[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


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 
unidentified minor.

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.

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

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