In a small still mostly segregated section of rural Louisiana, an all white jury heard a series of white witnesses called by a white prosecutor testify in a courtroom overseen by a white judge in a trial of a fight at the local high school where a white student who had been making racial taunts was hit by black students. The fight was the culmination of a series of racial incidents starting when whites responded to black students sitting under the “white tree” at their school by hanging three nooses from the tree. The white jury and white prosecutor and all white supporters of the white victim were all on one side of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17 year old Mychal Bell, and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted Mychal Bell of two felonies – aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.
Yes, you read that correctly. The rest of the story, which is being reported across the world in papers in
The trouble started under “the white tree” in front of
In September 2006, a black student at
The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the “white tree.” The message was clear. “Those nooses meant the KKK, they meant ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die,’” Casteptla Bailey, mom of one of the students, told the London Observer.
The African-American community was hurt and upset. “Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” according to Tracy Bowens, mother of students at Jena High.
But blacks in this area of
This is solid Bush and David Duke Country – GWB won LaSalle Parish 4 to 1 in the last two elections; Duke carried a majority of the white vote when he ran for Governor of Louisiana. Families earn about 60% of the national average. The Census Bureau reports that less than 10% of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black owned.
Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the “white tree” at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging white students.
The white District Attorney then came to Jena High with law enforcement officers to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court, the DA reportedly threatened the black protesting students saying that if they didn’t stop making a fuss about this “innocent prank… I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
On the night of Thursday November 30, 2006, a still unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of
On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at the Gotta Go convenience store outside
On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student – who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African American students “niggers” while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party – was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social function that evening.
The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior 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, a sophomore in high school who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.
Many of the young men, who came to be known as the
Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his family was unable to post the $90,000 bond. Theo Shaw has also remained in jail. Several of the other defendants remained in jail for months until their families could raise sufficient money to put up bonds.
The Chicago Tribune wrote a powerful story headlined “Racial Demons Rear Heads.” The London Observer wrote: “Jena is gaining national notoriety as an example of the new ‘stealth’ racism, showing how lightly sleep the demons of racial prejudice in America’s Deep South, even in the year that a black man, Barak Obama, is a serious candidate for the White House.” The British Broadcasting Company aired a TV special report “Race Hate in Louisiana 2007.”
When it finally came, the trial of Mychal Bell was swift.
On the morning of the trial, the DA reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty people appeared – every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all white group to the Alexandria Louisiana Town Talk newspaper saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. “The venire [panel of prospective jurors] is color blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial makeup of the community, but the system does not take race into factor.” Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were the only people who showed up.
The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people friendly with the District Attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others who were friends of prosecution witnesses.
Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses – eleven white students, three white teachers, and two white nurses. Some said they saw
The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge the all-white jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told the
The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.
The public defender told the press afterwards, “I feel I put on the best defense that I could.” Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses, the attorney said “why open the door for further accusations? I did the best I could for my client, Mychal Bell.”
At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a
Tory Pegram with the Louisiana ACLU has been working with the parents for months. “People know if they don’t demand equal treatment now, they will never get it. People’s jobs and livelihoods have been threatened for attending Jena 6 Defense meetings, but people are willing to risk that. One person told me: ‘We have to convince more people to come rally with us…..What’s the worst that could happen? They fire us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the town anyway. They burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All of that has happened to us before. We have to keep speaking out to make sure it doesn’t happen to us again, or our children will never be safe.’”
Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism. “We don’t have a problem,” according to one. Other locals told the media “We all get along,” and “most blacks are happy with the way things are.” One person even said “We don’t have many problems with our blacks.”
Melvin Worthington, the lone African American school board member in LaSalle Parish said it all could have been avoided. “There’s no doubt about it,” he told the
Hebert McCoy, a relative of one of the youths who has been trying to raise money for bail and lawyers, challenged people everywhere at the end of the rally when he said “You better get out of your houses. You better come out and defend your children…because they are incarcerating them by the thousands.
What happened to the white guys? The white victim of the beating was later arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets onto the high school campus and released on $5000 bond. The white man who beat up the black youth at the off-campus party was arrested and charged with simple battery. The white students who hung up the nooses in the “white tree” were never charged.
The people in
What is next? The rest of the
By Bill Quigley. Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu Audrey Stewart contributed to this article.