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Rallying for victims of Jim Crow justice

September 14, 2007 | Page 16

NICOLE COLSON reports on a case that is sparking anger around the U.S.

WILL JIM Crow justice prevail in Jena, La.? That's the question that people around the country are asking as the September 20 sentencing of Mychal Bell approaches--along with plans for a protest that day which organizers hope will draw thousands.

Bell is one of the "Jena 6," a group of Black teens being railroaded on charges of battery and conspiracy after a series of racist incidents in Jena last year led to a school fight in December, in which a white teen was allegedly jumped by the Black students.

Though LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters has painted the Black students as the aggressors, the truth is that local officials repeatedly downplayed violent displays of racism on the part of whites that preceded the assault Bell and the others are accused of committing.

Under increasing pressure as the Jena 6 have gained national and international prominence, Judge J.P. Mauffray threw out one conviction against Mychal Bell earlier this month. But Mauffray let more a serious battery charge stand--so Mychal still faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced September 20.

This throwback to the pre-civil rights era has spurred anger and organizing around the country--with protests in Washington, D.C., and Chicago earlier this month setting the stage for a planned demonstration in Jena when the sentencing hearing takes place on September 20.

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THE ROOTS of the case go back to September 2006, when a group of white students at Jena's high school hung nooses--fashioned in the school's colors--from a tree on the school grounds. The white students were apparently upset that a Black student, Kenneth Purvis, had asked for and received "permission" from a school official to sit underneath the tree, where only whites had traditionally sat.

School officials looked the other way, giving the white students short "in-school" suspensions. Jena's white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, later explained to the Chicago Tribune, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody."

Rather than take the threat of racist violence seriously, District Attorney Walters visited the school and allegedly warned Black students that if there were any "incidents," he would "make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen."

The threats against Jena's Black residents didn't end there. In November, the high school was set on fire--in an arson that is still unsolved. Off campus, one Black student was beaten after attending an all-white party with friends. Reportedly, police initially told the African American students to "get their Black asses out of this part of town," according to the Louisiana Public Defenders' Association.

The following day, Black students at a convenience store were threatened by a young white man with a shotgun. They wrestled the gun from him and ran away. No charges were filed against the white man--but the Black students were arrested on charges that they stole the gun.

At school the following week, a white student allegedly taunted the Black student who was beaten up at the off-campus party and called several Black students "nigger." After lunch, he was knocked down, punched and kicked by a group of Black students.

Six Black students--Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell and another unidentified minor--were immediately expelled from school. Making good on his previous threat, the district attorney charged the teens with second-degree attempted murder. Walters claimed their "deadly weapon" was their shoes.

Bail was set between $70,000 and $138,000 for each of the teens--so high that several were left to rot in prison for months.

Mychal Bell was the first of the Jena 6 defendants to come to trial. He was tried and convicted by an all-white jury. Bell was represented by a public defender who failed to put a single witness on the stand in his defense, or present any evidence on Bell's behalf.

At the trial, there were conflicting statements from witnesses about whether Bell had ever struck the white student. At least one prosecution witness was a relative of a juror.

As Mychal Bell's father Marcus Jones told the Democracy Now! radio and TV show in July, "I was furious about the conviction, because I know that it was wrong. I know my son is innocent of the charges that the DA put on him, and it's just wrong. This is just a 2007 modern-day court lynching here."

Activists from across the country have begun organizing to make sure Mychal Bell and the rest of the Jena 6 win justice.

More than 1,500 students gathered at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in a show of support for the students.

In Chicago, 20-year-old Tenisha Wilkerson was so horrified after hearing about the case on Democracy Now! that she started organizing through the college social networking site Facebook. Her page devoted to the Jena 6 has now drawn over 35,000 members.

"I reread it several times, just to make sure I was reading it correctly, because I couldn't believe it," Wilkerson said of the Democracy Now! story. "And that's when I thought, maybe we as college students can do something.

"The hanging of the nooses, racism and hatred like that, is not a prank. You can only take so much when it comes to racism and hatred. These kids need our help."

Wilkerson helped organize a protest in Chicago earlier this month that drew 100 people. A group of Otterbein College students left at 4 a.m. from their campus in Ohio to attend the protest.

Now, organizers are building for the strongest possible turnout in Jena on September 20.

"The Jena case is about a district attorney making good on his threat to destroy the lives of six talented young Black men," Texas-based criminal justice activist Alan Bean, one of the first to take up the struggle for the Jena 6, said in an interview with the International Socialist Review.

"First, he created the conditions that would inevitably lead to racial violence, Then, through a process of selective prosecution and gross overcharging, Mr. Walters attempted to make an example of the students we call the Jena 6. Not surprisingly, this case has horrified the nation."

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