The recent conviction of Black high school student Mychal Bell in the small rural town of Jena, Louisiana, demonstrates why the struggle for civil rights and equal justice must continue with renewed vigor. In a vindictive miscarriage of justice, LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters brought the full weight of his office as a prosecutor down on Bell, 17, who may face a 15-year prison term for aggravated second-degree battery for participating in a school fight. Five other Black students are at risk of similar convictions. These young men, known as the Jena Six, are victims of a double standard too common throughout America where the scales of justice are weighed against African Americans and other people of color. It is also a disturbing reminder of the increasing criminalization of Black youths and trying them as adults.
The chain of events leading up to the Jena Six arrests began with an old oak known as the “white tree” in the middle of the Jena High School campus. According to news accounts, by twisted tradition, the shade of the tree’s spreading branches was reserved for White students only. In September 2006, a Black freshman asked if Black students could sit under the tree. The administrators said that Black students could sit where they liked.
Shortly after the query, several Black students gathered under the tree. The following day, three hangman’s nooses were looped over one of its boughs. There’s no mistaking the symbolism of this act. It recalls warnings of impending violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other vicious White terrorist groups permitted to flourish in the South for more than a century.
Despite the seriousness of their act, the three White students responsible were merely suspended for three days and given a verbal reprimand. The principal’s recommendation of expulsion was overruled by the superintendent of schools who thought that was too harsh a punishment for an adolescent “prank.” Tensions escalated in the town of about 3,000 where the number of African Americans is around 350. Black students tempered their outrage at the nooses and the school superintendent’s lenient treatment of the offending students by staging a peaceful protest at the tree.
Somehow, District Attorney Walters perceived a danger to the public, not in the nooses, but in the protests against them. Instead of attempting to bring the parties together and calming the agitated atmosphere, he made things worse by calling a school assembly accompanied by local law enforcement officials. Directing an ominous threat toward the Black students, he said, “I can be your best friend or worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of a pen.”
Walters didn’t help matters by winking at White violence like the beating of a Black student attempting to attend a White Friday night party in December 2006 — the incident was very much related to the school events. The next day a White Jena graduate confronted a group of Black youths at a convenience store with a shotgun. Fortunately, they wrestled the weapon away from him without injury but were arrested for assault and stealing the gun. The gun owner was not charged with a crime.
The racial tension in the town came to a head on Monday, December 4, when Justin Barker, a White student who was vocally supportive of the noose hangers and called Black students “niggers,” was beaten by some Black students. Barker went to the hospital was released the same day and attended a ring ceremony that evening. The six Black youths involved in the incident were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder. None of the Jena Six has a prior police record.
In a July trial that turned justice on its head, Mychal Bell was convicted as an adult of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He was found guilty by an all-White jury in a trial presided over by a White judge. District Attorney Walters argued that Bell’s tennis shoes were deadly weapons because they were used to kick Barker.
On September 4, Judge J.P. Mauffray threw out the conspiracy conviction against Bell. He also granted a defense motion that trying Bell as an adult was improper and agreed that he should have been tried as a juvenile. But the judge let stand the conviction on aggravated second-degree battery, which means Bell may be condemned to a prison term of up to 15 years at his sentencing hearing on September 20.
Regrettably, what is happening in Jena reminds me of the racial injustices I witnessed as a civil rights attorney in the Deep South during the 1960s. We cannot go back to those times.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, used to say that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. I believe that. However, those of us who love justice must take a hand in bending the arc faster. We can start by taking action today and calling LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters at (318) 992-8282 and demand justice for the Jena Six.