Facing an angry firestorm, a state appeals court overturned the conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell on aggravated battery charges stemming from his resistance to a racist hate crime in the town of Jena in central Louisiana last year. Yet Bell still remains in jail.

Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 14 that Bell was improperly tried as an adult in the case now widely referred to as the Jena 6. The case has stirred nationwide outrage, with more than 200,000 signing petitions demanding that all charges be dropped against the six African American teenagers. A coalition of civil rights groups was filling buses to bring protesters to a “Free the Jena 6” rally in Jena, Sept. 20.

Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, the Texas-based faith group credited with shining the spotlight on the Jena 6, hailed the ruling but warned that “it’s still an uphill struggle” for justice.

Bean attended a court hearing in Jena, Sept. 17, expecting the judge to order Bell released from the jail where he has been held since last December, unable to raise the $90,000 bail.

But LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray refused to release Bell. “From that hearing, or ‘non-hearing,’ it appears that Mychal will still be incarcerated at the time of our rally here in Jena,” Bean told the World in a telephone interview. “Our hope was that Mychal would be there with us and we would celebrate with him and his family.”

Instead of a celebration, Bean said, the demonstration will resound with demands that Bell be released and charges be dropped against the Jena 6.

Bean said buses from across the nation would converge on Jena, with as many as 40,000 protesters. “This entire area will be gridlocked,” he said. “The response from Black America has been overwhelming. In conversations I have with African Americans, almost every one of them has been hooked with some private pain from the criminal justice system. Either they or someone they love has been abused. The Jena 6 case gives them a chance to speak out for justice.” The challenge, he added, is to “educate white Americans” about the racism still deeply endemic to the system.

The rally was endorsed by the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson hailed the overturning of Bell’s conviction but warned, “This crisis is not over yet. This ruling leaves in suspension what’s going to happen to the other five. But the Jena 6 and their supporters are now on the offensive. So long as these kids were in the dark without representation, they were all going up the river. When the lights came on and the public pressure flooded in, it began to change everything.” Jackson himself traveled to Jena and spoke to a rally of 300 residents Sept. 9.

The prosecutor, Reed Walters, is threatening to appeal the Bell ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court which could reinstate his conviction. Reed also has the option of re-trying Bell as a juvenile.

The case began a year ago when African American high school students in Jena asked their principal if they could sit under a tree on the school lawn referred to as “the white tree.” The principal said they could sit anywhere, so they sat under the tree. When students arrived at school next morning, nooses were hanging from the tree, a menacing symbol of KKK terrorism now widely seen as a hate crime.

It escalated into a sharp confrontation that included a fistfight. Bell allegedly punched a white student who hurled a racist epithet at him. The school superintendent dismissed the noose-hanging as a prank, but Bell and five other African American students were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

District Attorney Walters incredibly argued that Bell had struck the white youth with a lethal weapon, which was identified as a tennis shoe.

When Bell’s trial opened, Walters, no doubt reacting to widening protests over the case, reduced the charges to aggravated battery and conspiracy.

It was the aggravated battery conviction that the appeals court overturned Sept. 14. The conspiracy charge was tossed out earlier.

greenerpastures21212 @yahoo.com

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