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Jena Shows its Colors
by six Tuesday, Aug. 07, 2007 at 3:08 PM
sixmonths@bigfoot.com

Yesterday I drove north about 4 hours and traveled back in time about 50 years to the small town of Jena, Louisiana- where one of the biggest civil rights struggles in recent memory is gradually gaining momentum. The story is such a classic one that it seems to register for many as some relic of a bygone era. One of the biggest challenges activists face is bringing home the message that this is real, urgent and very scary- for the families involved and for the American justice system as a whole. Jena, population 3000, is mostly poor, 85% white, and to an outsider looks like a portrait of Anytown, USA. A small city center is home to the county courthouse, the DMV, a library, and a strip of shops, banks and churches. A little further out lie a couple of gas stations, a grocery store, and more churches. On the outskirts of town there’s a Wal-Mart. You get the sense that maybe with the exception of the Wal-Mart, the town hasn't changed a whole lot in the last century or so- which in the rural South can be a fairly sinister prospect.

August 1, 2007

Jena, Louisiana Shows its Colors

Yesterday I drove north about 4 hours and traveled back in time about 50 years to the small town of Jena, Louisiana- where one of the biggest civil rights struggles in recent memory is gradually gaining momentum. The story is such a classic one that it seems to register for many as some relic of a bygone era. One of the biggest challenges activists face is bringing home the message that this is real, urgent and very scary- for the families involved and for the American justice system as a whole.

Jena, population 3000, is mostly poor, 85% white, and to an outsider looks like a portrait of Anytown, USA. A small city center is home to the county courthouse, the DMV, a library, and a strip of shops, banks and churches. A little further out lie a couple of gas stations, a grocery store, and more churches. On the outskirts of town there’s a Wal-Mart. You get the sense that maybe with the exception of the Wal-Mart, the town hasn't changed a whole lot in the last century or so- which in the rural South can be a fairly sinister prospect.

The trouble all started in September 2006, when a black freshman at Jena High asked permission of a school administrator to eat under "the white tree." That is, the tree in the courtyard where most of the school's white students spent their lunch break. The administrator rightly told the young man to eat where he liked, and he did so without incident. The next morning, three nooses in school colors hung from the tree.

The ensuing weeks saw increasing racial tension among the young people of Jena. The school principal found those responsible for the nooses and recommended expulsion, but was overruled by the superintendent of schools- "adolescents play pranks," he said, and issued a three day suspension. The school's black students then held a "sit in" under the tree to protest this light treatment. In response, District Attorney J. Reed Walters held a school assembly to dissuade further protest. He warned the students, “I can be your best friend or worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of a pen.”

Shortly afterward, black student Robert Bailey was attacked by several white students at a party. No police investigation occurred. The next day, Bailey and two friends were walking to the grocery store when a white Jena High alumnus pulled a shotgun on them- the three wrestled away the gun and fled. When the trio reported the incident to the police, their attacker was not charged- but Bailey was arrested for theft of the gun.

In December a fist fight broke out at the high school between white and black students. Justin Baker- one of the white students who had attacked Bailey at the party- was beaten up and hospitalized. He was released that night and has since recovered. Six black students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy. They have become known as the “Jena 6.”

The first trial to be held was that of 17-year old Mychal Bell. DA Walters reduced the charge to conspiracy and aggravated battery. In Louisiana, aggravated battery is defined as “battery committed with a dangerous weapon” (LA R.S. 14:34). The weapon in this case? According to the prosecution, there were two of them- Bell’s sneakers. Bell was assigned a public defender who planned to plea bargain and did not challenge the judge’s gag order denying his parents access to the press. Upon learning that Bell wished to plead “not guilty,” the public defender named most of Bell’s friends and relatives as witnesses, but called none. The all-white jury heard testimony from countless white high school students, all describing different assailants and different circumstances, and convicted Bell after two hours of deliberation. He faces up to 22 years in prison.

Tuesday was supposed to be the date of Bell’s sentencing. Since word has gotten out about the case, donations to the families have allowed them to hire private attorneys and in light of the new representation the sentencing date has been pushed back to September 20. Organizers chose to move forward with plans for a July 31 demonstration, however, and yesterday 300 protesters descended on the town, bringing with them fliers, banners, megaphones and media representatives. For the first time in history Jena’s courthouse lawn was host to speakers from the ACLU, the Nation of Islam, the NAACP, Color of Change, numerous church leaders and a multi-ethnic, multicultural audience representing many more organizations and communities. Parents of the defendants led a procession into the courthouse to deliver a petition signed by 43,000 supporters and then marched through the streets of the little town, to the bemusement of onlookers peeking through office windows and peering down from balconies. Then, in a nod to Southern hospitality not usually seen at protest marches, the crowd relocated to a ball field on the edge of town. As the barbeque heated up and children bounced in an inflatable castle, the air of confrontation gave way to one of camaraderie.

As far as the locals were concerned, it was about the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to the town. In the grocery stores and gas stations, all conversation was about the protest- none of it to me, obviously- as an unfamiliar face with out-of-state license plates I might as well have been from Mars (and speaking Martian) but everywhere I went there was nervous conversation and self-conscious laughter, as much at the novelty of an entire morning of re-routed traffic as the presence of radical civil rights leaders and the temporary near-doubling of Jena’s black population.

Back at the barbeque, discussion turned to whether the protest would be effective- what, after all, can be accomplished in a situation like this? Nobody had any illusion that the judges or prosecutors of La Salle Parish would spend a morning being called “hateful white supremacists” and suddenly experience a crisis of conscience; but the benefits were nonetheless threefold- the families of the defendants gained a much needed morale boost; the national media has begun to take notice; and the decision-makers within the court system know full well that their actions will be subject to total and widespread scrutiny.

At Jena High, the “white tree” has been cut down, ostensibly as part of a renovation project; and a DOJ-led “Community Education Forum” held Tuesday informed concerned members of the community that as far as the FBI is concerned, the nooses did not constitute a hate crime since there was no “threat of force,” that there is no basis for a claim of selective prosecution, and that allegations of intimidation by some black potential jurors will not be investigated unless those individuals bring forward evidence.

Meanwhile, I’ve received an automated response from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to my electronically-submitted petition letter. To summarize, Gov. Blanco says that this is purely a judicial matter and she assumes justice will be done somewhere in the appeals process. If she has any concerns about how badly justice was abused the first time around, she has opted not to share them with me.

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