If you don't know who the Jena 6 are, you are not alone. The first I heard about the black high school teens being railroaded through the Louisiana criminal justice system was last week when I received an email urging me to wear black Thursday the 20th in their support.
The first Sean Hannity heard about it was last night when Reverend Al was trying to bring it up and Hannity assumed he was talking about Megan Williams, the young black woman who was tortured and sexually assaulted by those crazy hillbillies in West Virginia. Cryptkeeper Colmes tried to explain but as usual Hannity didn't hear a word he said.
The Jena 6 case began last fall when a new black student to the mostly white, rural Louisiana town of Jena sat under the "white tree," so called because it was the place where the white kids at school congregated.
The next day three white boys on the rodeo team hung three nooses from the tree.
The white boys were only given an in-school suspension, their act deemed no more than a "prank."
The day after that several of the school's black high school football stars organized a peaceful silent protest under the tree. The school freaked, called in the police and the next day Reed Walters, the local D.A., addressed the school. There, he is reported to have looked at the black kids in the audience, waved his pen in the air and said, "With a stroke of this pen, I can make your life disappear."
The football season was a good one for Jena and for a few months there was relative quiet in the town. Then on November 30th, a wing of the high school was burned down. Whites thought it was blacks and the blacks assumed it was the whites.
The always excellent Wade Goodwyn of NPR reported what happened next:
"The next night, 16-year-old Robert Bailey and a few black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. When Bailey got inside, he was attacked and beaten. The next day, tensions escalated at a local convenience store. Bailey exchanged words with a white student who had been at the party. The white boy ran back to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip shotgun. Bailey ran after him and wrestled him for the gun.
After some scuffling, Bailey and his friends took the gun away and brought it home. Bailey was eventually charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.
The following Monday, Dec. 4, a white student named Justin Barker was loudly bragging to friends in the school hallway that Robert Bailey had been whipped by a white man on Friday night. When Barker walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by a group of black students. The first punch knocked Barker out and he was kicked several times in the head. But the injuries turned out to be superficial. Barker was examined by doctors and released; he went out to a social function later that evening.
Six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. But District Attorney Reed Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder."
The first black kid to go to court, Mychal Bell, then 16, was tried as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury. He faced 22 years in prison. After an outcry the charges were reduced; however, tomorrow Mychal Bell is to be sentenced on the lesser charges.
The white kids who attacked Bailey the night before have not been charged with anything.
As always happens in these cases, the blacks say of course there has always been racism in this little town, and the whites say their little town is just like any other small town full of good, churchgoing folk.
What white Southerners still fail to realize is their complicity in some of the most vicious and effective terrorism the world has ever seen. Lynchings were only the most visible and brutal embodiments of a system to terrorize the black minority. A noose is a symbol the way a swastika is a symbol. A noose hanging from a tree in that context is an almost unimaginably vicious act. Those white teens, instead of being ashamed of their terrorist ancestry, reveled in the evil. The adults who are charged with the education of all the students deemed it merely a prank.
The scariest part of this ordeal is that you know these boys are the relatively lucky ones for whom publicity might spare them. How many other black lives are still thrown away at the whim of our broken justice system?