Today is history in the making. Reportedly tens of thousands of protestors have gathered in Jena, Louisiana, a town of only 3,000, to rally for justice for the Jena 6. Along with a sea of protestors clad in black T-shirts that read “Enough is Enough,” Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King, III, and Jesse Jackson are here. And so are we – the ACLU. In fact, we’ve been here since the beginning.
Since early March, King Downing of the national ACLU, Alan Bean of Friends of Justice and I have been working in Jena to help spread the word about the case and work with the families of Jena 6. Together with the Jena 6 Defense Committee, we’re raising awareness among community members about the pervasiveness of racial injustice and making sure people know their rights.
By now, you’ve probably heard the background of the case: Last September, a black student at Jena High School asked permission during an assembly if he could sit beneath the “white tree,” a tree on campus where white students traditionally gathered. The student was told that he could sit wherever he liked. The next day, three nooses hung from the so-called “white tree.” The high school’s principal recommended expulsion for the three white students responsible for hanging the nooses, but the school district’s superintendent reduced their punishment to a three-day suspension, dismissing it as an adolescent prank that didn’t threaten anyone. The black student body of Jena High School protested the white students’ light punishment by gathering under the same “white tree.” LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters appeared at the school during the protest and said to students, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”
The events at Jena High School set off a string of racially-motivated assaults throughout town, with white offenders receiving misdemeanor convictions, or no punishment at all. But when a fight broke out one day on campus, a group of six black students were arrested for injuring Justin Barker, a white student who verbally attacked them with racial slurs and a defense of the nooses. Barker was treated at a hospital and released the same day, attending a school ring ceremony that evening.
One student, Mychal Bell, was initially charged with attempted second-degree murder: a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 to 100 years in prison. Numerous details of Bell’s trial raise questions of injustice, including the selection of an all-white jury that included two friends of the D.A., a relative, and friends of some of the prosecution’s witnesses. Pursuing a battery charge, the prosecutor found his required “deadly weapon:” Mychal Bell’s tennis shoes. Bell was convicted of second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy after the jury deliberated for three hours. Thankfully, a state appeals court struck down Bell’s conviction, finding that he should not have been tried as an adult.
Since the arrests, the families of the young men, along with concerned Jena residents and organizations including the ACLU, have formed the Jena 6 Defense Committee to raise money to pay for attorneys defending the young men in criminal court, and raising awareness about the seeming injustices around the case. Although shy and new to the spotlight, the parents draw tremendous support and strength from family and friends who, like them, are simply fed up with the segregated, resource poor, second class treatment black folks in Jena have been putting up with for decades.
This fight for justice isn’t just for the families’ sons, grandsons, nephews and brothers. This is about fighting for civil rights in a place that the civil rights movement seems to have left behind. More than 50 years after the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, segregation remains in Jena elementary schools. This is a town where the black population is literally marginalized, all living outside of the city limits, so they can’t vote in local elections.
If you weren’t able to join us in Jena today, you can still help. Please visit the Free the Jena 6 website to learn more.