The more things chamge, the old saying goes, the more things remain the same.
It seems like every year, especially in ones when Republicans are in power, we African-Americans get a wake up call as to just how entrenched racism is in American society, how far we STILL have to go to overcome it, and just how racist and jacked-up our legal system is, especially in the Deep South.
I've been keeping tabs on an unfolding story in Jena, Louisiana. It's a town of 2,971 residents northeast of Alexandria in the central part of the state. It's the parish seat of LaSalle Parish (parishes are what counties are called in Louisiana)and Jena's population breakdown is 85% white, 12% Black
Believe it or not, this travesty of justice started because of a shade tree. In the summer of 2006 an African-American student named Kenneth Purvis asked school administrators for permission to sit under the 'white tree' in the front of the Jena High School campus. It had been 'tradition' and the unspoken rule that this particular shade tree was reserved for only white students to sit under during breaks and at lunch. The school's vice principal told Purvis there was nothing stopping them from doing it, so the next day several Black students sat under the tree.
The day after the Black kids sat under the 'white tree',three ropes in school colors were hanging from the tree tied with hangman's nooses. The three white students responsible for the stunt were facing expulsion, but the school board overruled the principal. Most whites in Jena dismissed it as a 'youthful prank'.
That 'youthful prank' as they put it has long, bitter memories for African-Americans. It triggered a series of events that escalated racial tensions in the town to the boiling point.
Incensed about the three day in-school suspension given to the noose hangers, several African-American students, including a few star players on the Jena High football team staged a sit-in under the 'white tree'.
The principal reacted to the sit-in by bringing in 28th Judicial District DA Reed Walters and ten police officers to a school assembly which was a throwback to the bad old Jim Crow days-blacks on one side of the auditorium, whites on the other. Walters is described as turning to the Black students during this assembly and reportedly telling them to "keep their mouths shut about the boys hanging their nooses up. If he hears anything else about it, he can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen."
Police officers patrolled the Jena High School campus for a week and kept the simmering racial tensions at bay for a while. But on November 30 the school's main building was burned to the ground in an arson fire.
That fire blew the lid off the racial tensions seething below the surface.
On December 1 African-American football player Robert Bailey was invited to a dance at a hall considered to be 'white'. When he arrived he was sucker punched in the face, knocked to the ground and attacked by several white youth. Only one of Bailey's attackers was arrested. That person was given probation and asked to apologize to Bailey.
The next day a 22 year old white man and two of his friends pulled a loaded shotgun on Bailey and his two friends while they were at a local gas station. The black youths wrestled the gun away from the white male to prevent him from using it and took off.
Incredibly, Bailey was arrested and charged with theft of a firearm and disturbing the peace. The whites who instigated the event were not prosecuted.
Then on December 4 the fateful fight jumped off. When white student Justin Barker began taunting Robert Bailey about getting beat up that weekend, it jumped off a fight that sent Barker to the hospital. Barker was later seen socalizing a few hours later. Barker was later arrested for carrying a gun to school.
Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell, and a still unidentified minor were arrested, charged with attempted second degree manslaughter (a felony) and conspiracy to commit murder. Those charges carry a potential sentence of up to 80 years in prison. The sixth faces undisclosed juvenile charges.
They were also expelled from school. The Jena 6 as they have come to be called, have been in jail for months awaiting trial because of the outrageously high bails that were set that ranged from $70,000-$138,000.
$70,000-$138,000 bail for a schoolyard fight.
Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena 6 to go to trial, was convicted by an all-white jury in a court run by a white judge on the testimony of 16 white people. His public defender called no witnesses to testify on his behalf. He's set to be sentenced on September 20 and is facing 22 years in prison.
“There’s been obvious racial discrimination in this case,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It appears that the black students were singled out and targeted in this case for some unusually harsh treatment.”
The case is getting international attention and is just now being picked up by the US media, although Jet and Ebony magazines (as usual) were ahead of the US media curve.
I wonder if they're going to come down on DA Reed Walters and disbar him for abuse of power like they did to the North Carolina DA in the Duke Lacrosse case. Unlike the Duke kids, these kids lives and reputations are being ruined because they dared to stand up and defend themselves against bigotry and racist attacks.
It's interesting to note that the conservatives who were loudly defending the Duke players and railing about the miscarriage of justice in that case have been silent on this one. Where are the money-grubbing ministers of the Lo Impact Misleadership Coalition? Can't stop hatin' on gay peeps long enough to join Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse and the rest of Black America in fighting for the freedom of the Jena 6?
Last month Rev. Al Sharpton told a press conference in the town that the case of the Jena 6 “speaks to a South we thought we left in the last century”.
All this drama because some white folks in Jena are pissed because some 'uppity nigras' dared to sit under a damned tree.