Pressure mounted on LaSalle Parish prosecutors to drop all charges against the “Jena Six” following the release on bail, Sept. 27, of Mychal Bell, the only one of the African American teenagers to be tried and convicted in the little central Louisiana town.
An appeals court overturned Bell’s conviction on grounds he was improperly tried as an adult. Yet the LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, announced he would re-try Bell as a juvenile, even in the face of an enormous march and rally by the civil rights movement in Jena Sept. 20.
But parents and civil rights leaders met with Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Sept. 26, to urge her to intervene in the case. With the delegation still gathered in her office, she telephoned Walters to ask him not to re-try Bell. The next day, Walters caved in, announcing that he will not re-try Bell in juvenile court. That left open what the prosecution will do next on Bell and the other five defendants.
“If justice had been done, they never would have been charged in the first place,” said Sakura Kone, media coordinator of New Orleans-based Common Ground Relief Collective, one of many New Orleans residents who traveled to Jena for the Sept. 20 protest rally.
The criminal justice system “has to be pushed, pressured, by mass demands before justice will be attained,” he said. “It was after 50,000 people showed up in Jena that Bell was released on bail.” It will take more pressure, he said, to force the state to drop all charges against the six Black youths.
Kone said the case of the Jena Six is an extension of the racist policies exposed so cruelly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, including a barely veiled “ethnic cleansing” drive to block African Americans from returning and rebuilding their storm-ravaged homes in the mostly Black Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.
Alan Bean, director of Dallas-based Friends of Justice, said, “The release of Mychal Bell is very good news. It demonstrates that incredible pressure is being placed on public officials in LaSalle Parish. The state of Louisiana is tired of being embarrassed by this case.”
The logical next step, he said, is for the Jena Six legal defense to demand a change of venue. “Not only must justice be served, it must appear to be served,” Bean said. “These cases need to be taken out of the hands of Reed Walters and out of LaSalle Parish.”
Bean blasted Walters for an op-ed in The New York Times in which he thanked Jesus Christ for “restraining a riot” in Jena Sept. 20.
“That speaks volumes about Walters’ attitude toward African Americans,” he said. “He clearly refuses to believe that 30,000 or more Black people can come to Jena and conduct themselves with dignity and nonviolence, which is exactly what happened. His skewed perspective shows that he should not be prosecuting cases involving African Americans under any circumstances.”
Bean said the Jena Six case is serving as a springboard for a “constructive dialogue” across the nation on “race, poverty and the criminal justice system.”
Dexter Savage, 23, is Mychal Bell’s first cousin. He works on an oil rig in Caddo Parish, three hours’ drive east of Jena. “If this had been six white students getting into a fight it never would have gone to trial,” Savage told this reporter during the Sept. 20 march and rally. “Mychal would never have spent 10 months in jail. He wouldn’t have been facing 22 years in prison. Mychal is a football player. He was second in the state as a running back. He had offers of football scholarships from two or three colleges. They may have messed up his chances by putting him in jail.”