Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Jena Six update: “White tree” is now firewood

As reported here before, last fall a black student asked Jena High School officials if black students could sit under a tree on the high school grounds where white students traditionally congregated in this small Louisiana town. He was told they could. The next day three nooses were hanging from the tree as a warning. From that point a whole series of racial incidents have spun out of control with the brunt of the conflict falling mostly on the Jena’s black students and their families.

Blogger News Network has this summary of events:

In Jena, Louisiana, a black student challenged the de facto segregation of his high school by asking permission to sit under the “white tree.” School officials told him to sit where he liked. The next day three nooses hung from the tree, which triggered an impromptu protest by the black students of Jena High. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, flanked by the police, informed the black students at an assembly later that day that he could end their lives “with the stroke of a pen.” Racial tensions grew, the school’s academic wing was burned, and Robert Bailey, a black student, was attacked by a group of whites at a party. One person was charged with a misdemeanor for that beating. The next day Bailey and two friends were threatened with a shotgun at a convenience store by a white man who had been present at the beating. They wrestled the gun away from him and ran to report the incident to the police, who charged them with robbery of the shotgun. Finally at school two days later, a group of white students, including the noose hangers, taunted Bailey and other students, calling them “niggers.” A white student was beaten by a group of black students, taken to the hospital and released within three hours. He attended a school function that night. Six black students were charged with second degree attempted murder for the fight. The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, whose public defender put on no case, called no witnesses, and permitted a friend of the DA, the mother of a prosecution witness, and a good friend of the victim’s mother, to be empaneled on the six person jury. Bell was quickly found guilty.

(NPR’s All Things Considered has a good story here than ran on Monday.)

Since Bell’s conviction, a new team of lawyers has taken over this case and is seeking an appeal. His sentencing date was changed from July 31 to September 20. This teenager faces up to 22 years in prison. The five remaining members of the Jena Six have bail amounts ranging from $70,000 to $138,000. Thus far, only some of the six have managed to post bail since being arrested this past December.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Jena on Tuesday to protest the conviction and the uneven distribution of justice between blacks and whites in this small southern town and 43,000 signatures, emails and letters calling for equal justice for the group known as the Jena Six were presented to the district attorney in LaSalle Parish, Louisiana.

And recently the shade tree that set off this whole series of events was chopped down. There seems to be no small amount of wishful thinking in Jena that removal of the tree will remove the racial tensions that have plagued the community. According to Shreveport Times:
"A clean slate," LaSalle Parish School Board member Billy Fowler said of why the tree was cut down in the past few weeks. "There's nothing positive about that old tree. It's all negative. And I'm serving on the new School Board, and we're wanting to start fresh on some things."

Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt authorized the tree to be cut down, Fowler said. Breithaupt on Monday refused to comment about the tree while discussing plans for rebuilding the school after an arson fire destroyed one the school's buildings.

Fowler said the tree eventually would have been cut down for construction purposes, but that he also is hopeful its removal will help heal old wounds.

"School's about to start," he said. "We don't want the blacks coming back up there looking at the tree knowing what happened, or the whites. We just want to start fresh."

The school's main academic building was destroyed in November in a fire ruled to be arson. No connection has been made between the fire, the nooses or other issues that have plagued Jena High students in the past year. No suspects have been named in connection with the fire.

…the disappearance of the tree — the same tree Caseptla Bailey has said conjures images of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings of the past — won't change anything, she said. Bailey is the mother of Robert Bailey Jr., one of the six black teens — coined the Jena Six" — who were charged in connection with a December attack on a white student at the school.

"Cutting down that beautiful tree won't solve the problem at hand," she said. "It still happened."


hafidha sofia said...

I read things like this and I just have to pause to dig real hard for compassion and understanding for some of these people.

"A clean slate?" Is that School Board member insane? Six students from a school under his supervision are on trial for their lives - and he just wants to forget about it. How can any person with so much responsibility really think it's about a tree?

I hope the new team of lawyers can work miracles; Mychal Bell and the rest of the Jena Six are going to need at least a few.

Comrade Kevin said...

It turns my stomach when I read of reports like this.

I just have to resign myself to the belief that there's a lot of ignorance out there. Ignorance can only be solved by education and it is my hope that we will continue to evolve as a civilization to the point that these sorts of incidents no longer occur.

As a native Southerner, I can attest to the nature of much of the ignorance of the region. It's been a historically poor, uneducated place and my hope is that someday enough education and wealth will trickle down. Indeed, that's the only thing that will redeem the South from itself.

But in all honesty, as a native Southerners, I do find it very wearying to see us portrayed in the same light: as uncouth racists. I've been all over this country and found evidence of racism all over. It's just that it makes a bigger splash in the news media if it happens down here than say, New Hampshire.

We Southerners are tired of being constantly reminded of our racist past. I feel a real kinship with Germans, who no doubt get incredibly frustrated having to constantly be reminded of their complicity in the Holocaust. I've got news for you. Our country very nearly could have ended up going the same way as Germany and in desperate times, people resort to desperate measures.

Doesn't make it right one iota, but unfortunately that's human nature.

Howling Latina said...

Nice summary. It's a story that needs to be told and retold.

By the bye, just added you to my blog roll.

Anonymous said...

I am currently doing an english project on the Jena Six. I feel it is important to get this out to the community and let them know things like this are still occuring. The fact that the boys were not given a fair trial and chance to explain themselves makes me angry. If we are taught History in school to help prevent us from making the same mistakes then why are these things still occuring. I feel that someone with a role in a community such as a district attorney should have the professionalism and maturity to hear out all sides of the story. I feel that justice should be done for these students so that they can move on with their lives.