JENA, La. — The day after tens of thousands marched to free the Jena Six, Melissa Bell stepped out of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in tears Sept. 21 after the judge denied bail for her son, Mychal Bell.
Bell, 17, is the first of the Jena Six to be tried and convicted — by an all-white jury — on charges of aggravated battery. He has been in prison since last December. Judge J.P. Mauffray refused to release him on bail, even after the Louisiana Appeals Court overturned his conviction on grounds he was improperly tried as an adult.
Bell and five other Black teenagers face years in prison for standing up to racism, in a series of events that unfolded last year when Black students dared to sit under a “white tree” on the Jena High School lawn. The “white tree” was where white students, 80 percent of the student body, would sit during school breaks.
The day after the Black students sat down, nooses — bearing the school colors — were hung on the tree. Three white students were found to have hung the nooses and the principal recommended expulsion. However, the school’s superintendent overruled the principal and instead gave the students a three-day suspension, calling the nooses “a prank.”
Jena’s Black community was infuriated by such light treatment of what was widely seen as a hate crime, given the region’s history of lynchings of African Americans.
Meanwhile, after they endured a series of racial provocations, the six African American youths were charged with attempted murder and aggravated battery for striking Justin Barker, a white youth who had assailed them with racist language including the “n” word, and had supported the noose-hangers.
Seeing the Black youths charged with major crimes for what many feel amounts to a schoolyard fight, while white offenders got off with taps on the wrist, struck a chord nationwide, especially among African Americans. It was seen as a stark evidence of the inequity and racism that riddles the nation’s criminal justice system, from application of the death penalty to drug prosecutions.
These feelings were further inflamed after the manmade disaster of Hurricane Katrina, which laid bare for many the government’s racist and class indifference to African Americans and poor people of all colors.
Fed up with these injustices, a network of students, Internet activists and traditional civil rights groups, especially throughout the South, filled buses, cars and vans that poured into this town of 3,000, Sept. 20, and held solidarity rallies in towns and cities across the country.
Curtis Nelson and 149 other members of a motorcycle club in Moss Point, Miss., joined by 72 bikers from Baton Rouge, roared into Jena on their Harley-Davidsons. “Penitentiary for six teenagers for a fist fight? That’s cruel!” Nelson told the World. “When I was in high school you got suspended for getting in fights. And what about the white student who brought a loaded gun to school? They confiscated his gun and hushed it up. That’s not equal justice.”
Burnell Tolbert, president of the NAACP’s LaFourche Parish branch, came with a busload from Thibodaux, La. Tolbert is a carpenter working to rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Residents there are still waiting for Bush to deliver on promised “Road Home” grants.
“We’re here because an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Tolbert told the World. “They say race is not an issue here. If race is not the issue, then what is?”
Civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed the crowd on the courthouse steps, linking Jena to previous struggles. “Just as Selma was about the right to vote and Little Rock was about the right to first class schools, this is about fairness in the criminal justice system,” Jackson said.
Charleston Hendrix, a retiree from Chicago, told the World, “I blame George W. Bush, not the people of Jena. Bush came into office saying he was going to be ‘a uniter, not a divider.’ He has done just the opposite. He has done everything in his power to divide us, white from Black. They created the climate for incidents like the one that happened here.”
While the demonstrators were overwhelmingly Black, white people were there too.
Linda Smith, a young white electrician at the Ingalls Naval Shipyard in Mississippi, told the World, “I was outraged by how these young people are being treated. They could be my own kids.”
After the rally, we were invited to the home of Robert Bailey, one of the Jena Six. The defendants and their families were not granting media interviews. Yet Bailey and fellow defendant Theo Shaw were greeting well-wishers who arrived at the modest mobile home on a tree-lined street.
After the nooses were found hanging from the limb that morning last year, Bailey stood in silent vigil under the tree. It was reminiscent of the lunch counter sit-ins throughout the South in the 1960s. His aunt told the World, “It gives us such a good feeling that so many have come here to show support for our young men. I’m proud of my nephew.”