Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Free The
Jena 6

From Pursuing Holiness:

If you don’t know about the Jena Six, read this first: The Jena 6: Since When Do Teenage Boys Watch Lonesome Dove?. Charges have been reduced for one of the Jena 6.

JENA, La. (AP) - Attempted murder and conspiracy charges against a black high school student accused in the December beating of a white student escalating
racial tensions were reduced Monday to less serious charges that could mean far
less time in prison if he is convicted.

Mychale Bell still faces trial Tuesday on charges stemming from the Dec. 4 beating. But instead of facing sentences totalling 80 years, he now faces maximum sentences totalling 22 years if convicted.

Bell was one of five black Jena High School students charged in the beating, which occurred about three months after three white students were suspended for hanging nooses from a school yard tree.

Another juvenile, whose identity and charges were not released because
of his age, was also accused. They were dubbed the “Jena Six” by supporters who
say the attempted murder charges resulted from racism by authorities and were
far out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime.

However, charges being reduced doesn’t get anyone out of jail. And these charges ARE ridiculous. This was a high school fight, in which the student who was assaulted was brought to the ER and quickly released. Do I wish the fight hadn’t occurred? Certainly, along with everyone else. But let’s recall what led to the fight - here’s the summary by Friends of Justice, with my emphasis and notes in brackets.

• On Thursday, August 31, 2006, a small group of black students asked if they could sit under a tree on the traditionally white side of the Jena High School
square. [They felt it necessary to ASK. What does that say?]
• The students were informed by the Vice Principal that they could sit wherever they pleased.
• The following day, September 1, 2006, three nooses were found hanging from
the tree in question. Two of the nooses were black and one was gold: the Jena
High School colors.
• On Tuesday night, September 5, 2006, a group of black parents convened at the L&A Missionary Baptist Church in Jena to discuss their response to what they considered a hate crime and an act of intimidation.
[No laws were broken by hanging these nooses, nor should we have laws for motive
instead of action. But it certainly fell under the school disciplinary
• When black students staged an impromptu protest under the tree on Wednesday, September 6, 2006, a school assembly was hastily convened. Flanked by police officers, District Attorney Reed Walters warned black students that additional unrest would be treated as a criminal matter. According to multiple witnesses, Walters warned the black student protestors that, “I can make your
lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.” This was widely interpreted as a
reference to the filing of charges carrying a maximum sentence of life in
prison. [An assembly basically convened to tell the black students to “simmah
down, boy.”]
• On Thursday, September 7th, police officers patrolled the halls of Jena High School and on Friday, September 8th, the 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. [What would you do if your child was threatened?]
• Principal Scott Windham recommended to an expulsion hearing committee that the three white boys responsible for hanging the nooses in the tree should be expelled from school. [Very wise.]
• On Thursday September 7, 2006, asserting that the noose were merely a silly prank
inspired by a hanging scene in the television min-series ‘Lonesome Dove’, the
committee opted for a few days of in-school suspension. The names of the three
students were not released to the public for reasons of confidentiality.
[Teenage boys watch MTV, not Hallmark channel mini-series. Give me a freaking
• According to press accounts, on September 10, 2006, several dozen
black parents attempted to address a meeting of the school board but were
refused an opportunity to speak.
• At a second September meeting of the school board, September 18, 2006, a representative of the black families was allowed to give a five-minute statement, but school board refused to discuss the “noose issue” because the matter had been fully addressed and resolved.

Although few major disciplinary issues emerged during the fall semester at Jena
High School, there is strong evidence that several black male students remained
unusually agitated throughout the semester and that disciplinary referrals on
these students spiked sharply.
• On Thursday, November 30, 2006, the academic wing of the Jena High School was largely destroyed by a massive fire. Officials strongly suspect arson.
• Throughout the following weekend, Jena was engulfed by a wave of racially tinged violence.
• In one incident, a black student was assaulted by a white adult as he entered a predominantly white partly held at the Fair Barn (a large metal building reserved for social events). After being struck in the face without warning, the young black student was assaulted by white students wielding beer bottles and was punched and kicked before adults broke up the fight. It has been reported that the white assailant who threw the first punch was subsequently charged with simple battery (a
misdemeanor), but there is no documentary evidence that anyone was charged.
• In a second major incident, a white high school graduate who had been
involved in the assault the night before pulled a pump-action shotgun on three
black high school students as they exited the Gotta-Go, a local convenience
store. After a brief struggle for possession of the firearm, the black students
exited the scene with the weapon. [According to Mother Jones, the black students
were charged with aggravated battery and theft.]
• The Jena Times has reported that, in light of these racially-tinged incidents, several high school teachers begged school administrators to postpone the resumption of classes until the wave of hysteria had dissipated. This request was ignored and classes resumed the morning of Monday, December 4, 2006.
• Shortly after the lunch hour of Monday, December 4, 2006, a fight between a white student and a black student reportedly ended with the white student [Justin Barker, later arrested for having a rifle with 13 bullets in his truck in the school parking lot.] being knocked to the floor. Several black students reportedly attacked the white student as he lay unconscious. Because the incident took place in a crowded area and was over in a matter of seconds eye witness accounts vary widely. Written
statements from students closest to the scene (in space and time) suggest that
the incident was sparked by an angry exchange in the gymnasium moments before in
which the black student assaulted at the Fair Barn was taunted for having his
“ass whipped”.
• The victim of the attack is close friends of the boys who have admitted to hanging the nooses in September of 2006.
• Within an hour of the fight, six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated battery. [According to the Chicago Trib it was originally “attempted
second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of
100 years in prison if convicted.“] According to The Jena Times, at least a
dozen teachers subsequently threatened a “sick-out” if discipline was not
restored to the school. According to the Alexandria Town Talk, District Attorney
Reed Walters responded to the teacher’s threat by upping the charges on the six
boys to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree
murder—charges carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Where was that swift justice for the student assaulted at the Fair Barn? Why was the man with the shotgun not arrested but the students he threatened at gunpoint charged? Those events occurred long before Jena D.A. Reed Walters wrote in the Jena Times,

“I will not tolerate this type of behavior,” Walters wrote. “To those who act in this manner, I tell you that you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and with the harshest crimes that the facts justify. When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law. I will see to it that you never again menace the students at any school in this parish.”

The white boy who threw the first punch at the black student [Robert Bailey Jr.] at the Fair Barn was charged with simple battery - others who took part in the beating were not charged at all. The white adult (a Jena high school graduate) who threatened three black Jena students with a shotgun was not charged with a crime. Evidently behavior worse than high school students beating another high school student is, in fact, tolerable and not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, because the Fair Barn beating was a mirror incident to the Jena High School beating. There’s no comparison to the shotgun threat - unless you count the noose threat, also by whites against blacks. And make no mistake - it was a threat. This is the south, and anyone from here understands the symbolism of a noose. In this circumstance, it was unmistakable.

Now two of these kids [Mychale Bell and Theodore Shaw] have sat in jail (due to the lack of a $90,000 bond - $90k for a high school fight!!) since December 4th. So far, nearly seven months in jail for a high school fight. The charges have been reduced to aggravated assault, instead of attempted 2nd degree murder. This is the game they’re playing in Jena - set the bond ridiculously high to keep them in jail, and keep delaying the trial. If the case is dismissed tomorrow, they’ve still spent more than six months in jail for a high school fight. They were not able to graduate. One of the students, Carwin Jones, is a promising athlete who had college scholarships waiting for him. The scholarships are now withdrawn. The kids’ lawyers have been asking for a speedy trial, which they have the right to. But the prosecutor just can’t seem to get his witnesses together… in this tiny little town of about 3,000 people, where folks know each other. Convenient, that. The students should have been expelled for fighting. There’s no excuse for it, even though they were sorely provoked. But six months - so far - in jail for a high school fight in which no one was seriously hurt is a disgrace. The discrepancy between how the whites were treated and how the blacks were treated is painfully obvious.

As the expression goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. The stopped clocks of the ACLU, Mother Jones, a Daily Kos diarist, Pravda and Al Sharpton may still be right twice a day, and this is one of those times.

At this point - since they’re not going to get the nearly seven months back, and the scholarships may also be gone forever, as will their reputations, I’m rooting for the Jena Six, or at minimum the two who have spent half a year in jail, to end up with a whopping big settlement that all but bankrupts the town of Jena.