Justice in Jena

Speaking to demonstrators in front of a rural Louisiana courthouse last week, Alan Bean, a Baptist minister from the Texas panhandle, inveighed against injustice. “The highest crime in the Old Testament,” he declared, “is to withhold due process from poor people. To manipulate the criminal justice system to the advantage of the powerful, against the poor and the powerless.” As he delivered his message to the crowd, officers from the state police intelligence division watched from the side, videotaping speakers and audience.

Bean was speaking at a rally organized by residents of Jena, Louisiana. In the space of a few weeks, more than 150 of this small town’s residents have organized an inspiring grassroots struggle against injustice. The demonstrations began when six Black students at Jena High School were arrested after a fight at school and charged with conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder. The students now face up to 100 years in prison without parole, in a case that King Downing, National Coordinator of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, has said “carries the scent of injustice.”

Local activists say that this wave of problems started last September, when Black high school students asked for permission to sit under a tree at an area of the high school that had, traditionally, been used only by white students. The next day, three nooses were hanging from the tree.

The following week, Black students staged a protest under the tree. At a school assembly soon after, Jena district attorney Reed Walters, appearing with local police officers, warned Black students against further unrest. “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen,” he threatened.

According to many in Jena, tensions simmered in the town over the fall, occasionally exploding into fights and other incidents. No white students were charged or punished, including the students found to have been responsible for hanging the nooses. Bryant Purvis, one of the Black students now facing charges, states that, after the incident, “there were a lot of people aggravated about it, a lot of fights at the school after that, a lot of arguments, and a lot of people getting treated differently.”

In the first weekend of December, a Black student was assaulted by a group of white students, and a white graduate of Jena High School threatened several Black students with a shotgun. The following Monday, white students taunted the Black student who was assaulted over the weekend, and one of the white students was beaten up.

Within hours, six Black students were arrested. “I think the district attorney is pinning it on us to make an example of us,” said Purvis. “In Jena, people get accused of things they didn’t do a lot.”

Soon after, their parents discovered that these students were facing attempted murder charges. “The courtroom, the whole back side, was filled with police officers,” Tina Jones, Bryant’s mother, recalls. “I guess they thought maybe when they announced what the charges were, we were gonna go berserk or something.”

At last week’s demonstration, family members and allies spoke about the issues at the center of the case. “I don’t know how the DA or the court system gets involved in a school fight,” said Jones. “But I’m not surprised – there’s a lot of racism in Jena. A white person will get probation, and a black person is liable to get 15 to 20 years for the same crime.”

Alan Bean began his activism in 1999 in response to a string of false arrests in his town of Tulia, Texas. In response, he founded an organization called Friends of Justice and dedicated himself to supporting community organizing around cases of criminal justice abuse in rural Texas and Louisiana. His work is often a vital intervention, bringing experience and ideas to local struggles. Small towns like Jena — which has a population of 2,500, and is 85 percent white — are often left out of the organizing support, attention, and funding that organizations in metropolitan areas receive.

This disparity was not always the case. Rural southern towns were the frontlines of the 60s civil rights movement. Groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were active throughout the rural south.

These rural towns have also been important sites of homegrown resistance. In 1964, in Jonesboro, Louisiana, just north of Jena, a group of Black veterans of the US military formed the Deacons for Defense, an armed self-defense organization, in support of civil rights struggles. The Deacons went on to form 21 chapters in rural Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, continuing a legacy of defiance that inspired future generations of organizers.

Violent confrontations with racial undertones still occur in many of these towns. Shortly after the incident in Jena, Gerald Washington of Westlake, Louisiana was shot three days before he was to become the town’s first Black mayor. Less than two weeks after that, shots were fired into the house of another Black mayor, in Greenwood Louisiana. Jena itself is a mostly segregated community that was also the site of the Jena Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth, a legendarily brutal prison that was shut down in 2000.

Jena residents formed their own defense committee, without the support of national organizations. They have been holding weekly protests and organizing meetings that have attracted allies from near and far. A gathering last week was attended by allies from other northern and central Louisiana towns, and representatives from the ACLU, NAACP, and National Action Network.

Parents questioned why the noose and other threatening actions were not taken seriously by the school administration. “What’s the difference,” asks Marcus Jones, the father of Mychal Bell, one of the students, about the disparity in the charges. “There’s a color difference. There was white kids that hung up a noose, but it was black kids in the fight.” Sentencing disparity is a big issue in many of these small town struggles, where many see it as the modern continuation of the brutal southern heritage of lynching.

Marcus Jones explains a litany of reasons why the students should not be charged with attempted murder. “The kid did not have life threatening injuries, he was not cut, he was not stabbed, he was not shot, nothing was broken. You talk about conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder, you think about the mafia, you think somebody paid a sniper or something. We’re talking about a high school fistfight. The DA is showing his racist upbringing, and bringing it into the law.”

For three of the youth, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw and Mychal Bell, trial starts May 21. The other dates have not been set yet. I asked Bryant Purvis how this has affected him. “One of my goals in life is to go to college, and not to go to jail, and that changed me right there,” he tells me. “That crushed me, to be in a jail cell.”

When asked how her life has changed, Purvis’ mother described the sadness of having her son taken away from her without warning. “You wake up in the morning and your son is there. You lay down at night and he’s there. Then all of a sudden he’s gone. That’s a lot to deal with.”

Further Reading
To learn more about the Deacons for Defense, see the book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill.

Friends of Justice

Letter From New Orleans Grassroots

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and TV and film producer based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org. Read other articles by Jordan, or visit Jordan's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. joed said on May 11th, 2007 at 6:08am #

    Good ol’ american ingenuity and capitolism has transformed our Justice System into a corporation. And like all corps. it needs customers. There is a surplus of people(customers) in the US. These people are considered to be, by the owners, more or less, “useless eaters.” So, the surplus goes to jail and the “worthy” folks get a job at the jail.
    Now, do not hold your breath waiting for the surplus to rise up and shake off the worthy. A true struggle is now required, or at least a 5 day general strike.

  2. Marshalldoc said on May 14th, 2007 at 4:01pm #

    This is another disturbing story of the no so latent racism that continues to simmer, just under the surface, and then occasionally boil up down in these parts. Just to put things into geographic perspective consider that in June 1998 James Byrd was dragged to death by racist skinhead NeoNazis about 3 hrs southwest of Jena in Jasper, Tx (the three suspects were convicted and sentenced to life and/or long prison terms).

    In 2003 a group of white kids at a ‘pasture party’ beat Billy Ray Johnson senseless in Linden, TX (home of ragtime composer Scott Jopin, the Eagles’ Don Henley, and birthplace of blues legend T-Bone Walker [They Call It Stormy Monday’]) about 4 hrs drive northwest of Jena. The “kids” received minimal sentences from an all-white jury in their criminal trial – “Just boys being boys” – but the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Morris Dees recently won a $9 million settlement for Mr. Johnson in Jasper’s civil court . Mr. Johnson is confined to a care facility for the rest of his life as a result of his head injury.

    On December 30, 2006 newly elected black mayor Gerald Washington of Westlake, LA – 3 hrs southwest of Jena (right near Lake Charles) was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the chest in a parking lot. Although much controversy arose over this death and the evidently cavalier investigation by the local sheriff’s dept it now appears that his death was a bona fide suicide brought on by the recognition that his new found notoriety would also make public his massive gambling losses and serial marital infidelities and the case has been closed. The family, it must be said, continues to contest the findings of several supporting investigations and a 3rd autopsy by an independent pathologist hired by the family was inconclusive due to insufficient material evidence – a likely result of the poor crime-scene management.

    On the 1st Sunday of the New Year, parties still unknown fired two shotgun blasts through the front window of the newly elected black mayor of Greenwood, LA – about 3 hrs northwest of Jena, just west of Shreveport – without injury to anyone. Despite an investigation including the FBI no charges have been filed.

    Viewed in this perspective, it’s not at all surprising to see the kids in this story charged from the Jim Crow edition of the U.S. Penal Code.

  3. karen said on May 24th, 2007 at 1:29pm #

    It just saddens me that in this day and age there is still no justice for the black. I am a PROUD AFRICAN living in britain and watched a documentary on the jena high shcool kids incident. i was really touched because it potrayed the real truth that racism is still rife everywhere even in britain. No matter now educated, what hieghts you have reached, intelligent etc people never forget your colour and call yo all sorts of names. I honestly cannot wait to go back home since i came to britain only for an education. i also want to encourage people that eventhough Africa is made to look horrible all the time on TV, that is nt always the case where i am from. Imagine if we all made our nation just as good as the West. Lived together as one people who would dare to call us ‘niggers’ or ‘coloured people’ in our own country. I hope these kids get all the help they can but believe you me if they had been white this would not even be mentioned. Black people shall rise one day i just hope it is during my lifetime.

  4. jim said on May 27th, 2007 at 10:47am #

    america has its nose in every other countrys buisness but still treats its own people like dirt.blacks and native americans are good enough to fight and die for their country but there not good enough to live in it.since rosa parks and the lynchings of the 60s have things changed that much?america leave the rest of the world alone and sort your own country out.

  5. Larry Jackson said on June 26th, 2007 at 11:35am #

    It is a shame that these types of things still happend in the South. I was born and raised in Alabama and as a African American i know racism all too well. I lived in Louissianna for 5 years and people always asked me, why I carried a gun (with a concealed carry permit). I told them that my rights wont be violated by anyone. I earned my right to carry a weapon by defending my country in Iraq. I wont let some back woods person try to take them away without a fight.

  6. WTF said on June 28th, 2007 at 8:25pm #

    What about the poor white kid jumped by these apes? If it had been the other way around it would have been a hate crime. Reverse racism at its best. It took six to take down the white boy? Oh give me a break – ALL THIS OVER SITTING BY A TREE? i don’t buy that at all. If these kids had jumped my son you wouldn’t have to worry about the justice system. i would have handled it myself. Always reverting back to those animalistic ways.

  7. New Orleans said on July 1st, 2007 at 5:21pm #

    There’s more to the story than just the white boi getting jumped but we’ll never know. A high school fight is a high school fight and yet they charge these boys with attempted murder alittle fight and the sissy gets hurt they have the right to charge them with murder yea thats right that’s the criminal justice system for you The person that made the last comment don’t talk bout it be bout it . I’m from New Orleans i’ll take it to another level.It’s a race thing and it shouldn’t be but yet it is. Justice system you can throw it out the window along with the constitution and the bill of right because they taking from our rights until theres nothing left. Land of the Free yea right this country’s a joke . Like they say if u not White U Not Right. Let That Would have happened in new orleans u right it would’ve never happened.Dude with the badge an’t shit to a dude on the edge

  8. Julia said on September 24th, 2007 at 1:36pm #

    A letter I wrote to the free Jena 6
    I am a woman, an American Indian, I am a small town wife, on the upper half of the poverty level, and I am a mom. I feel that what happened to the six youths of Jena is unjust and unfair, but it is the consequences you pay. I would never tell my children to fight physically with someone over words. Words are powerful but they also make you weak. It takes a strong man to walk away. I am sorry that these guys are facing a hard sentencing, but must we not forget that violence is NOT the answer. What were they expecting, if Jena is a racist town? Were they expecting a slap on the wrist. I would never allow my children to act inappropriatly. I teach my children there are cruel people in this world, there are mean people, and people will try to hurt you and keep you down. But it is up to you how you shall rise above these people and it is not with violence, NEVER will it be with violence! I hate the fact that you are asking these for these kids to go without punishment. These boys are not heroes and they should not be treated as one. It is a shame they could just not walk away. We all suffer in one way or another. As a mother, it is our duty to see that our children should never intentionally harm anyone and if they do, then there has to be some punishment. Ask the young man sitting behind bars, was it worth it? Was it worth kicking someone’s butt, just to serve 20 to life? And if he says no, then he knows he shouldn’t have done it. And if he says yes then let him sit. My favorite quotes are by a very loving man and they read “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” and “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. “”Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. ”

    These quotes get me by when I feel I am being descrimnated against. Even when Wesley Snipes made a comment about Being an Indian Giver,,,,I look to Dr. King and I can let it go.
    Thank you for your time.

  9. Rashidah Young said on July 7th, 2009 at 11:39am #

    Check out the 10th Paragraph