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Free the Jena six

James Dechant | Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Jena, Louisiana, a black high school student faces up to 15 years imprisonment for fighting a student that slurred him. Earlier in the year, white students taunted black students with nooses. This is 2007, not 1850. If you haven’t heard of the Jena Six or if you believe the fantasy that racism is dead, read on.

The key events: In August 2006, a black student asked permission to sit under an oak tree on campus at lunchtime, hitherto the unofficial domain of white students only. When black students sat there, three nooses hung from the tree the following morning. The principal recommended expulsion, but the school board and superintendent overruled him, opting instead for three days in-school suspension. The superintendent called the incident a “prank” and “not a threat against anybody.” This outright idiocy and despicable license for hate led to months of racial tension.

Hoping to quell unrest, a school assembly brought in District Attorney Reed Walters, one of the murky players in this story. He told students “I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen,” words that would prove prophetic. On Sept. 10, black students attempted to address the school board but were denied. The board believed it had, in its infallible wisdom, resolved the situation by ignoring it and encouraging racist attitudes.

On Dec. 1, several white men instigated a fight with black students at a local party. One reportedly broke a beer bottle over the head of Robert Bailey, a black student. The attacker was later charged with simple battery and put on probation. The next day, Bailey was involved in an argument at a convenience store with a white student who grabbed a pistol-grip shotgun (honest) from his pickup. He and Bailey tussled; Bailey took the gun and ran away. Bailey was later charged on three counts, including theft of a firearm; the white student was charged with nothing. See a double standard yet?

On Dec. 4, white student Justin Barker reportedly bragged about Bailey’s beating at the earlier party. Walking into the school courtyard later, he was attacked by Bailey and five other black students, among them Mychal Bell. Barker took a beating, but he was released from the hospital that same day with minor injuries and attended a school ceremony in the evening. The six black students were arrested.

Bell enjoyed all the benefits of our justice system: prosecuted by Reed Walters, who raised the charges from battery to attempted second-degree murder (he later reduced the charges to “merely” second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same); a lazy court-provided defense lawyer who called no witnesses; trial by an all-white jury; and no mention, in over 40 court documents, of September’s noose incident. Unsurprisingly, they found Bell guilty of battery and conspiracy, carrying up to a 22-year prison sentence.

Not indignant yet? In order to classify as battery, Walters had to demonstrate the use of a “dangerous weapon” by Bell, so he argued that Bell’s tennis shoes used to kick Barker were just that. The all-white jury ate this up. Remember the party where a white male attacked Bailey’s head with a beer bottle? Not as dangerous as tennis shoes, in Jena – at least when you’re black.

If you don’t believe this story exposes Jena’s racist environment, consider the town’s large socioeconomic gap, where the 12% black population lives mostly in a concentrated lower-quality housing area. Consider that one barbershop in town, according to Newsweek, does not give haircuts to black people because white citizens might object. Consider the great start Jena’s high school has made to the new school year, banning “Free the Jena 6” t-shirts from campus. A great move by the same educational institution that considered nooses “just a prank.” Over the summer, the school chopped down the infamous “white tree” for firewood, but that has not stemmed the racial injustice currently flowering in Jena.

If this whole story is news to you, blame our celebrity-obsessed, gossip-driven media. Foreign newspapers covered the story long before national press did. Only in the last few months have several news organizations (chiefly NPR) called attention to Jena. Now we await Mychal Bell’s sentencing on Sept. 20. Reduced to aggravated battery, he still faces up to 15 years in prison. For a school fight.

Let me be fair: the students should be charged for their violent actions, and they ought to pay a price. But for juvenile crimes, not severe felonies; by a fair jury, not a racist all-white panel; without a DA who accused the students of attempted murder, for God’s sake, and grossly abused his power for the sycophantic sake of appealing to his racist white friends. And the student who produced a sawed-off shotgun from his truck? How about some repercussions for threatening others with a firearm?

So what should happen? Bell and the others should be re-tried for simple battery, perhaps do some correctional time, and enter a probation program. The superintendent should step down and leave education forever so he can dedicate his life to the research of hate crimes. The school board should issue a formal apology for its inadequate response to the nooses and become extras in movies featuring scenes with gallows. DA Reed Walters should resign and move to Myanmar to practice law more befitting his personality. All Jena students (and adults) should attend a mandatory race-relations seminar from now until kingdom come. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, conspicuously and willingly oblivious to this egregious scandal, must stop shirking responsibility and step in to end this disgraceful blot in her state. She should do what politicians consider anathema: make a decisive statement and accompany it with strong action.

As for us: spread the word. Learn more online, sign petitions and demand that these tragedies don’t fly under the radar in the future. Stop buying into the fantasy that racism is eradicated and help cut the tree of prejudice and inequality at its very root. Help free the Jena Six.

James Dechant is a senior English and Theology major who would like to use this space to inform you that you can help by sending money and letters of support to: The Jena Six Defense Fund, P.O. Box 2978, Jena, LA 71342. He can be contacted at jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.