disparity should become obvious: the charges brought upon the accused parties are widely unequal. The noose incident should have been dealt with immediately and firmly, rather than allowed to escalate into a larger issue of contention. Black students made appeals to the mostly white school board, but the board, like Walters, continued to treat it as an ill-advised prank which had already been dealt with, even while Jena’s black community became increasingly incensed over its indifference. They saw the noose as a symbolic threat of lynching, an attempt to remind them of the violent past they overcame during the civil rights movement decades ago and a suggestion that perhaps they hadn’t escaped the threat at all. Of the two fights instigated by the white students, only one was charged with battery, which carried a sentence of probation. Most damaging is the shotgun incident, an obvious case of self-defense, perverted into unfair charges against Bailey.
Walters, in a recent press conference, still insists that the noose incident and the fights were not related and that the Jena Six cases have nothing to do with race. This distinction between the two interconnected events has made it possible for him to let the white boys off with minor suspensions, while the Jena Six are threatened with grossly excessive jail time. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders organized 20,000 people, many from across the country, to descend on the small town in protest. When all of the charges were reduced to battery and conspiracy, the same as Bell’s, many people following the case thought the rally would be canceled. The day after the rally, however, lends credence to the movement’s hesitance to declare victory. On Sept. 22, the judge denied Bell’s bail request, while his overturned convictions are being reviewed in a juvenile appeals court. Bell is the only one of the six who has not been able to make bail and has been in jail for nine months.
The story of the Jena Six continues to gain nationwide attention, and the international news media has begun to decry the racially motivated injustice that so many in America are unable or unwilling to recognize. From the United Kingdom’s The Guardian: ‘Jena is America,’ says Alan Bean, the executive director of Friends of Justice, who has been working with the Jena Six. ‘The new Jim Crow is the criminal justice system and its impact on poor people in general and people of colour in particular. We don’t always get the exotic trimmings like the nooses.’
Megan Brescini is a fourth-year literary journalism major.