Revolution #99, August 26, 2007

Free the Jena 6

Town Hall Meeting, First Day of School in Jena, Louisiana

Tuesday, August 14, on a hot humid 95 degree evening with the sun a red ball setting in the purple sky, cars lined a dirt road leading up to a Baptist church outside Jena, Louisiana. 200 Black people from Jena and surrounding communities packed into the pews and sat on chairs outside, attended the town hall meeting on the case of the Jena 6.

The Jena 6 are on trial, facing decades in prison for events that took place in the fall of 2006 at Jena High School that were sparked by white students hanging nooses in the schoolyard. Black students responded immediately by standing together in defiant protest under the tree, with the nooses still hanging from it. A series of violent attacks on Black students, including by a shotgun-toting racist, followed, with the authorities either giving white racists a slap on the wrist or, in the cases of the shotgun incident, bringing charges against the threatened Black youth. When one white student was treated briefly at a hospital after a fight in the schoolyard, six Black students were arrested and originally charged with attempted murder. Mychal Bell was convicted already, and faces 22 years in jail. (see “Free the Jena Six! Jim Crow Injustice in Jena, Louisiana,” Revolution #96).

At the town hall meeting Reverend Al Sharpton told the packed church, "When I was here a couple weeks ago, I told (Mychal Bell) and I told the others that are part of what is now becoming known all over the country as the Jena 6, that we are going to fight until this becomes a just end."

A new legal team, which came forward to handle Mychal’s appeal, spoke at the meeting. They are filing a motion to have Bell's conviction thrown out, on the grounds that the crime he was convicted of is not within the category of those for which a juvenile can be tried as an adult. On September 4, there will be a hearing on that motion. If the court rules that Mychal, who was sixteen years old at the time he was arrested, should have been tried as a juvenile, then his adult conviction would be thrown out. Mychal Bell’s new attorneys also have filed a motion for a new trial, citing improper representation by Bell's previous attorney.

Sentencing for Mychal Bell is scheduled for September 20. In Jena and several other cities throughout the country, events are being organized for September 20.

After answering questions about the legal strategy and speaking about the upcoming court dates, Attorney Louis Scott challenged the people at the meeting to build a movement along with what he and the legal team are doing in court: “I think everybody in Jena probably already knows the facts in how this case evolved, but now we're gonna move from that point to what are we gonna do about it, or what are you gonna do about it? Because basically what I do is practice law, I file motions, I argue cases. So the question is, what are you going to do, and what needs to be done to accompany those?”

After the meeting, Martin Luther King III told Revolution that “Unfortunately many people are still not aware [of the Jena 6]. I know activists in Atlanta who still are not aware of what was going on. And when people do know, then I think people come to the table and respond and the nation begins to be outraged.”

A young woman who came with friends said she thought the charges against the Jena 6 were “ridiculous.” Another woman at the meeting told the The Town Talk newspaper that, "It could be anyone's child, so we have to fight."

A Righteous Stand

On August 17, Jena High School students had their first day of school. The superintendent, school board members, and local ministers were present along with the Jena Police Department and the LaSalle Sheriff’s department. The school is crowded, as two new buildings are still under construction to replace the main building that was burned down last fall.

Leading up to the first day, students and community members said Black students were told they were not allowed to wear their t-shirts reading “Free the Jena 6” to school. Several students told Revolution that on the first day of school, new rules in the dress code were presented, including prohibiting styles that are typically worn by Black students like long t-shirts. One student reported that police at the school were monitoring the activities of Black students in particular.

It was last September 1 that nooses were hung from the “white tree” in the Jena High schoolyard and, in response, Black students immediately gathered under the tree in protest. Students who were part of that protest told Revolution what it was like standing under the tree that morning in the schoolyard.

One young woman said that “We just went and stood under the tree because we thought it was bad that they did that, we stood under the tree to make the point that it was racist towards us.”

Another young woman described standing under the tree: “A lot of the boys, they would grab onto [the nooses] with their hands and swing from them. ‘This what you all wanna see? This is what you all wanna see?’ And they were just talking about how messed up it was and they wanted to find out who did it. Mostly though, it was really just a quiet stare most of the time.… What was going through my head was, ‘Who in the hell could have done something like that?’”

As we wrote in the last issue of Revolution, “The struggle to free the Jena 6 must be spread far and wide. And a lot more people need to learn from the Black students at Jena High School who stood beneath the ‘whites only’ tree and through their defiant action, said ‘NO MORE.’”

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