Before three nooses were hung from a tree on the campus of Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, last summer, most people had never heard of the small Southern town (population 3,000). But after a series of racially charged incidents that harkened back to the violent, divisive pre-civil rights era, the world’s attention has turned to Jena, which will be the site of a large protest Thursday in support of a half-dozen black teens who have been dubbed the “Jena Six.”
The six — Robert Bailey Jr. (17), Theo Shaw (17), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17), Mychal Bell (16) and a 14-year-old boy — were arrested in connection with an assault on a white student in December, with all but the minor initially charged as adults on attempted second-degree murder charges and all six expelled from school. While the charges on the teens have been reduced, supporters have alleged that their harsh prosecution was tainted by racial prejudice in a town that, unlike most of Louisiana, is predominantly white (85 percent), and where it has been suggested that justice is not colorblind.
“What this case has exposed is the deep disparities in our justice system and how there is a two-tiered justice system in the South and many other places,” said Booth Gunter, public-affairs director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This harshness for black defendants, contrasted with more leniency for white defendants and, in this case, a number of elements — nooses hung from a tree — recall the days of Jim Crow when ’Southern justice’ was commonplace.”
The troubles began in summer 2006, when a black student, Kenneth Purvis, asked the school’s principal during an August assembly if he could sit under the “white tree,” a large, shady tree on campus that had traditionally been a hangout for white students. The principal said students could sit wherever they wanted, but the next morning, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. The students responsible were found and expulsion was recommended by the principal, but LaSalle Parish Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt disagreed and reduced the punishment to three days of in-school suspension, saying the noose hanging seemed more like a prank than a threat.
Apparently angered by the reduced punishment, a group of black students organized a sit-in under the tree in September that was dispersed by police, who had already responded to several calls of fights between black and white students after the noose incident. A school assembly that month, at which white and black students pointedly sat on opposite sides, didn’t help matters, as a local district attorney — upset at his inability to calm the room down — reportedly glared at the side of the room where the black students were sitting, held up a pen and said, “with one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.”
Tensions continued to mount and police were called in to patrol the halls of the school, which was put on total lockdown the week of September 8, 2006. Several days later, the school board rejected a request by some black students to address the issues plaguing the school, saying they felt the noose incident had been resolved satisfactorily.
Things were relatively quiet for much of the rest of September and October, mostly due to the soaring fortunes of the football team, whose winning streak was helped by the efforts of some key black players. But shortly after the season ended on November 30, a fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High School in what was believed to be arson, with blacks pointing the finger at whites and vice versa.
The fire preceded a series of ugly racial conflicts that escalated tensions in the town. The night after the fire, then-16-year-old Robert Bailey Jr. was attacked and beaten when he and some black friends attempted to enter a party that was mostly attended by whites. On December 2, Bailey got into a verbal altercation with a white student who had also attended the party, with the white teen running to his truck and pulling out a shotgun. Bailey and his friends chased the teen and took the gun away, leading to charges of theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace for Bailey, while the student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.
At Jena High School that Monday, December 4, a white student, Justin Barker, 17, was allegedly overheard bragging to friends about how Bailey had been whipped by a white man. When he stepped into the school’s courtyard, Barker was attacked by a group of black students who knocked Barker out with one punch and then kicked him in the head repeatedly. He was treated and released from a local hospital and attended a party later that night, while the six were arrested and all but the 14-year-old charged as adults. The escalation of the charges — which could have kept the boys in prison for more than 30 years — outraged many of the town’s black residents, who said the charges were way out of line with the crime.
“It reminded African-Americans of what they’ve gone through and where they’ve come and that those days aren’t over yet and that we still have this system in the south that grinds down black people and treats them unfairly,” Gunter said. “This case can serve as an awakening that these things still go on.”
In June, on the morning of his trial, the charges against Bell were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. The black community again protested, taking issue with the battery charge, which requires the use of a “deadly weapon” — in this case the gym shoe that Bell was wearing when he kicked Barker. District Attorney Reed Walters argued the shoe was indeed a deadly weapon.
Bell was found guilty by an all-white jury — which included two people who were allegedly friendly with the DA and one who was a friend of the victim’s father — after his court-appointed public defender did not call any witnesses. He now faces up to 22 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on Thursday — the conspiracy charge was dropped on September 4 and the battery conviction overturned on Friday when a court of appeals ruled that Bell should not have been tried as an adult. He remains in jail while prosecutors deliberate whether to file new charges against him in juvenile court.
The charges against Jones and Shaw were also reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy on September 4, with Bailey’s charges also reduced on September 10. Bryant Purvis has yet to be arraigned in the case and is the only remaining Jena Six member to be charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder. Many of the young men remained in jail for months because their families could not afford their bail, which ranged from $70,000 for Purvis to $138,000 for Bailey.
Bell was visited in jail by the Reverend Al Sharpton on Wednesday (September 19) in advance of Thursday’s planned protest. According to CNN, some citizens of Jena have expressed concerns that the small town cannot handle the thousands of expected protesters scheduled to arrive by bus Thursday morning for a march to the high school. Some business owners have boarded up their shops downtown and left Jena fearing violence or a boycott from protesters, though Sharpton reiterated on Wednesday that he is urging supporters of the Jena Six to march peacefully and focus on what he said was the legal injustice against the black teens.
“I don’t think the sense of injustice and outrage around the country is limited to black folks,” said Gunter, who added that the SPLC has gotten many vehement responses from both black and white members to the case. “They could not imagine that this type of prosecutorial overreaching is still going on in America. A lot of people thought those days were over.” Maybe, on a much smaller scale, like the racial disparities uncovered by Hurricane Katrina, this case will serve as an awakening, he said.
In the meantime, Thursday’s protesters will descend on a formerly sleepy town that is, by all accounts, overwhelmed by the media glare and struggling to come to grips with what many see as a pervasive, formerly shadowed remnant of the South’s ugly racist past. The “white tree” was cut down by the school’s administration earlier this summer, but for many of the town’s residents, the memory of those nooses remains.