October 11, 2007
On Monday, October 1, Mos Def, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and six other social justice groups organized a national student walkout in solidarity with the Jena Six. Although the exact number of students who participated is unknown, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that student activists staged walkouts at more than 100 schools around the country. The protest was aimed to show support for the six black Jena, Lousiana, high school students charged with second-degree attempted murder for beating up a white student in December 2006. The assailants didn’t have weapons, and the white student was released from the hospital after three hours. Civil rights advocates point to the incident as an example of the courts’ tendency to come down harder on young black men than on people of other backgrounds.
The Jena conflict began in August 2006, when a black student–who had asked for and received the principal’s permission–sat under a campus tree whose shade was usually populated by white students. The next day, three white students hung nooses from the tree. Several fights, presumably racially motivated, broke out between black and white students in the months following the noose incident. The county sheriff requested the district attorney speak to the students to smooth racial tensions at the school, but the DA merely threatened the students with legal prosecution. So when the six black students were charged over the December beating, many activists felt that the punishment far outweighed the crime.
Mychal Bell, the accused instigator of the fight, spent 10 months in jail and was released on Sept. 27 on $45,000 bail (originally set at $90,000). “This could have been my brother,” said Amira Rahim, who helped to organize the October 1 walkout at the University of Pittsburgh. Amira said about 300 people participated at Pittsburgh.
The Jena situation gave a face to modern racial injustice in America. It struck a chord with Rahim and others as an all too familiar reminder that the legal system treats blacks and whites differently. Deshaun Davis, a student at NYU and a member of MXMG who helped to organize the walkout on his campus, said Bell’s situation could have been that of many people he knows. The slogan walkout activists used says it all: “We all live in Jena.”
The battle to reduce Bell’s bail and release him from prison inspired young people across the country to get involved. Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity at the University of Missouri-Columbia, sold tee-shirts with an image of the nooses and the slogan “Enough is Enough.” Branden Gregory, president of the fraternity and a senior majoring in business management, told Campus Progress, “We aren’t going to reimburse ourselves for the cost of the T-shirts; we want the money to go to support Jena.” Recently, a student in a suburban Nashville school sued her school district because the assistant principal wouldn’t allow her to wear a t-shirt that said, “Free the Jena Six.” The Associated Press reported that school officials worried the Danielle Super’s shirt “could ‘cause a problem.'”