The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town’s jagged racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites.
Now the 3,000 residents of this small lumber and oil town deep in the heart of central Louisiana are confronting Old South racial demons many thought had long ago been put to rest.
One morning last September, students arrived at the local high school to find three hangman’s nooses dangling from a tree in the courtyard.
The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school’s 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators if they, too, could sit beneath the tree’s cooling shade.
“Sit wherever you want,” school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.
African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the American South. Three white students were quickly identified as being responsible, and the high school principal recommended that they be expelled.
“Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” said Tracy Bowens, a black mother of two students at the high school who protested the incident at a school board meeting.
But Jena’s white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.
“Adolescents play pranks,” said Breithaupt, the superintendent of the LaSalle Parish school system. “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.
First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school over the nooses. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, which still sits in ruins. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.
Finally, on Dec. 4, a group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. The victim — allegedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks — was not seriously injured and spent only a few hours in the hospital. He was released in time to attend an event the same day.
But the LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, opted to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.
To the defendants, their families and civil rights groups that have examined the events, the attempted murder charges brought by a white prosecutor are excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.
The critics note, for example, that the white youth who beat the black student at the party was charged only with simple battery, while the white man who pulled the shotgun at the convenience store wasn’t charged with any crime at all. But the three black youths in that incident were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft after they wrestled the weapon from the man — in self-defense, they said.
“There’s been obvious racial discrimination in this case,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who described Jena as a “racial powder keg” primed to ignite. “It appears the black students were singled out and targeted in this case for some unusually harsh treatment.”
That’s how the mother of one of the defendants sees things as well.
“They are sending a message to the white kids, ‘You have committed this hate crime, you were taunting these black children, and we are going to allow you to continue doing what you are doing,'” said Caseptla Bailey, mother of Robert Bailey Jr.
Bailey, 17, is caught up in several of the Jena incidents, as both a victim and alleged perpetrator. He was the black student who was beaten at the party, and he was among the students arrested for allegedly grabbing the shotgun from the man at the convenience store. And he’s one of the six students charged with attempted murder for the Dec. 4 attack.
The district attorney declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But other white leaders insist there are no racial tensions in the community, which is 85 percent white and 12 percent black.
“Jena is a place that’s moving in the right direction,” said Mayor Murphy McMillan. “Race is not a major local issue. It’s not a factor in the local people’s lives.”
Still others, however, acknowledge troubling racial undercurrents in a town where only 16 years ago white voters cast most of their ballots for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran unsuccessfully for Louisiana governor.
“I’ve lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism — true racism,” a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. “Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana … racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it.”
The lone black member of the school board agrees.
“There’s no doubt about it — whites and blacks are treated differently here,” said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. “The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided.”
And the troubles at the high school are not over yet.
On May 10, police arrested Justin Barker, 17, the white victim of the Dec. 4 beating. He was alleged to have a rifle loaded with 13 bullets stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck parked in the school lot. Barker told police he had forgotten it was there and had no intention of using it.
MORE INFO ON THE ‘JENA 6′
Jena is a small town nestled deep in the heart of Central Louisiana. Until recently, you may well have never heard of it. But this rural town of less than 4,000 people has become a focal point in the debate around issues of race and justice in this country.
Last December, six black students at Jena High School were arrested after a school fight in which a white student was beaten and suffered a concussion and multiple bruises. The six black students were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. They face up to 100 years in prison without parole. The Jena Six, as they have come to be known, range in age from 15 to 17 years old.
Just over a week ago, an all-white jury took less than two days to convict 17 year-old Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena Six to go on trial. He was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy charges and now faces up to 22 years in prison.
Black residents say that race has always been an issue in Jena, which is 85 percent white, and that the charges against the Jena Six are no exception.
The origins of the story can be traced back to early September when a black high school student requested permission to sit under a tree in the schoolyard where usually only white students sat. The next day three nooses were found hanging from the tree.
Democracy Now! correspondent Jacquie Soohen has more on the story from Jena.
JESSE BEARD: Black girls over there, black boys right here. Some black people standing right — a couple. All the band geeks right there. White folks under the tree. And then you might — it’s like…
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Jesse Beard, a freshman in high school and one of Jena 6, took us to where the nooses were hung.
JESSE BEARD: One day, I just wanted to — maybe the first, second day, we started riding the bus, me and Robert. And we came through, and I seen something hanging there. I told Robert. He looked at it. He’s like, “Them nooses right there.” He was getting mad. Everybody was getting — I started getting mad. By the time everybody came, they was trying to cut them down.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Robert Bailey, seventeen years old and a safety receiver for the school football team, is another of the Jena 6 facing life behind bars. He described his reaction to the nooses.
ROBERT BAILEY: It was in the early morning. I seen them hanging. I’m thinking the KKK, you know, were hanging nooses. They want to hang somebody. Real nooses, the ones you see on TV are the kind of nooses they were, the ones they play in the movies and they were hanging all the people, you know, and the thing dropped, those were the kind of nooses they were. I know it was somebody white that hung the nooses in the tree. You know, I don’t know another way to put it, but, you know, I was disappointed, because, you know, we do little pranks — you know, toilet paper, that’s a prank, you know what I’m saying? Paper all over the square, all the pranks they used to do, that’s pranks. Nooses hanging there — nooses ain’t no prank.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: The school’s superintendent dismissed the nooses as a prank, and after three days’ suspension, the three white students who hung the nooses were allowed back to school. Caseptla Bailey, Robert’s mother, said the school did not inform the parents of the incident.
CASEPTLA BAILEY: The school didn’t tell me. I didn’t know that it happened, so therefore I didn’t call to find out what happened on that particular day.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: To Caseptla Bailey, the meaning of the nooses was clear.
CASEPTLA BAILEY: It meant hatred, to the other race. It meant that “We’re going to kill you, you’re going to die.” You know, it sent a message: “This is not the place for you to sit. This is not your damn tree. Do not sit here. You know, you ought to remain in your place, know your place and stay in your place. You’re out of your boundaries.” And the first thing now that the sheriff department or that the chief of police want to say that — as well as the superintendent — one had nothing to do with the other. Now, come on now!
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Most people we spoke to in Jena’s white community, however, see no connection between the students’ charges and race. Barbara Murphy, the town librarian, claims there isn’t a race problem in Jena.
BARBARA MURPHY: We don’t have a race problem. It’s not black against white. It’s crime. 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.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: A few days after the nooses were hung, the entire black student body staged an impromptu demonstration, crowding underneath the tree during lunch hour. Justin Purvis, the student who first asked to sit underneath the tree, described how the protest came about.
JUSTIN PURVIS: It was like, the first beginning, in the courtyard, 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.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: The school responded to the protest by calling police and the district attorney. At an assembly the same day, the District Attorney Reed Walters, accompanied by armed policeman, addressed the students. Substitute teacher Michelle Rogers, one of the few black teachers at the school, was there. She recalls the DA’s words to the assembled high schoolers.
MICHELLE ROGERS: The kids didn’t say anything. They were listening. The kids were quiet. And so, District Attorney Reed Walters, you know, proceeded to tell those kids that “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” And the kids were just — it was like in awe that the district — you know, Reed Walters would tell these kids that. He held a pen in his hand and told those kids that, “See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”
JACQUIE SOOHEN: A series of incidents followed throughout the fall. In October, a black student was beaten for entering a private all-white party. Later that month, a white student pulled a gun on a group of black students at a gas station, claiming self-defense. The black students wrestled the gun away and reported the incident to police. They were charged with assault and robbery of the gun. No charges were ever filed against the white students in either incident. Then, in late November, someone tried to burn down the high school, creating even more tension.
Four days later, a white student was allegedly attacked in a school fight. The victim was taken to hospital and released shortly with a concussion. He attended a school function that evening. Six black students were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, on charges that leave them facing between twenty and one hundred years in jail. The defendants, ranging in age from fifteen to seventeen, had their bonds set at between $70,000 and $138,000. The attack was written up in the local paper as fact, and DA Reed Walters published a statement in which he said, “When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law.”
MINISTER: We have come today to stand against what we consider to be a great evil.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Since their arrest, the defendants’ families have been speaking out and fighting for the release of their sons. Two of the six, including Mychal Bell, who was recently convicted, were unable to make bond and have spent close to seven months in jail to date.
CASEPTLA BAILEY: No justice!
PROTESTERS: No peace!
CASEPTLA BAILEY: No justice!
PROTESTERS: No peace!
CASEPTLA BAILEY: No justice!
PROTESTERS: No peace!
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Caseptla Bailey began writing letters to state and national agencies, including the Department of Justice, immediately after the charges were filed.
CASEPTLA BAILEY: The first thing was devastation. You know, I was down when it first happened. You know, I was very devastated. I was hurt, upset, angry, mad, frustrated. You know, I had so many emotions, crying a lot of nights, you know, trying to figure out where can I go from here. You know, a lot of times when you’re backed into a corner or you’re backed into a wall, naturally you’re going to come out fighting. You know, you’re not going to — you’re either going to fall and die, or you’re going to come out fighting.
You know, I’m just sending out these letters to anyone that would have a listening ear and to anyone that, you know, I thought that might help the situation. That’s how I fight back, you know, by putting the pen to the paper.
They want to take these kids — my son, as well as all these other children — lock them up, throw away the key. You know, that’s a tradition for black males. So they want to keep that tradition going, because they want to keep institutionalized slavery alive and well.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: At a friendly pickup game of football, Caseptla’s son Robert shows off the skills that made him a star player of the high school football team. Robert was in jail for over two months before his mother was able to raise the money for her son’s bond using three pieces of property from different family members. Seventeen-year-old Robert Bailey has no criminal record.
ROBERT BAILEY: I ain’t got no criminal record, nothing. I ain’t got no probation, community service or nothing, nothing like that. The DA, he ain’t after finding the truth. That’s what a DA’s for, to after find the truth, you know, of the case. He’s just, you know, trying to put me up in a jail cell, for life. Fifty years, twenty-five to a hundred years, you can just say “forever.” Twenty years is forever, to me.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Robert wasn’t the only one with a promising future. All of the Jena 6 were athletes, and five of the six were on the high school football team. Marcus Jones, the father of seventeen-year-old Mychal Bell, has a stack of scholarship offers for his son.
MARCUS JONES: LSU, Southern Miss, Ol’ Miss, University of New York…
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Mychal is a star running back and a strong student who is being actively scouted by a number of colleges.
MARCUS JONES: We’re not blaming the victim for the charges or none of that. The DA is a racist DA. You know, I’m not calling him out for being a racist. I’m calling him out as being a racist due to his track record. The reason we is taking a stand for our kids for what he’s not doing is right, ’cause, you know, we’re tired of it, you know, ’cause if we, you know, we sat down and lay back and let him railroad our kids, too, he’s going to continue to do that to black people in this town. You know, so we have to take a stand now. Somebody has to take a stand now. If not, he’s going to continue to fill the prisons up with black people more and more.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: Mr. Bell believes that his son is learning a valuable lesson from this experience.
MARCUS JONES: One of the best lessons that my son could learn that’s one of the best lessons: to know what it is to be black now. You know, if this don’t teach him what it is to be black now, I don’t know what will. But he’s seventeen now. You know, he’s got a lot of life left ahead of him. And the day he set foot out of jail, I’m going to tell him, I’m going to tell him again, “You know what it is to be black now. Here it is.”
JACQUIE SOOHEN: For Democracy Now!, this is Jacquie Soohen, reporting from Jena, Louisiana.
AMY GOODMAN: That piece is from an upcoming feature documentary by Big Noise Films. Mychal Bell faces up to twenty-two years in prison when he’s sentenced July 31st. The five other students await trial on charges of attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. They face up to 100 years in jail. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by parents of three of the Jena 6, as well as the journalist who broke the story nationally.
(I have reprinted the transcript of interviews done in preparation for a documentary on the Jena 6.)
MY COMMENTARY: I choose to feature this issue on this blog for many reasons but most specifically to focus attention on the plight of 6 gifted athletes who have never been in trouble ever, who had the opportunity to go to college on football scholarships and better their lives, to now face attempted murder charges stemming from a racial incident that the school principal considered a “prank”. NO, it was a racist slap in the face of all black residents, not only in Jena, Louisana, but across this country.
I post my personal plea to Senator Obama to take this issue up in Congress and put a stop to the actions of a racist District Attorney who chooses to slap the wrist of white students who perpetuated a “hate crime” and then charges 6 black males with attempted murder stemming from an altercation where the “supposed victim” who had been in on the “noose hanging incident” in which he went to the hospital for a couple bruises and then was released and attended an event the same day. Is this attempted murder I ask? At the MOST, it could be considered simple assault, but must also be equally stated that the actions of the white students were a “hate crime” and should have prosecuted as a Federal Crime against fellow students. Who will stand up and be counted to help these Jena 6 students who face a lifetime in prison for a simple altercation with a white student, a student who had perpetuated a hate crime against them?