Last week, thousands of people traveled across the nation to Jena, Louisiana for a rally supporting six African-American young people now known as the Jena 6. Accused of beating a white classmate for using racial slurs, Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, and Jesse Beard were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. The white youth, Justin Barker, was treated at a hospital for a concussion and swollen eye, released the same day, and attended a school event later that evening.
That incident was one in a series between white and African-American students in the town over the past year. Racial tensions ignited when an African-American student asked if he was allowed to sit under a tree he had heard was a “whites only” area. After being told by the principal that anyone could sit there, he and his cousin stood under the tree. In response, three white students hung nooses from the tree that were found the following morning. Characterized by members of the school board as a stupid joke, the young men were given a three day suspension that outraged many students and parents.
A sit-in was organized in protest to the white students’ light sentence. Fights on and off school grounds between white and black students ensued. A white youth used a gun to threaten black students, who were ultimately charged by the district attorney’s office with stealing the gun after they disarmed the owner.
Mychal Bell was the first of the Jena 6 to be tried for the fight with Barker. An all-white jury convicted him of aggravated second-degree battery, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison. After growing national coverage of the story, the week of the rally, an appeals court overruled the verdict saying that Bell should not have been tried as an adult. The other five youth still await trial.
Anti-racism activists have argued that while this situation raisesissues concerning the conceptequal protection under the law, there is the larger question regarding the notion of justice. What is the difference between these concepts in the case of the Jena 6? How can justice be achieved? Many argue that the widespread media attention and community organizing by civil rights groups affected Bell’s overturned conviction. Should the courts be influenced by public opinion?
Several news articles depicted the series of events and the decisions by the district attorney’s office as a regression to a bygone era. Is Jena a throwback, or as others argue, is what happened in Jena an accurate snapshot of race relations in the region or in the U.S. today? Is this case the result of a few people who made bad choices or has it brought systemic racism and classism within the schools and legal system into the public eye?
For more informaiton, please contact Kristin Millikan at 312.422.5580.