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"Blacks don't stand a chance in Jena"

July 6, 2007 | Page 16

NICOLE COLSON reports on a travesty of justice taking place in a Louisiana courtroom.

LOUISIANA TEENAGER Mychal Bell was convicted last week in a case that should be sparking outrage around the country about the racism of America's injustice system.

Bell, who is Black, was found guilty--by an all-white jury--of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Along with five other Black students, Bell is accused of jumping a white student on December 4 at the high school in the small town of Jena, La. He could be sent to prison for as many as 20 years when he is sentenced July 31.

Prosecutors have painted the "Jena Six" as the aggressors, while ignoring the racism that permeates the case. The assault that Bell and the others are charged with was preceded by a series of fights between white and Black students in Jena that began after three white students hung nooses from a tree at the high school in September.

What else to read

Sign a petition calling for an investigation into the prosecution of the Jena 6. For information--or to make a financial contribution, which are badly needed--write to the Jena 6 Defense Committee at: P.O. Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342.

 

Jena is a town where a white man who pulled a loaded shotgun on three Black students at a convenience store was never charged with a crime. Instead, the three Black teens were initially arrested and accused of aggravated battery and "theft"--for wrestling the shotgun away from the assailant.

In the case of the students, the nooses appeared the morning after a group of Black students had been told by the principal that they were "allowed" to sit under a tree in the school's courtyard--an area traditionally used only by whites.

What the nooses meant was loud and clear to Black students. But school officials dismissed the threat of lynching as no more than a high school prank. The three white students who hung the nooses ended up with short "in-school" suspensions instead of being expelled.

As Jena's white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, explained to the Chicago Tribune, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody."

But the town's Black residents have no doubt that the threat implied by the nooses was serious. "It meant the KKK, it meant 'niggers, we're going to kill you, we're gonna' hang you 'til you die,'" Caseptla Bailey, whose son, Robert Bailey Jr., is also among the Jena Six, told Britain's Observer.

Segregation is alive and well in the town--and not just in the high school. According to Bailey, the area she lives in, Ward 10, is where the majority of Jena's Black residents live--mainly in trailers or wooden shacks. No whites live there. Only two Black families live in the wealthier area of town.

Racism runs through the justice system as well. In 2000, the Jena Juvenile Justice Center, a privately run youth detention center, was closed by the state after a pattern of racist abuse by guards against inmates--both verbal and physical--was uncovered.

According to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Blacks children make up approximately 78 percent of juveniles incarcerated in the state, though African Americans account for just one-third of the state population overall.

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FOLLOWING THE appearance of the nooses at the school, and in the wake of the school's failure to hand out any real punishment, racial tensions intensified between the Black and white students.

A series of fights broke out, and in November, the central wing of the school was set on fire by unknown arsonists. Off campus, there were reports of additional fights, including the beating of a Black student who had attended an all-white party with friends.

According to the Louisiana Public Defenders' Association, though a white teen was later charged with simple battery, police at the scene reportedly told the African American students to "get their Black asses out of this part of town."

When Black students staged a protest under the tree at Jena High, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters was called in. Appearing with police at an assembly, Walters reportedly warned Black students against any more "incidents," allegedly telling them, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen."

On December 4, the fight erupted that would lead to the charges against the Jena Six.

A group of Black students at the high school allegedly assaulted a white student, Justin Baker, on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. Baker was reportedly a friend of the students who had hung the nooses, and some reports say he had been taunting Black students before the fight.

True to his word, the district attorney went on the attack, charging all six Black students--four as adults--and pushing for attempted murder charges, with maximum sentences of 100 years each. All six students were immediately expelled from school.

Later, the attempted murder charges were reduced to "aggravated battery." But this charge is supposed to depend on the use of a dangerous weapon. Since there was no evidence that Bell or the other teens had a gun, knife or other weapon, Walters argued that the tennis shoes Bell was wearing at the time of the attack qualified as a "dangerous weapon."

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THE TRIAL that followed for Mychal Bell is all too typical of "justice" for Blacks in the U.S. today.

The jury that heard the case was all white, and took just three hours to convict Bell. The witnesses at the trial were all white. Trial Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. ruled that the noose incident was irrelevant to the case and couldn't be mentioned at trial, meaning that much of the original context of the fight was never heard.

Reports from witnesses at the trial suggest that Bell's public defender, Blane Williams, was unprepared, and more interested in pushing for a plea deal than proving Bell's innocence. He failed to put a single witness on the stand, or to present any evidence at all in Bell's defense.

Williams failed to challenge the all-white composition of the jury, as well. He told the Associated Press that he was sure he could "get a fair trial" anyway.

Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group, attended the trial and told the Associated Press, "Blane Williams did not want to go to trial, he was not prepared to go to trial, and he was angry when he was forced to go to trial. So he just sort of plowed ahead and decided to go through the motions."

During the trial, several witnesses claimed they saw Bell struck the first blow in the assault--key to proving the charge against him. But other witnesses said that the white student struck first, and still others said they couldn't tell who struck the first blow, or if Bell was even among the group of students--a clear indication that there should have been reasonable doubt as to whether Bell was guilty.

Now, Mychal Bell faces a 20-year sentence, five more young Black men will go on trial soon, and Black residents live each day in fear of racist violence. As Vivian Thompson, a friend of the Bell family, told the Alexandria-Pineville Town Talk, "Blacks do not stand a chance here. I want to see justice. This wasn't it."

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