Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Justice in Jena

The Supreme Court session that just ended underscores the importance and timeliness of our curriculum for schools, Rights Matter: The Story of the Bill of Rights.

Rights Matter traces the long struggle, with repeated setbacks, to make this country live up to the promise of its founding documents. Among other things, it describes the role played by the Supreme Court in rolling back the gains of the post Civil War Reconstruction period. And now the Court is at it again, invoking Brown v. Board of Education as it accelerates the re-segregation of schools.

"The past is not dead," William Faulkner had written in 1951. "In fact, it's not even past."

More than a half century later, these words still ring true. What is happening in the mainly white town of Jena, Louisiana, population 2,500, reveals just how much work needs to be done to overcome this nation's deep racial divisions.

Nooses hung from tree
On August 31, 2006 a group of African-American students asked the vice-principal of the high school if they could sit under "the white tree." Traditionally, it was the hang-out spot for white students, who made up 80 percent of the school. The following day there were three nooses hanging from the tree.

The next week, Black students staged a sit-in protest under the tree. At a school assembly soon after, La Salle Parish district attorney Reed Walters, appearing with local police officers, warned Black students to stop making a fuss about an "innocent prank." He told them, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen."

Throughout the fall, tensions simmered, occasionally leading to fights and other incidents, including an arson attack on November 30, which damaged a school building. No white students were charged with serious offenses. The students who were found to have been responsible for hanging the nooses—which the superintendent said was a silly prank—were given a three-day suspension.

Incident that leads to attempted murder charges
Early in December, a Black student was assaulted by a group of white students, and a white graduate of Jena High School threatened several Black students with a shotgun. On Monday, December 4, white students taunted the Black student who had been assaulted over the weekend. A fight broke out in a crowded area of the school and one of the white students was beaten up and kicked. He was treated in the hospital, and appeared at a social function that night.

Six Black students were immediately arrested, charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, and expelled from school. The charges could bring them 20-100 years in prison. Their bails were set at $70,000 and higher and because their families could not raise these amounts, two of the defendants have remained in jail.

An all-white jury convicts
In late June, 2007, an all-white jury took only a few hours to convict Mychal Bell, who was 16 years old at the time of his arrest, of "lesser" charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. The prosecutor had called only white witnesses, some of whom said they didn't see anything. The victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not. Bell's public defender called no witnesses and offered no evidence.

Bell faces up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 31. The trials of 17-year–old Robert Bailey, Jr., 17-year-old Theo Shaw, 18-year-old Carwin Jones, 17-year-old Bryant Purvis and a still unidentified minor are yet to come.

What we can do
There are two things we can immediately do to confront this injustice: we can call the District Attorney of La Salle Parish, J. Reed Walters, and voice our outrage: telephone (318) 992 8282.

And we can send funds to the Jena Six Defense Committee: PO Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342. Donations can also be made through the Friends of Justice website:

Nancy Murray
Director of Education
ACLU of Massachusetts

To view the Rights Matter curriculum and order copies, visit

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