Blacks Don’t Stand a Chance in Jena

Louisiana teenager Mychal Bell was convicted last week in a case that should be sparking outrage around the country about the racism of America’s injustice system.

Bell, who is Black, was found guilty–by an all-white jury–of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Along with five other Black students, Bell is accused of jumping a white student on December 4 at the high school in the small town of Jena, La. He could be sent to prison for as many as 20 years when he is sentenced July 31.

Prosecutors have painted the “Jena Six” as the aggressors, while ignoring the racism that permeates the case. The assault that Bell and the others are charged with was preceded by a series of fights between white and Black students in Jena that began after three white students hung nooses from a tree at the high school in September.

Jena is a town where a white man who pulled a loaded shotgun on three Black students at a convenience store was never charged with a crime. Instead, the three Black teens were initially arrested and accused of aggravated battery and “theft”–for wrestling the shotgun away from the assailant.

In the case of the students, the nooses appeared the morning after a group of Black students had been told by the principal that they were “allowed” to sit under a tree in the school’s courtyard–an area traditionally used only by whites.

What the nooses meant was loud and clear to Black students. But school officials dismissed the threat of lynching as no more than a high school prank. The three white students who hung the nooses ended up with short “in-school” suspensions instead of being expelled.

As Jena’s white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”

But the town’s Black residents have no doubt that the threat implied by the nooses was serious. “It meant the KKK, it meant ‘niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re gonna’ hang you ’til you die,’” Caseptla Bailey, whose son, Robert Bailey Jr., is also among the Jena Six, told Britain’s Observer.

Segregation is alive and well in the town–and not just in the high school. According to Bailey, the area she lives in, Ward 10, is where the majority of Jena’s Black residents live–mainly in trailers or wooden shacks. No whites live there. Only two Black families live in the wealthier area of town.

Racism runs through the justice system as well. In 2000, the Jena Juvenile Justice Center, a privately run youth detention center, was closed by the state after a pattern of racist abuse by guards against inmates–both verbal and physical–was uncovered.

According to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Blacks children make up approximately 78 percent of juveniles incarcerated in the state, though African Americans account for just one-third of the state population overall.

Following the appearance of the nooses at the school, and in the wake of the school’s failure to hand out any real punishment, racial tensions intensified between the Black and white students.

A series of fights broke out, and in November, the central wing of the school was set on fire by unknown arsonists. Off campus, there were reports of additional fights, including the beating of a Black student who had attended an all-white party with friends.

According to the Louisiana Public Defenders’ Association, though a white teen was later charged with simple battery, police at the scene reportedly told the African American students to “get their Black asses out of this part of town.”

When Black students staged a protest under the tree at Jena High, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters was called in. Appearing with police at an assembly, Walters reportedly warned Black students against any more “incidents,” allegedly telling them, “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.”

On December 4, the fight erupted that would lead to the charges against the Jena Six.

A group of Black students at the high school allegedly assaulted a white student, Justin Baker, on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. Baker was reportedly a friend of the students who had hung the nooses, and some reports say he had been taunting Black students before the fight.

True to his word, the district attorney went on the attack, charging all six Black students–four as adults–and pushing for attempted murder charges, with maximum sentences of 100 years each. All six students were immediately expelled from school.

Later, the attempted murder charges were reduced to “aggravated battery.” But this charge is supposed to depend on the use of a dangerous weapon. Since there was no evidence that Bell or the other teens had a gun, knife or other weapon, Walters argued that the tennis shoes Bell was wearing at the time of the attack qualified as a “dangerous weapon.”

The trial that followed for Mychal Bell is all too typical of “justice” for Blacks in the U.S. today.

The jury that heard the case was all white, and took just three hours to convict Bell. The witnesses at the trial were all white. Trial Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. ruled that the noose incident was irrelevant to the case and couldn’t be mentioned at trial, meaning that much of the original context of the fight was never heard.

Reports from witnesses at the trial suggest that Bell’s public defender, Blane Williams, was unprepared, and more interested in pushing for a plea deal than proving Bell’s innocence. He failed to put a single witness on the stand, or to present any evidence at all in Bell’s defense.

Williams failed to challenge the all-white composition of the jury, as well. He told the Associated Press that he was sure he could “get a fair trial” anyway.

Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group, attended the trial and told the Associated Press, “Blane Williams did not want to go to trial, he was not prepared to go to trial, and he was angry when he was forced to go to trial. So he just sort of plowed ahead and decided to go through the motions.”

During the trial, several witnesses claimed they saw Bell struck the first blow in the assault–key to proving the charge against him. But other witnesses said that the white student struck first, and still others said they couldn’t tell who struck the first blow, or if Bell was even among the group of students–a clear indication that there should have been reasonable doubt as to whether Bell was guilty.

Now, Mychal Bell faces a 20-year sentence, five more young Black men will go on trial soon, and Black residents live each day in fear of racist violence. As Vivian Thompson, a friend of the Bell family, told the Alexandria-Pineville Town Talk, “Blacks do not stand a chance here. I want to see justice. This wasn’t it.”

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jazzman said on July 5th, 2007 at 10:31am #

    It would be prudent for white folk to acknowledge they are in the minority and all those guns they’re allowed to own are gonna backfire.

    Do not for a second believe there are white people in the northeast who condone this hypocrisy and are not impassioned to adjust matters to suit more uniformly for all.

    A little more thought of evolution and less Sunday’s professing dominance may be a good place to start.

  2. Chris Crass said on July 5th, 2007 at 12:33pm #

    No racists in the northeast? That would be dandy but it’s simply not true. This whole damned nation is racist as hell from all directions and in all locales. I’d guess 30% of the population is actually not ignorant and I’m feeling real generous today.

  3. EVELYN BARKSDALE said on July 5th, 2007 at 5:49pm #


  4. Deadbeat said on July 5th, 2007 at 6:35pm #

    While I feel sorry for the soldiers they are breaking the law by their participation in an illegal war of aggression. Until citizen make participating in the military ignoble then all citizens are to blame when they say “support the troops”. The left especially such folks as Michael Albert and all the ABB’er engage in such foolish hypocrisies. I don’t support the troops as there is no reason for a standing military but for only to advance racist and capitalistic imperialism.

  5. Deadbeat said on July 6th, 2007 at 12:03am #

    I guess jassman has never been to Boston.

  6. jazzman said on July 6th, 2007 at 2:50am #

    My reference to Northeast was a bad street justice in New Jersey quip.

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply the northeast or anywhere is racist free,
    I went to school in downtown Trenton and as a sixty year old white man
    I was fine but the police were always on the corner. I was an urban homeless
    guy and the brothers were always the best to be among, when trouble came around
    we didn’t win many fights but we had a good time afterward laughing our ass off at
    the fools fightin with homeless people.

    Sorry for the careless remark about something so serious.

  7. joseph young said on August 14th, 2007 at 6:01pm #

    An Open Letter To The Jena Six
    By Joseph Young
    Dear Mychal,
    I keep thinking about you. I also think about the other young men who have fallen prey to racial hatred. Its existence, more than a century after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, makes me fearful for your life, your safety. The freedom that it promised was tenuous.
    It was not entirely without strength. In the proclamation, issued three years into the Civil War, Lincoln declared, at the urging of Frederick Douglass, that the former slaves would be accepted into the Union Army and navy, making the liberated the liberator. By the war’s end, almost 200,000 black servicemen had fought for freedom and saved the Union.
    Your generation, like mine, is being denied this freedom our ancestors risked life and limb, so that we may live as free men and women. You can call them heroes, but they were not thinking of themselves when they displayed courage and self-sacrifice on the battlefields of America.
    Today, then, to guard against the impending doom of American civilization, is not only opposition to racism, but also the determination to secure the civil rights for which many Americans have paid a heavy toll. Of all the civil rights, the right to learn is the surest prevention from ignorance. If at any time, children are instructed with anti-black bias; and they are made to learn what is not true and what the dominate forces in their lives want them to think is true; there’re guilty of impeding the march toward American civilization.
    Astonishing as it is that those students would hang three nooses from the tree at Jena High School as a racial taunt, including calling the black students ‘niggers’; you would think that America would never again want to see a black person hang from a tree, or behind bars. The nooses show that we, Americans, have not come that far from the cruelties and barbarity of slavery as we think. (Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 5,000 people, mostly blacks, met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.) And this also is an unfortunate comment upon the belief that our schools are the great path to progress, the great equalizer. If our schools are the great path to progress, they must be the freest of our institutions, opposed bitterly to the attempt to indoctrinate our children with racial hatred.
    Well, Mychal, as you and the others wait behind bars because of a racially biased and an over zealous prosecutor, it is for us on the outside to continue the unfinished work of our fathers, to set you free. All of you were willing to fight racial hatred, and you know people of goodwill are beside you. If the Confederacy couldn’t stop us, the opposition we now face will fail. When history is written your detractors will get little note, but you will be remembered for standing up for what’s best of the American creed. You are part of a legacy in which our slave forebears fought to birth a new nation. You, Mychal, are a child of America’s destiny.
    It was Martin Luther King who said if a man doesn’t have something worth dying for he is not fit to live. Freedom is worth dying for. Justice is worth dying for. Equality is worth dying for. A child is worth dying for, because our job as parents is to protect children.
    Mychal, when you feel complete frustration and your narrow jail cell is closing in on your spirit and mind; remember the message of the old slave preacher to his flock whose resistance to oppression might have been completely in vain:
    “You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves, you are not ‘niggers’; you are God’s children.”
    Godspeed Mychal,
    Your brother in the struggle, Joseph

  8. S. Howard said on August 21st, 2007 at 11:51pm #

    It’s amazing how Black Americans will come together to build a church but they won’t come together to protect their children. And women for that matter. Black Americans need to come out of the church and stop the injustice. 20 years is a life time for a fight where no one got killed!

  9. Dwight Yates said on September 5th, 2007 at 10:00am #

    It saddens me to hear,see, and beleive this kind of racism still rages in our back yards while our president continues to play mighty mouse in Iraq. The leader of our country contiues to sent our young men over seas where they lose there lives fighting for the freedom of other countries when right next door our neighbors are still living in racial fear (CLEAN UP YOUR OWN HOUSE BEFORE YOU CLEAN UP SOMEONE ELSES) To the jena six my prayers are with you , be strong God has not forgotten you and neither have we.

  10. robert said on September 22nd, 2007 at 6:32pm #

    Blacks have more chance than anyone in this country. My Scottish Irish ancestors fought to provide you a place to live and prosper and now you are throwing it in the dump by playing these stupid games. I know you will not publish this, but you should consider why you are here. My gun will not backfire.

  11. Michael said on September 27th, 2007 at 6:02pm #

    Why doesn’t anyone care what REALLY happened? Six blacks beat a white kid unconscious, then KEPT beating him BECAUSE HE IS WHITE! PERIOD!! If the races were reversed, everyone would be calling the White kids “Nazi’s, haters, racists, etc.” The black kid would be on all the major talk shows, they would talk to his crying mother, they would interview his distraught friends, etc. But BECAUSE THE VICTIM IS WHITE, he’s treated like a ‘racist’, and the blacks are treated like heroes instead!

    And the same thing is happening to Damien O’Rourke in Virgina. He was beaten by 7-black kids last Saturday, it was caught on video, and it’s being treated the same way! WHEN WILL WHITES GET JUSTICE WHEN WE GET BEATEN?? WHY IS EVERYONE SCARED TO CALL THE BLACKS “RACISTS” WHEN THEY BEAT ON WHITES?? FOR GOD’S SAKE, WAKE UP!!