|THE ROOT OF IT ALL: This is allegedly the “white tree” outside Jena High School where three nooses hung after a Black student sat underneath it in September 2006. The tree has since been cut down.|
As the case of Jena Six is finally starting to reach the public consciousness, outrage over this small-town incident is growing to a feverish pitch, similar to the heat facing Southern California right now.
The well-documented case of six young Black men in Louisiana who were arrested and charged with assaulting a White student in a schoolyard fight have drawn outcries of racism and injustice, with some calling it a “modern day lynching.”
However, most national media outlets have been slow in their coverage of this case, leaving it up to the international press, the Black press and independent websites to inform the public, who are still mostly in the dark on the facts.
Jasmyne Cannick, a well-known commentator on racial and political issues, has posted frequent updates on her website and is one of many independent advocates fighting for the Jena Six.
“What’s happening in Jena, Louisiana isn’t right and should be the leading news story from coast to coast until these kids are freed,” Cannick said. “Why it is not, I do not understand.”
It all started last September, a Black student sat underneath the “White tree” at Jena High School, which has an 80 percent White student body. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree and three White students who placed them there were given three days of in-school suspension despite the principal calling for their expulsion.
Several days later, the entire Black student body sat under the tree in protest of the decision. That night, the District Attorney, Reed Walters, came to a school assembly and allegedly told the Black students if they didn’t stop fussing over an “innocent prank,” he could end their lives “with the stroke of a pen.”
On December 1, several Black students, including Robert Bailey one of the Jena 6, were assaulted by a group of Whites after unsuccessfully trying to get into a party mostly attended by White students.
The following day, another White student taunted Bailey and his friends and when he reached in his truck for a shotgun, Bailey wrestled it away from him and took it home. He was later charged with theft while the White student was not charged.
Everything came to a head on December 4 when Justin Barker, a White student, taunted Bailey and other students with racial slurs and supporting the nooses the students had placed on the tree. He also bragged about how Bailey and the other students were beaten down days earlier.
The youths then assaulted Barker, repeatedly kicking him on the ground. Despite suffering a concussion and several bruises, Barker was treated and released from the hospital the same day and attended his school’s ring ceremony that night.
In all, six students were arrested and charged but many were outraged at the excessive charges considering Barker’s brief hospital stay.
The case of the Jena Six, remained out of the public consciousness for months as the public heard endless stories about celebrity scandals and, recently, the Michael Vick dog-fighting saga.
To that point, Cannick argues that it is because “Americans still haven’t accepted that fact that racism is still an issue.”
James Rucker, co-founder of advocacy group Colorofchange.org, took a different route as he said the lack of coverage was based on the media’s “hesitance to plainly connect the dots.”
“Part of the problem is that a lot of reporters are being overly careful to not call a spade a spade without checking their facts,” Rucker said.
The latest developments occurred on Tuesday as prosecutors reduced the attempted murder charges on two of the Jena Six, Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw. Both now face aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.
Two others, Bailey and Bryant Purvis, still face attempted murder charges while the unidentified sixth member faces undisclosed juvenile charges.
Also on Tuesday, several motions were made on the behalf of Mychal Bell, the first of the group to be tried. While the motions for a new trial and an overturned conviction were denied, prosecutors agreed to drop the conspiracy charges.
Bell, who was found guilty in June of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, now faces up to 15 years in prison as opposed to 22 when he is sentenced on Sept. 20.
There are plans for several events that day in support of Bell and the other five youths. National radio personalities Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden will broadcast their shows live from the courthouse and several civil right leaders will also be present.
The small town of Jena is home to 3,000 residents, 350 of whom are Black residents. It is a heavily segregated town where Blacks have little political influence. The school board and the parish government both have only one Black member.
Recent events suggest that the tensions at Jena High School have not fully died down. Last week, officials banned students from wearing “Free the Jena 6” T-shirts after nine Black students wore them on campus to show their support.
The issue is not if Barker’s assailants should face time, but rather, the issue is whether or not the punishment facing the Jena Six fits the crime, and in the minds of many, it does not.
Furthermore, all of the White students who played a role leading up to this incident received little or no punishment, which many say shows that there appears to be two systems of justice in play—one for Whites and one for Blacks.
“If you look at this objectively, you have three incidents of White-on-Black crime beforehand that went un-prosecuted and then you have this instance of Black-on-White crime where the alleged perpetrators have the book thrown at them,” Rucker said.