[Ppnews] Black Nooses Hanging from the "White" Tree
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jul 3 11:45:10 EDT 2007
July 3, 2007
Injustice in Jena
Black Nooses Hanging from the "White" Tree
By BILL QUIGLEY
In a small still mostly segregated section of rural Louisiana, an all
white jury heard a series of white witnesses called by a white
prosecutor testify in a courtroom overseen by a white judge in a
trial of a fight at the local high school where a white student who
had been making racial taunts was hit by black students. The fight
was the culmination of a series of racial incidents starting when
whites responded to black students sitting under the "white tree" at
their school by hanging three nooses from the tree. The white jury
and white prosecutor and all white supporters of the white victim
were all on one side of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17 year
old Mychal Bell, and his supporters were on the other. The jury
quickly convicted Mychal Bell of two felonies - aggravated battery
and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. Bell, who was a 16 year
old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested, faces up to
22 years in prison. Five other black youths
await similar trials on attempted second degree murder and conspiracy charges.
Yes, you read that correctly. The rest of the story, which is being
reported across the world in papers in China, France and England, is
just as chilling.
The trouble started under "the white tree" in front of Jena High
School. The "white tree" is where the white students, 80% of the
student body, would always sit during school breaks.
In September 2006, a black student at Jena high school asked
permission from school administrators to sit under the "white tree."
School officials advised them to sit wherever they wanted. They did.
The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from
the "white tree." The message was clear. "Those nooses meant the KKK,
they meant 'Niggers, we're going to kill you, we're going to hang you
till you die,'" Casteptla Bailey, mom of one of the students, told
the London Observer.
The Jena high school principal found that three white students were
responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of
schools over-ruled the principal and gave the students a three day
suspension saying that the nooses were just a youthful stunt.
"Adolescents play pranks," the superintendent told the Chicago
Tribune, "I don't think it was a threat against anybody."
The African-American community was hurt and upset. "Hanging those
nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple," according to Tracy
Bowens, mother of students at Jena High.
But blacks in this area of Louisiana have little political power. The
ten person all-male government of the parish has one African-American
member. The nine member all-male school board has one African
American member. (A phone caller to the local school board trying to
find out the racial makeup of the school board was told there was one
"colored" member of the board). There is one black police officer in
Jena and two black public school teachers.
Jena, with a population of less than 3000, is the largest town in and
parish (county) seat of LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. There are about
350 African Americans in the town. LaSalle has a population of just
over 14,000 people - 12% African-American.
This is solid Bush and David Duke Country - GWB won LaSalle Parish 4
to 1 in the last two elections; Duke carried a majority of the white
vote when he ran for Governor of Louisiana. Families earn about 60%
of the national average. The Census Bureau reports that less than 10%
of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black owned.
Jena is the site of the infamous Juvenile Correctional Center for
Youth that was forced to close its doors in 2000, only two years
after opening, due to widespread brutality and racism including the
choking of juveniles by guards after the youth met with a lawyer. The
U.S. Department of Justice sued the private prison amid complaints
that guards paid inmates to fight each other and laughed when teens
tried to commit suicide.
Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the
"white tree" at the school to protest the light suspensions given to
the noose-hanging white students.
The white District Attorney then came to Jena High with law
enforcement officers to address a school assembly. According to
testimony in a later motion in court, the DA reportedly threatened
the black protesting students saying that if they didn't stop making
a fuss about this "innocent prank I can be your best friend or your
worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen." The
school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
On the night of Thursday November 30, 2006, a still unsolved fire
burned down the main academic building of Jena High School.
On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white
party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white
man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at
the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled
it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later
arrested, no charges were filed against the white man.
On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student--who allegedly
had been making racial taunts, including calling African American
students "niggers" while supporting the students who hung the nooses
and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party--was
knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim
was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social
function that evening.
Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted
second degree murder. All six were expelled from school.
The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior whose bail was
set at $138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw - bail $130,000; 18-year-old
Carwin Jones--bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis--bail $70,000;
16 year old Mychal Bell, a sophomore in high school who was charged
as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still
Many of the young men, who came to be known as the Jena 6, stayed in
jail for months. Few families could afford bond or private attorneys.
Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial
because his family was unable to post the $90,000 bond. Theo Shaw has
also remained in jail. Several of the other defendants remained in
jail for months until their families could raise sufficient money to
put up bonds.
The Chicago Tribune wrote a powerful story headlined "Racial Demons
Rear Heads." The London Observer wrote: "Jena is gaining national
notoriety as an example of the new 'stealth' racism, showing how
lightly sleep the demons of racial prejudice in America's Deep South,
even in the year that a black man, Barak Obama, is a serious
candidate for the White House." The British Broadcasting Company
aired a TV special report "Race Hate in Louisiana 2007."
The Jena 6 and their families were put under substantial pressure to
plead guilty. Mychal Bell was reported to have been leaning towards
pleading guilty right up until his trial when he decided he would not
plead guilty to a felony.
When it finally came, the trial of Mychal Bell was swift. Bell was
represented by an appointed public defender.
On the morning of the trial, the DA reduced the charges from
attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery
and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the
attack be with a dangerous weapon. The dangerous weapon? The
prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis shoes
worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by "the gang
of black boys" who beat the white victim.
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned,
fifty people appeared--every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all white group to the
Alexandria Louisiana Town Talk newspaper saying that the jury pool
was selected by computer. "The venire [panel of prospective jurors]
is color blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial
makeup of the community, but the system does not take race into
factor." Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were
the only people who showed up.
The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people
friendly with the District Attorney, a relative of one of the
witnesses and several others who were friends of prosecution witnesses.
Bell's parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed
to attend the trial despite their objections, because they were
listed as potential witnesses. The white victim, though a witness,
was allowed to stay in the courtroom. The parents, who had been
widely quoted in the media as critics of the process, were also told
they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial was in
session. Marcus Jones had told the media "It's all about those
nooses" and declared the charges racially motivated.
Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of Bell were
ordered by the court not to do so near the courthouse or anywhere the
judge would see them.
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses - eleven white students, three
white teachers, and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick
the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white
victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not.
The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge
the all-white jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses.
The public defender told the Alexandria Town talk after resting his
case without calling any witnesses that he knew he would be
second-guessed by many but was confident that the jury would return a
verdict of not guilty. "I don't believe race is an issue in this
trialI think I have a fair and impartial jury"
The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell
guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree
battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.
The public defender told the press afterwards, "I feel I put on the
best defense that I could." Responding to criticism of not putting on
any witnesses, the attorney said "why open the door for further
accusations? I did the best I could for my client, Mychal Bell."
At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a
Texas minister and leader of the Friends of Justice, said "I have
seen a lot of trials in my time. And I have never seen a more
distressing miscarriage of justice than what happened in LaSalle
Parish yesterday." Khadijah Rashad of Lafayette Louisiana described
the trial as a "modern day lynching."
Tory Pegram with the Louisiana ACLU has been working with the parents
for months. "People know if they don't demand equal treatment now,
they will never get it. People's jobs and livelihoods have been
threatened for attending Jena 6 Defense meetings, but people are
willing to risk that. One person told me: 'We have to convince more
people to come rally with us.....What's the worst that could happen?
They fire us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the town
anyway. They burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All of
that has happened to us before. We have to keep speaking out to make
sure it doesn't happen to us again, or our children will never be safe.'"
Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism. "We
don't have a problem," according to one. Other locals told the media
"We all get along," and "most blacks are happy with the way things
are." One person even said "We don't have many problems with our blacks."
Melvin Worthington, the lone African American school board member in
LaSalle Parish said it all could have been avoided. "There's no doubt
about it," he told the Chicago Tribune, "whites and blacks are
treated differently here. The white kids should have gotten more
punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that
followed could have been avoided."
Hebert McCoy, a relative of one of the youths who has been trying to
raise money for bail and lawyers, challenged people everywhere at the
end of the rally when he said "You better get out of your houses. You
better come out and defend your childrenbecause they are
incarcerating them by the thousands. Jena's not the beginning, but
Jena has crossed the line. Justice is not right when you put on the
wrong charges and then convict. I believe in justice. I believe in
the point of law. I believe in accepting the punishment if I'm
guilty. If I'm guilty, convict me and punishment, but if I'm
innocent, no justice" and the crowd joined with him and shouted "no peace!"
What happened to the white guys? The white victim of the beating was
later arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets
onto the high school campus and released on $5000 bond. The white man
who beat up the black youth at the off-campus party was arrested and
charged with simple battery. The white students who hung up the
nooses in the "white tree" were never charged.
The people in Jena are fighting for justice and they need legal and
financial help. Since the arrests, a group of family members have
been holding well-attended meetings, and have created a defense
fund--the Jena 6 Defense Committee. They have received support from
the NAACP, the Louisiana ACLU and Friends of Justice.
People interested in supporting can contact: the Jena 6 Defense
Committee, PO Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342 jena6defense at gmail.com;
Friends of Justice, 507 North Donley Avenue, Tulia, TX 79088
www.fojtulia.org; or the ACLU of Louisiana, PO Box 56157, New
Orleans, LA 70156 www.laaclu.org or 417.350.0536.
What is next? The rest of the Jena 6 await similar trials. Theodore
Shaw is due to go on trial shortly. Mychal Bell is scheduled to be
sentenced July 31. If he gets the maximum sentence he will not be out
of prison until he is nearly 40. Meanwhile, the "white tree" outside
Jena High sits quietly in the hot sun.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola
University New Orleans. You can reach him at
<mailto:Quigley at loyno.edu>Quigley at loyno.edu
Audrey Stewart contributed to this article.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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