Summary of the "Jena Six" Case
By Discover The Networks
Jena, Louisiana is a mostly white town of approximately 3,000 people. On August 30, 2006, Jena's local high school held a back-to-school assembly for its male students only, where the boys were briefed on such matters as basic school rules and dress codes. At one point in the proceedings, an African American student jokingly asked whether blacks were permitted to sit with whites under one particular shade tree on campus. His fellow students laughed heartily, and the assistant principal who was running the assembly answered that, of course, there were no restrictions on where anyone could sit. Numerous other questions were asked as well, and the assembly was entirely free of rancor.
The next day, the first few students to arrive at Jena High School found three (some reports said there were only two) nylon-rope nooses hanging from the tree that had been referenced by the black questioner during the assembly. Administrators immediately removed the nooses from the tree, and the vast majority of the students never saw them. But the story nonetheless found its way into the media. It became big news in television and newspaper reports, “evoking for some,” as CBS News put it, “the image of lynchings in the old South.”
Before long, Jena High administrators learned that three white students had hung the nooses as a “prank” which had no racial motivation. The local police and FBI agents interviewed the boys responsible, and likewise concluded that race had nothing to do with the incident. As Charlotte Allen reports in The Weekly Standard, “The three students maintained that the nooses were a school spirit-prompted prank directed at a rival school's Western-themed football team (the youths said they were inspired by a hanging in the 1980s television miniseries Lonesome Dove).”
Still, Jena High administrators were disturbed by the perception that the boys' actions may have been racially based. As a result, the three perpetrators were forced to attend an alternative school for one month, after which they served a two-week suspension from their regular school.
The noose incident was followed at Jena High by a couple of on-campus interracial confrontations over the next few days -- a heated argument between two girls, and a fight in which a white boy suffered a head wound that required stitches. These were unusual events at a school with no history of racial conflict. From September 9 through November 30, there were no further racial incidents either at the high school or in the town of Jena. Then, on the night of November 30, the main high-school building was set on fire and was badly damaged. No perpetrator was ever found, and the motive was unknown.
After the fire, the school was closed for a few days, during which time two racial incidents occurred in the town of Jena. At a December 1 private party (attended by mostly whites as well as a few blacks) at a social hall known as the “Fair Barn” a fight erupted when five black Jena High students tried to crash the event. The next day at a convenience store, there was a fight between three black students and a white man.
When the school reopened on December 4, football player Mychal Bell led a gang of eight to ten fellow black students in pummeling a white 11th-grader named Justin Barker. (It should be noted that Barker had had nothing to do with either the August 31 noose affair or the aforementioned fights of December 1 and 2.) The assailants beat Barker into unconsciousness in what the Jena Times called “one of the most violent attacks in Jena High School’s history.” Witnesses would later report that Barker’s attackers had “stomped him badly,” “stepped on his face” while he was “knocked out cold on the ground,” and “slammed his head on the concrete beam.” The media promoted the notion that the attack may have been provoked by the noose incident. Yet not only did Barker have nothing to do with that incident, but it had occurred more than three months earlier.
After his beating, Barker was taken by ambulance to LaSalle General Hospital where he spent some two and a half hours in the emergency room before being released. Later that night a swollen-faced Barker attended his school’s annual class ring ceremony; he left early, as soon as he had received his ring. He would later report that as a result of the injuries he had suffered on December 4, he experienced blindness in one eye for three weeks and was still plagued by headaches six months after the beating.
Six of Barker’s black assailants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder. (These were the individuals who became known collectively as the Jena Six.) Mychal Bell, who was 16 years old at the time of the attack, was charged as an adult because he already had been on probation since being convicted of a December 2005 battery; moreover, he also had been convicted of two subsequent violent crimes and a property crime prior to his assault against Barker.
Just before Bell’s trial in the summer of 2007, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters scaled back the attempted murder charges against all the youths to aggravated battery and conspiracy. But the original set of very serious charges continued to draw criticism from civil rights and civil liberties activists who complained that blacks in the criminal-justice system were routinely treated more harshly than whites. “Local civil rights groups objected to what they saw as a throwback to the worst kind of Deep South justice,” reported CBS News, “and that protest has escalated into a nationwide campaign.”
On June 28, an all-white jury of five women and one man pronounced Bell guilty. It should be noted that when the jury members for the case were selected, none of the blacks who had been summoned actually appeared at the courthouse. As a result, the pool of potential jurors consisted of whites only.
On August 5, Al Sharpton went to Jena and declared: “You cannot have some [white] boys assault and charged with nothing, some [white] boys hanging nooses and finish the school year, and other [black] boys charged with attempted murder and conspiracy. That’s two levels of justice, and two levels of justice is an injustice.”
On September 10, Jesse Jackson went to Jena and threatened to organize a “major demonstration” of perhaps 40,000 angry protesters unless Bell’s sentence was thrown out and the charges against the remaining attackers were reduced to misdemeanors. Four days after Jackson’s threat, Judicial District Court Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. vacated Bell’s adult conviction and ordered that he be retried as a juvenile.
Nonetheless on September 20, 2007, tens of thousands of (mostly black) demonstrators from all over the United States descended on Jena to protest the allegedly unfair legal treatment of the six black assailants. Key organizers of the demonstration included Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Comparing the case to seminal civil-rights moments like the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, Jackson said: “In Jena, for those who have been under the illusion that changes have occurred, this is a wake-up call.
According to a September 2007 statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, “the Jena Six case raises serious questions about a possible double standard for whites and blacks in the criminal justice system -- and in our schools.” “Possible differences in treatment between students of different races, the apparent overcharging of students by law enforcement and questions about the possibility of discrimination generally in the school are emblematic of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ cases that we are seeing nationwide,” lamented Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project.
“I think a lot of people recognize that the criminal-justice system grinds down people of color every day,” said J. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Oftentimes, it’s nameless, it’s faceless. We know the story in a generic way but not specifically. People see Jena as the tip of the iceberg and ask, ‘What lies beneath?’”
The NAACP likewise expressed its belief that justice was a rare commodity for black Americans in the court system.
In January 2008, journalist Charlotte Allen reported the following: “… Mychal Bell appeared with his team of lawyers at the parish courthouse in this tiny Central Louisiana town of 3,000 on December 3  and pled guilty to second-degree battery, to intentionally inflicting serious bodily injury on another person. In doing so, Bell -- who … had repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack -- admitted that on December 4, 2006, he [had] hit 17-year-old Justin Barker from behind, slamming Barker's head against a concrete beam outside the gym at Jena High School and knocking him unconscious, and that he then joined a group in stomping and kicking Barker in the head. Bell agreed to serve 18 months in juvenile custody for the offense ...”
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