Louisiana’s LaSalle Parish Judge J.P. Mauffray ordered 17-year-old Mychal Bell back to jail for another 18 months Oct. 12, stirring outrage across the nation since an appeals court threw out Bell’s conviction as an adult on battery charges and the district attorney declined to retry Bell as a juvenile.
The judge’s action triggered new calls for solidarity with Bell and his five co-defendants, known as the Jena Six. So far over 350,000 have signed an online petition for their freedom, at the colorofchange.org web site.
Supporters charge that Mauffray’s ruling is revenge for the outpouring for the six Black youths who took a stand against a racist hate crime, the hanging of three nooses from a so-called “white tree” on their high school lawn.
But others are asking if more is at work. This is an important election year in the Bayou State and the Republican right, reeling from the Bush administration’s abandonment of Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, is stealthily exploiting the Jena Six case to divide and confuse voters.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, the Republican candidate for governor, has hailed the criminal justice system’s handling of the Jena Six case. “We certainly don’t need any outside agitators coming in here,” Jindal said when asked about the huge, peaceful demonstration in Jena Sept. 20.
Keeping the pot boiling by sending Bell back to jail could be a ploy straight out of Karl Rove’s playbook.
Alan Bean, director of Dallas-based Friends of Justice, has traveled to Jena 17 times working for justice for the Jena Six. He told the World he saw the Jena situation as “smart politics in Louisiana” aimed at mobilizing Republicans’ racist voting base. “There are plenty of white voters in central Louisiana who think the Jena Six are getting what they deserve and guys like Jindal know that is what they think,” Bean said.
Former Klansman David Duke carried a majority of white votes in LaSalle Parish on a program of racist incitement when he ran for governor in 1991. George W. Bush carried the parish by a 4-to-1 margin in 2000 and 2004.
Individuals with ties to oil and gas corporations, mostly in Texas, have poured over $200,000 into Jindal’s campaign. Among the donors are Richard Kinder and his wife Nancy of Houston, who contributed the maximum $5,000. Kinder, a G.W. Bush “Pioneer,” is a former Enron CEO and the founder of Kinder-Morgan Energy Partners, one of the largest oil and gas pipeline companies in the U.S.. He is worth $10 billion. In one year, Kinder gave $470,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee.
Another Jindal donor who also gave $5,000 is Ray Hunt of Dallas, a scion of the H.L. Hunt oil and silver fortune. H.L. Hunt was notorious for his fascist-like sympathies.
Jindal and the Republican right are also counting on a divided opposition to win in a state they should lose by a landslide.
The labor movement has endorsed Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat, for governor. Asked at a candidate forum about the Jena Six case, Campbell endorsed as “the right decision” the appeals court ruling that threw out Bell’s conviction.
Also running is John Georges, a wealthy New Orleans businessman, running as an independent. Georges showed up at the Sept. 20 rally in Jena in a truck filled with bottled water labeled with his campaign logo, which he handed out to the thirsty marchers. Asked where Georges stands on the Jena Six case, an aide said, “I can’t speak for Mr. Georges. But he is here and that tells you something.”
Another candidate is Walter Boasso, a conservative Republican who switched to the Democratic Party to run for governor.
The Republican right is counting on another dirty trick: purging the state voter rolls in of tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, a majority of them African American voters from heavily Democratic Orleans Parish.
State Rep. Juan LaFonta (D-New Orleans), chair of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, told the World the caucus and the NAACP have filed a lawsuit asking the Justice Department to halt the purge on grounds that it was not “pre-cleared” as required under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The multiparty primary election is Oct. 20 with a runoff Nov. 17 if no candidate wins a majority.
Kerry McLean, an executive board member of the National Lawyers Guild, blasted Judge Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters for “numerous brazen violations of the constitutional rights of the Jena Six.” He said, “Mauffray and Walters have breached the ethical requirements of their offices. They should be made to answer for all of this.” Both should be removed from the case and disbarred, he said.
Throwing young Bell back in jail “shows malice on the judge’s part,” said Bean, from Friends of Justice. “The demand has to be a change of venue. If this case went to trial outside LaSalle parish, Bell would go free because there just isn’t the evidence to convict him.” The evidence against the other five defendants is even more flimsy, he said.