Injustice in Jena as Nooses Hang From the "White Tree"
By Bill Quigley
t r u t h o u t | Report
Tuesday 03 July 2007
All white jury sitting before white judge
agrees with white prosecutor and all white witnesses and convicts black youth
in racially charged high school criminal case.
In a small, still mostly segregated, section of rural Louisiana, an all white
jury heard a series of white witnesses called by a white prosecutor testify
in a courtroom overseen by a white judge in a trial of a fight at the local
high school where a white student who had been making racial taunts was hit
by black students. The fight was the culmination of a series of racial incidents
starting when whites responded to black students sitting under the "white
tree" at their school by hanging three nooses from the tree. The white
jury and white prosecutor and all white supporters of the white victim were
all on one side of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17-year-old Mychal Bell,
and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted Mychal Bell
of two felonies - aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.
Bell, who was a 16-year-old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested,
faces up to 22 years in prison. Five other black youths await similar trials
on second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy charges.
Yes, you read that correctly. The rest of the story, which is being reported
across the world in papers in China, France and England, is just as chilling.
The trouble started under "the white tree" in front of Jena High
School. The "white tree" is where the white students, 80 percent of
the student body, would always sit during school breaks.
In September 2006, a black student at Jena high school asked permission from
school administrators to sit under the "white tree." School officials
advised them to sit wherever they wanted. They did. The next day, three nooses,
in the school colors, were hanging from the "white tree." The message
was clear. "Those nooses meant the KKK, they meant 'Niggers, we're going
to kill you, we're going to hang you till you die,'" Casteptla Bailey,
a mother of one of the students, told the London Observer.
The Jena high school principal found that three white students were responsible
and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools over-ruled the
principal and gave the students a three-day suspension saying the nooses were
just a youthful stunt. "Adolescents play pranks," the superintendent
told the Chicago Tribune, "I don't think it was a threat against anybody."
The African-American community was hurt and upset. "Hanging those nooses
was a hate crime, plain and simple," according to Tracy Bowens, a mother
of students at Jena High.
But blacks in this area of Louisiana have little political power. The ten-person,
all-male government of the parish has one African-American member. The nine-member,
all-male school board has one African-American member. (A person called the
local school board trying to find out the racial makeup of the school board,
and was told there was one "colored" member of the board). There is
one black police officer in Jena and two black public school teachers.
Jena, with a population of less than 3000, is the largest town in and parish
(county) seat of LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. There are about 350 African-Americans
in the town. LaSalle has a population of just over 14,000 people - 12 percent
This is solid Bush and David Duke Country - GWB won LaSalle Parish 4 to 1 in
the last two elections; Duke carried a majority of the white vote when he ran
for Governor of Louisiana. Families earn about 60 percent of the national average.
The Census Bureau reports that less than 10 percent of the businesses in LaSalle
Parish are black owned.
Jena is the site of the infamous Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth that
was forced to close its doors in 2000, only two years after opening, due to
widespread brutality and racism including the choking of juveniles by guards
after a youth met with a lawyer. The US Department of Justice sued the private
prison amid complaints that guards paid inmates to fight each other and laughed
when teens tried to commit suicide.
Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the "white
tree" at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging
The white district attorney then came to Jena High with law-enforcement officers
to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court,
the DA reportedly threatened the black protesting students saying that if they
didn't stop making a fuss about this "innocent prank", "I can
be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke
of my pen." The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
On the night of Thursday November 30, 2006, a still-unsolved fire burned down
the main academic building of Jena High School.
On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white party
was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white man pulled out
a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at the Gotta Go convenience
store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who
took the shotgun away were later arrested; no charges were filed against the
On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student - who allegedly had been
making racial taunts, including calling African-American students "niggers"
while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black
student at the off-campus party - was knocked down, punched and kicked by black
students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He
attended a social function that evening.
Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with second-degree attempted
murder. All six were expelled from school.
The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior whose bail was set at
$138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw - bail $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones -
bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis - bail $70,000; 16-year-old Mychal
Bell, a sophomore in high school who was charged as an adult and for whom bail
was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.
Many of the young men, who came to be known as the Jena Six, stayed in jail
for months. Few families could afford bond or private attorneys.
Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his
family was unable to post the $90,000 bond. Theo Shaw has also remained in jail.
Several of the other defendants remained in jail for months until their families
could raise sufficient money to put up bonds.
The Chicago Tribune wrote a powerful story headlined "Racial Demons Rear
Heads." The London Observer wrote: "Jena is gaining national notoriety
as an example of the new 'stealth' racism, showing how lightly sleep the demons
of racial prejudice in America's Deep South, even in the year that a black man,
Barak Obama, is a serious candidate for the White House." The British Broadcasting
Company aired a TV special report titled "Race Hate in Louisiana 2007."
The Jena Six and their families were put under substantial pressure to plead
guilty. Mychal Bell was reported to have been leaning towards pleading guilty
right up until his trial when he decided he would not plead guilty to a felony.
When it finally came, the trial of Mychal Bell was swift. Bell was represented
by an appointed public defender.
On the morning of the trial, the DA reduced the charges from second-degree
attempted murder to second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated
battery in Louisiana law demands the attack be with a dangerous weapon. The
dangerous weapon? The prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis
shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by "the
gang of black boys" who beat the white victim.
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty
people appeared - every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all white group to the Alexandria Louisiana
Town Talk newspaper saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. "The
venire [panel of prospective jurors] is color-blind. The idea is for the list
to truly reflect the racial makeup of the community, but the system does not
take race into factor." Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but
these were the only people who showed up.
The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people friendly with
the district attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others
who were friends of prosecution witnesses.
Bell's parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed to attend
the trial despite their objections, because they were listed as potential witnesses.
The white victim, though a witness, was allowed to stay in the courtroom. The
parents, who had been widely quoted in the media as critics of the process,
were also told they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial
was in session. Marcus Jones had told the media, "It's all about those
nooses" and declared the charges racially motivated.
Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of Bell were ordered
by the court not to do go near the courthouse or anywhere the judge would see
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses - 11 white students, three white teachers
and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they
did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know
if Bell hit him or not.
The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge the all-white
jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told
the Alexandria Town Talk, after resting his case without calling any witnesses,
he knew he would be second-guessed by many, but was confident that the jury
would return a verdict of not guilty. "I don't believe race is an issue
in this trial. I think I have a fair and impartial jury"
The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty
on the maximum possible charges of second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.
He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.
The public defender told the press afterwards, "I feel I put on the best
defense that I could." Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses,
the attorney said "why open the door for further accusations? I did the
best I could for my client, Mychal Bell."
At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a Texas minister
and leader of the Friends of Justice, said: "I have seen a lot of trials
in my time. And I have never seen a more distressing miscarriage of justice
than what happened in LaSalle Parish yesterday." Khadijah Rashad of Lafayette
Louisiana described the trial as a "modern day lynching."
Tory Pegram with the Louisiana ACLU has been working with the parents for months.
"People know if they don't demand equal treatment now, they will never
get it. People's jobs and livelihoods have been threatened for attending Jena
Six Defense meetings, but people are willing to risk that. One person told me:
'We have to convince more people to come rally with us ... What's the worst
that could happen? They fire us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the
town anyway. They burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All of that
has happened to us before. We have to keep speaking out to make sure it doesn't
happen to us again, or our children will never be safe.'"
Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism. "We don't
have a problem," according to one. Other locals told the media, "We
all get along," and "most blacks are happy with the way things are."
One person even said, "We don't have many problems with our blacks."
Melvin Worthington, the lone African-American school board member in LaSalle
Parish, said it all could have been avoided. "There's no doubt about it,"
he told the Chicago Tribune, "whites and blacks are treated differently
here. The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses.
If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided."
Hebert McCoy, a relative of one of the youths who has been trying to raise
money for bail and lawyers, challenged people everywhere at the end of the rally
when he said: "You better get out of your houses. You better come out and
defend your children - because they are incarcerating them by the thousands.
Jena's not the beginning, but Jena has crossed the line. Justice is not right
when you put on the wrong charges and then convict. I believe in justice. I
believe in the point of law. I believe in accepting the punishment if I'm guilty.
If I'm guilty, convict me and punishment, but if I'm innocent, no justice."
The crowd joined with him and shouted, "No peace!"
What happened to the white guys? The white victim of the beating was later
arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets onto the high school
campus and released on $5000 bond. The white man who beat up the black youth
at the off-campus party was arrested and charged with simple battery. The white
students who hung up the nooses in the "white tree" were never charged.
Since the arrests, a group of family members have been holding well-attended
meetings, and have created a defense fund- The Jena Six Defense Committee. They
have received support from the NAACP, the Louisiana ACLU and Friends of Justice.
For more information: The Jena Six Defense Committee, PO Box 2798, Jena, LA
71342 firstname.lastname@example.org; Friends of Justice, 507 North Donley Avenue, Tulia,
TX 79088 www.fojtulia.org; or the ACLU of Louisiana, PO Box 56157, New Orleans,
LA 70156 www.laaclu.org or 417-350-0536.
What is next? The rest of the Jena Six await similar trials. Theodore Shaw
is due to go on trial shortly. Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced July
31. If he gets the maximum sentence he will not be out of prison until he is
nearly 40. Meanwhile, the "white tree" outside Jena High sits quietly
in the hot sun.
Bill is a human-rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University
in New Orleans. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu. Audrey Stewart contributed
to this article.
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