The March on Jena

The March on Jena

Thousands of civil rights activists are heading to Louisiana this week to protest a case of gross injustice–and the system that supports racial inequality across America.


An estimated 20,000 people will head to Jena, Louisiana, this week to protest… what, exactly? The rally is planned for September 20, the date on which Mychal Bell had been scheduled to be sentenced for attempted second-degree battery. The 17-year-old high school football star, who a year ago was being eyed as a top prospect for Division I scholarships, has been in jail since December for answering a classmate’s racial taunts with a punch in the face. But on Friday, pre-empting a public outcry against the impending sentence of up to fifteen years, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals responded to an emergency writ filed by Bell’s counsel and vacated his conviction.

The rally is going ahead as planned, but it’s not immediately clear how its message has changed to reflect the court’s ruling. Although the occasion will now be a sort of victory rally, the case is far from resolved. Bell remains in jail, and the prosecutor, District Attorney Reed Walters, has stated his intention to press on with an endgame of appeals. Plus, the other five black students who were involved in the fight–Robert Bailey Jr., Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Jesse Beard–are still awaiting trial on similar charges. None of their cases will be directly affected by Friday’s ruling, which addressed the jurisdictional problem of trying Bell, a juvenile at the time of the fight, as an adult. (Beard is being prosecuted as a juvenile; the other four of the so-called Jena Six were 17, the age of majority in Louisiana.)

"This is a moment to show that people are in it for the long haul," says James Rucker, executive director of Color of Change. One of the first activists to enter the fray, Rucker is coordinating bus trips to Jena–a rural town of 3,000 mostly white residents–and encouraging members who can’t make it to organize locally. His web-savvy organization has collected more than $130,000 for the Jena Six Defense Fund and more than 212,000 signatures for a petition demanding that Walters drop all charges and asking Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to intervene. "If this kind of pressure weren’t there," he says, "the process would be going much slower, and it would be more of a crapshoot as far as the results are concerned."

Louisiana NAACP president Ernest Johnson, who is helping to organize Thursday’s march in conjunction with a coalition of civil rights groups–including Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference–says he has received more calls since Friday’s ruling than in the days leading up to it. As news about the case spreads, he explains, the scope of the campaign is broadening. "I think people are coming to show strength and unity against these types of injustices," he says. "They’re coming to send a message to other Jenas throughout the country. To the Jena in New York, the Jena in Washington, in California–there are a lot of Jenas out there."

Rich with symbolism and iconic images, the case of the Jena Six certainly makes for a compelling parable of racial injustice in America. And as more and more people identify with the story, its meaning becomes more and more personal. Given the number of Americans who feel they have a stake in this case, it’s no wonder that presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have issued statements expressing their concern.

The story, rehearsed by now in newspapers around the globe, begins at an assembly last fall, when a black freshman asked if he was allowed to sit under a large tree on school grounds that he had heard was "whites-only." He was given permission, but the next day three nooses were found swinging from its branches. The principal tracked down the offenders, three boys from the rodeo team, and recommended expulsion. But superintendent Roy Breithaupt opted for a three-day in-school suspension. "Adolescents play pranks," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I don’t think it was a threat against anybody."

Racial tensions continued to escalate throughout the fall. A group of black students organized a sit-in under the tree to protest the white students’ light punishment. Fights broke out in school and at parties; a white man waved his gun in a confrontation with black students at a convenience store; and on November 30 one of the school buildings was suspiciously set ablaze. Then, on December 4, Bell slugged Justin Barker, a white student who had been taunting him with racial slurs and defending the noose-hangers, and the other members of the Jena Six joined in. During the skirmish, Barker smacked his head on the pavement and suffered a concussion. He was treated at the local hospital and released a few hours later, and was in good enough shape to head out and socialize that evening.

District Attorney Walters, who had earlier that fall threatened black students at school that he could "take away your lives with a stroke of my pen," pushed for maximum charges. The Jena Six were expelled, arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy–their shoes were described as potentially lethal weapons. Bell, the first to face trial, saw his murder charges reduced to aggravated second-degree battery. No attempt was made by his public defender to contest the racial makeup of the jury pool, nor did he call any witnesses during the trial. Bell was convicted by an all-white jury in June.

"There are several issues in this case," says Bob Noel, one of five attorneys who signed on as Bell’s new counsel after the trial. "One of the biggest is disproportionate treatment. People may think of a similarly situated kid, maybe middle-class, maybe white, and they think, Oh, let’s give him another chance. When he’s poor and black, it’s not necessarily the case. Another is funding for indigent defense: If there’s no money to adequately pay lawyers, to have support staff for them and resources they can use, they’re always at a major disadvantage. And the other is the issue of race in America."

Throughout the summer, as the media glare intensified and a muscular team of attorneys assembled on the side of the defendants, Judge J.P. Mauffray and Walters dug in their heels. James Rucker, who sat in on some of Bell’s motion hearings during the appeal, was shocked to see the LaSalle Parish brand of justice at work. "You’d watch this judge grill the defense attorney. It felt like he was trying to trick him," Rucker says. "And then he would set up the DA, so that all he had to do was say yes to a question. It was like they were a team."

In the first two weeks of September, however, Mauffray began to show some signs of concession; he threw out the conspiracy charge against Bell and reduced the charges against Shaw, Jones and Bailey to attempted second-degree battery. But he held firm on Bell’s conviction until last Friday, when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him. How Mauffray and Walters will adjudicate the remaining cases in light of last week’s decision, and the intense scrutiny that this week’s protests will bring, remains to be seen. Many voices, most prominently Al Sharpton, are calling for an investigation of prosecutorial misconduct.

Friends of Justice executive director Alan Bean, a civil rights activist who has been supporting the Jena Six since January, believes that Friday’s decision signaled the beginning of the end for the prosecution. "I look at a lot of things through the lens of Tulia," he says, referring to his involvement as a whistleblower in the racially charged drug sting in Texas. "In that situation, as soon as the court of appeals signaled its displeasure by remanding cases back to court for evidentiary hearing, from that point on everything fell apart." This week’s rally, Bean believes, will send a loud message that in order to regain its credibility, the court of law must realign with the court of public opinion. "People really see the Jena Six as representing them," he says. At a recent planning meeting with a group of Dallas-area activists, he adds, "it was very cool, understated, but the room was electric. People were finding an opportunity to vent private pain that had been simmering for a long time."

Louis Scott, Bell’s lead counsel, agrees that the protests will place a spotlight on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but he doesn’t think it will necessarily affect the way the case is litigated. For the purposes of his defense, he’s focusing less on the broad social issues that the Jena Six have come to represent than the specific arguments that stand the best chance of bringing his client home.

For the purposes of reflection, however, Scott grants that the case has national–and even international–resonance. "Immediately after the facts were explained, I can remember thinking, Wow, this is a 1957 case that jumped into 2007," he says. "This is my second reaction, that the tree symbolized America. And the question was, Can all Americans share the shade of the system that we operate under? But the next thing that happened was the most frightening thing of all: They cut the tree down. I was hoping that didn’t symbolize the attitude of America, that before we allow some Americans to share the same rights, the same privileges and the same responsibilities, we’ll just get rid of the whole thing. It seemed to me that that was the message to be conveyed." If Americans allowed this to occur, Scott believes, "that would be the first step toward unraveling the civil rights gains of the last fifty years."

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