From William Winters – perhaps the most important social justice issue of our time within our reach.
By Advocacy Intern, William Winters
By now, most of us are familiar with the story of the Jena Six. Six black students at Jena High School currently face a legal system grossly stacked against them. The District Attorney of Jena threatened students at an assembly, “With the stroke of a pen, I can make our lives disappear.” Black students claim that he was looking directly at them when he made the remarks.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of public reaction to this case is that people just can’t believe that incidents such as this could still happen today. While it is certainly true that the events in Jena read like events out of Mississippi Burning – complete with nooses dangling from a tree on school property – it is also true that racial disparities in criminal justice and law enforcement are common across America. But the disparities don’t stop there. They extend to health care, infant mortality, life expectancy, and socioeconomic status. In Baton Rouge, these disparities are further evidenced by housing patterns both historic and current, as well as the anemic economic development of “majority minority” areas of town. Indeed, many of us have very little reason to travel into North Baton Rouge, while those in the North must be familiar with at least some areas of town south of Florida for entertainment, dining, doctors, hotels, and very frequently employment.
We all want to do something about what’s happening in Jena. It’s only natural. Injustice so unobfuscated demands action; we can’t ignore it, and we can’t explain it away. Let us not use this, however, as an opportunity to simply feel good that we are not as bad as Jena. Rather, let us take the lessons learned in Jena and turn our eyes towards our own institutions, our own inequities, and our own city. Or might we be afraid that there is a little bit of Jena inside of us?
To learn more about the Jena Six case, please visit one of the following websites:
Color of Change
To donate to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund, please visit NAACP Website or Color of Change
or Friends of Jusice. To get involved locally, please contact William Winters
Chronology of Racial Violence in Jena over the Past School Year
Aug. 31, 2006: Two black youths, after talking to the school principal at Jena High School, sit under a tree traditionally reserved for white students on the school campus.
Sept. 1, 2006: The next day, three nooses are hung from the tree. After initially being expelled by the principal, the three white students responsible are given three days of “in-school suspension.” The school superintendent is quoted as saying, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat to anybody.”
Sept. 5, 2006: A group of black students gathered and sat under the tree in protest. White students’ parents called the police, and LaSalle County’s white district attorney stormed the campus with armed police and gave an impromptu lecture to the black students who had gathered under the tree. “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen,” he reportedly told them. Black students say that he was looking directly at them.
Sept. 8th, 2006: Jena High School was placed on full lockdown. Most students, black and white, either stayed home, or were picked up by parents shortly after the lockdown was imposed. The Jena Times suggested that black parents were to blame for the unrest at the school because their September 5th gathering had attracted media attention.
Sept, 10, 2006: Several dozen black students and parents attempted to address the school board concerning the recent events but were refused because the board was of the opinion that “the noose issue” had been adequately resolved. Racial tensions in Jena remained high.
Nov, 30 2006: Arson destroyed Jena High’s main academic building. Local law enforcement cannot prove the fire was connected to the noose-hangings or the subsequent racially-motivated attacks. This further escalated racial tensions in Jena as whites blamed blacks for the fire and blacks blamed whites.
Dec. 1, 2006: Robert Bailey, one of the student leaders of the Jena High protests, was invited to a party attended by mostly white students. At this party he was attacked by a 22-year old man wielding a beer bottle. He was further attacked with bottles and blows after being knocked to the ground.
Dec. 2, 2006: Robert Bailey and two friends went to a convenience store where they ran into a young white man from the previous night’s party. After exchanging words with him, the trio entered the store. The young white man greeted them with a pistol grip shotgun upon their exit. The African-American boys wrested the gun from him and ran away.
December 4, 2006: A white student, Justin Barker, was allegedly using racial epithets and celebrating the beating of Bailey at Friday night’s party. A fight broke out, and Barker was knocked out. He was kicked by a several black students after he hit the ground. The police were called, and after speaking with several witnesses six boys – 17-year-old Robert Bailey, Jr. whose bail was set at $138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw – bail $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones – bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis – bail $70,000; 16-year-old Mychal Bell, who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified juvenile – were arrested and charged with aggravated 2nd degree assault and conspiracy to commit the same. District Attorney Reed Walters intervened to increase the charges to attempted second degree murder. In the meantime, Justin Barker was treated at a hospital and released. He attended his high school ring ceremony later that evening. Bailey, Shaw, and another friend were also charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace in connection with the incident at the convenience store. Furthermore, the six were immediately expelled from Jena High. The normal punishment for a fight at school is a three day suspension.
June 28th, 2007: Mychal Bell, the first of the six to go to trial, was convicted of charges of aggravated 2nd degree assault and conspiracy to commit the same. His court-appointed attorney did not challenge the composition of the all-white jury, did not ask for a change of venue, nor did the lawyer call witnesses or introduce evidence on Bell’s behalf. He will be sentenced on September 20th, and faces up to 22 years in prison for the schoolyard fight. “Aggravated second degree assault” requires an assailant use a potentially lethal weapon. The D.A. successfully argued that the black youths’ tennis shoes were lethal weapons.
July 10th, 2007: Two white men were arrested after they ran over a sign outside a black church in Jena that had just held an NAACP meeting. The two have been charged with “criminal damage to property.”