Revolution#112, December 16, 2007
New Development in Jena Case
Capitalist “Just-Us” and the Case of the Jena 6
On December 3, 2007 Mychal Bell of the Jena 6 accepted a plea bargain (called an “admission” in juvenile court) and was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile prison. Bell pled guilty to second-degree battery, and the second charge of conspiracy to commit second-degree battery was thrown out. He will be forced to undergo counseling, pay court costs, and pay $935 to Justin Barker (the white student the Jena 6 are accused of beating up) and his family. The deal stipulates that Bell must “testify truthfully” if he is called as a witness in trials for any of the other Jena 6 youth. He is being given time served which means he will be held in a juvenile prison for several months more, and his parents have been ordered to pay child support to the state of Louisiana until his 18th birthday.
What this system had already done to Mychal Bell and the Jena 6 is an outrage. But this whole “deal” is a further outrage—it is nothing but a coerced admission, in which Bell must agree to say what the prosecutors want him to say. And the carrying forward of the prosecution of the other Jena 6 youth is a further and continuing outrage on top of this.
This has raised some sharp questions. What pressures were behind Mychal Bell pleading out? How should we look at these? And what does this mean for the rest of the Jena 6—and for the struggle against the racism concentrated in this case, and the “epidemic” of nooses that has arisen in its wake?
A Case That Concentrates White Supremacy
From the very beginning the arrest, imprisonment, and prosecution of the Jena 6 has been a terrible INJUSTICE. In the small town of Jena, Louisiana, where a white supremacist, southern segregationist way of life rules, nooses were hung on a “whites-only” tree at the high school. Black students rebelled and said ENOUGH. They were repressed with outrageous and discriminatory prosecution. And when word of all this got out, tens of thousands around the country also said ENOUGH.
When the District Attorney arrested the Jena 6 on December 4, 2006, it was not for a so-called schoolyard fight. The nooses hung in Jena represent the “tradition” of lynchings and KKK terror. School administrators, government officials, and the court system have essentially backed up the hanging of nooses in Jena—from calling it a “prank,” to hardly punishing those who put them up, to coming down on those protesting it. And this says a lot about the virulence of raw, unvarnished racism in today’s society.
This case struck a deep chord around the country because it so sharply concentrates not just the past, but the present-day reality for Black people all over this country. There were the threats, the arrests, and the months the Jena 6 spent in jail without being convicted of anything. There was the extremely high bail, in the tens of thousands of dollars, and the Jim Crow all-white jury trial of Mychal Bell. And there was the way they kept Bell in jail—even after his conviction in adult court had been overturned. This kind of criminalization and unjust punishment is what this system does to Black youth every day in courtrooms all over the country.
To understand Mychal Bell’s plea bargain, we have to “pull back the lens” on this whole society; we have to apply some science to it, and get at the whole context and the underlying forces at work.
When someone goes to court and stands before a judge accused of a crime, it might seem like what is happening is just about an individual being accused of breaking the law and the court deciding whether he/she is guilty or not and what the punishment should be. But the U.S. so-called “justice” system operates as part of, and reflects and enforces the basic economic and social relations of the system of capitalism.
Under capitalism, a small number of people dominate ownership of the wealth of society. And more fundamentally, this class of people dominate the means to produce wealth, like land, raw materials, technology, etc. The vast majority of people own little or none of these things, and if they want to eat (or not be forced to survive by other, often illegal means) they have to sell their ability to work to those who do own them. This exchange—of the ability to work for a wage—may look like an equal exchange. But in reality it is a profoundly unequal relation where those without capital are forced to work for—and, in the process of working, create more wealth for—those who do own and control capital. Further, in U.S. society the oppression of Black people as a people has always been inseparably tied into the functioning of capitalism, even as this has taken different forms through history.
Bob Avakian, talking about how this fundamental relation of inequality, of domination and exploitation is extended into and embodied in all the relations of capitalist society despite the surface appearance of equality, points to the concept of “equality before the law” as an example. He says:
“This is supposed to mean that the same laws are applied, in the same ways, to everyone, regardless of what their ‘station’ in life is, how much money they have, and so on. Experience shows, however, that this is not how things work out in reality. People with more money have more political influence—and those with a great deal of money have a great deal of political influence and power—while those with less money, and especially those with very little, also have no significant political influence, connections with political power, and so on. And this plays out, repeatedly, in legal proceedings, right down to the way in which those presiding over legal procedures (judges) look—very differently—at different kinds of people who become involved in legal proceedings. But what is even more decisive is the reality that the laws themselves (and the Constitution which sets the basis for the laws) reflect and reinforce the essential relations in society, and most fundamentally the economic (production) relations of capitalism.” (“Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, Part 1: Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right,” available at: revcom.us)
This is the foundation and the reality of the whole system of DAs, judges, courts, and prisons that Mychal Bell (and millions of others) are up against.
The Plea Bargain Trap
In Louisiana, where Black people make up 34% of the population, 67% of those in the state’s juvenile justice system are Black (as of 2006). And plea bargains are a major way Black youth and others end up being unfairly locked up and dogged and criminalized by the authorities for even the most minor offenses.
In a typical year, more than 80% of trials in the U.S. resulted in plea bargains. The criminal justice system sweeps up people for the most minor offenses or no offenses at all. People end up in a situation where the choices are: take your chances and fight for your life, knowing the cards are stacked against you and that the system will try to punish you to the max (whether you did anything or not). Or bow down to the system and hope they might “go easier” on you. Many people know and have experienced the reality that in this country, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the right to have a fair trial, to get an impartial jury, to even get the system to follow its own stacked deck of rules, is a cruel lie.
Today there are millions of Black youth that the system of capitalism has no way to profitably exploit, youth left without jobs or any future. The prison system has become a way to contain and suppress hundreds of thousands of Black youth. And all this is backed up and reinforced by the media and people like Bill Cosby, who—rather than putting the blame on a system which cannot and will not give people a decent life and future—blame the masses for their conditions. Such attacks are used to write off, demonize, and criminalize these youth, and rationalize and justify the way the system warehouses them in prison.
It is a great injustice that Mychal Bell has already been kept behind bars for 10 months and been criminalized by this system. He is not guilty of anything for which he should spend a single day in prison. In fact if justice were really served, the system would be forced to apologize, give concessions to, and completely free all of the Jena 6.
Mychal Bell was first tried in adult court in July 2007 with an all-white jury and a white judge. No witnesses were called by Bell’s court-appointed defense—and 16 witnesses, mostly white, were called by the state. Then, in a matter of hours, Bell was convicted and faced up to 22 years in adult prison. He was held in custody for almost a year and—even after his conviction was overturned by a higher court—he was sent to juvenile court for trial. Then, under extreme conditions of intimidation and coercion, Bell was forced to choose whether or not to accept the DA’s plea deal. We can only guess at the pressures brought to bear on Mychal Bell and his family in getting him to accept this deal—including the fact that his trial in juvenile court would have been with only a judge and no jury. This is not unlike what happens to millions of others who this system takes into back rooms to exact a “confession.” And for this reason, it needs to be said that Mychal Bell’s “admission” of guilt doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth of what really happened. And now, if any of the other Jena 6 youth go to trial the system could try to force Mychal Bell to testify for the prosecution against them.
Real Truth and Real Justice
It has been a fact from the very beginning of this case that the only way justice will really be served is if ALL the charges are dropped and ALL the Jena 6 are freed. Circumstances of history made the Jena 6 youth the symbol and the focus of a big historic struggle—a fight for justice and part of getting to a whole better world where nooses and white supremacy will be a thing of the past. The emergence of a mass movement around the country, with tens of thousands marching right in Jena, was certainly a factor in Mychal Bell’s first two convictions being reversed—and no matter how much the DA denies it, this mass movement had an effect on what he could and could not do in the courtroom.
The state needs to secure convictions in the Jena 6 cases so as to let stand and reinforce their verdict that what these youth did in opposing the racist wave in Jena was a crime and also to give racist forces in society the green light. Lawyers for the Jena 6 must wage a real battle in the courtroom, grasping the larger questions involved and utilizing every opening, in this larger societal context, to defend their client(s). But such cases are not mainly decided in the courtroom, but more fundamentally by what happens in society at large. When thousands rise up in struggle, and millions begin to awaken to political life and focus their attention on this outrage, the rulers of this system then have to calculate the political price in going forward with such prosecutions. Will it shine more of a light on the workings of their system, and bring more people into motion against them? Will people, as they rise up, begin to get a sense of their full potential power? Will more people get drawn into searching for another way out of this system? Will some of them begin turning toward revolution as a result of that?
In this context, Mychal Bell’s decision not to fight this through and to agree with the system that he is “guilty” is a big mistake with real consequences. First of all, it’s not true; he is not guilty of anything other than standing up against a whole wave of racist intimidation. But beyond that, and especially when the hopes of millions for a better future for everyone are involved, you can’t look at this kind of thing from “what’s best for me”; there are much bigger stakes involved and you have to try to view it all from the interests of humanity. The “what’s best for me” outlook keeps this whole oppressive system going. It keeps the people fighting and clawing each other like crabs in a barrel. On the other hand, when “the whole world is watching,” when people’s hopes are on the line, as is the case in Jena, you can and you have to take a strong stand and make a big positive difference for the people.
But Mychal Bell, even though he has made this deal, will now face other demands from the system; whatever their promises, they will go for their “pound of flesh” and more from him. When he faces those demands, it will be important that he “does the right thing” and that the people support him if he does.
At the same time, four of the other Jena 6 are facing trials in adult court in the coming months on charges that could bring up to 22 years in prison. Another youth is facing charges in juvenile court. None of the Jena 6 should have been arrested to begin with. None of them should be going to trial on charges. None of them should be forced into some phony confession and deal. Any punishment for any of the Jena 6 is unjust. And the battle to free these youth and have their back must continue and grow, with even more determination.
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