The war at home: Jena 6 case ignites anti-racist outrage

By LeiLani Dowell,  New York City FIST

Strengthened by a victory in the case of one of the Jena Six—Black youths facing outrageously harsh prison sentences after several months of racist attacks in Jena, La.–organizers throughout the country are continuing to mobilize for the freedom of the Six and to denounce the U.S. criminal “justice” system.

Facing a massive protest in Jena on Sept. 20–the day 16-year-old Mychal Bell was to be sentenced–the court overturned the aggravated battery conviction against Bell on Sept. 14. Nevertheless, thousands are still expected to converge in Jena, a town with a population of a few thousand, on Sept. 20 to continue pressing for the release of the other five.

About 100 buses have been organized, some from as far away as Los Angeles. Buses are being organized by the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, Black campus organizations and other grassroots organizations and religious institutions. Prominent figures such as radio personality Michael Baisden, hip hop artist Mos Def and others have made statements and calls urging participation. From New York City, buses are leaving from Harlem for Jena and AFSCME District Council 37 is also organizing transportation.

Events throughout the country that week include a march and rally at CNN headquarters, organized by students from Atlanta University; an Atlanta news conference sponsored by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; a contingent in the New York City African American Day Parade and an emergency rally for justice–“Resist the racist U.S. judicial system”–called by the December 12th Movement; and a public meeting in Detroit hosted by the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice.


White supremacy: alive and well

The attacks in Jena, La., began after a Black student at the high school asked the principal at a school assembly if he could sit under the “white tree”–a tree in the front yard of the school where white students sit during breaks. The next day, three nooses in the school colors were found hanging from the tree. The students who hung them were initially to be expelled, but the superintendent of schools intervened and gave them a three-day suspension instead. Black students gathered under the tree to protest the decision.

Several incidents ensued. African-American student Robert Bailey Jr. was attacked with beer bottles at a party; one white student was charged with simple assault and given probation. A white man brandished a shotgun at Black students; the Black students were charged with stealing the gun after they wrested it away. Finally, white student Justin Barker was attacked by a group of Black students. He went to a hospital and was released the next day, participating in a social function that evening.

The Jena Six–Robert Bailey Jr., 17; Theo Shaw, 17; Carwin Jones, 18; Bryant Purvis, 17; and Mychal Bell, 16–were arrested for Barker’s beating and charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. However, in response to overwhelming support for the Six, the charges were decreased to assault and battery for five of them–charges that could still lead to up to 15 years in prison.

An all-white jury convicted Bell, the first of the Six to be tried, of aggravated battery. His court-appointed attorney didn’t even bother to call witnesses.

Yet as news of the case and the mass protest scheduled for Sept. 20 gathered increased attention in the media, the judicial system responded in a hasty attempt to quell the national public outrage. Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Bell should not have been tried as an adult, overturning the conviction.

According to the Associated Press, prosecutors may now try Bell–who has been in jail since the arrest in December–for attempted murder as an adult or aggravated battery as a juvenile. (Sept. 15)

Broad implications of case

While activists and community members celebrate this victory, they stress that the struggle is not over.

The response to the Jena Six case is larger than the case itself. It is a measure of the rising anger in oppressed communities over the blatant racism inherent within the capitalist system.

Nor is the case an isolated incident of excessive punishment of Black youth. According to a study by the Campaign for Youth Justice, Black youths accounted for 58 percent of young people sent to adult prisons between 2002 and 2004. (Washington Post, Aug. 4)

On June 14, four young African-American lesbians from Newark, N.J., received prison sentences ranging from 3.5 to 11 years in prison for defending themselves against a man who held them down and choked them, ripped hair from their scalps, spat on them and threatened to sexually assault them. (Workers World, June 21) Like the Jena Six case, the clear message coming from the courts in the Jersey Four case was, “Don’t fight back.”

Genarlow Wilson, a Black student and star athlete, was arrested, stood trial and was convicted of “aggravated child molestation” for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old classmate. He was sentenced to a mandatory 10-year prison term plus one year on probation as a felony sex offender. After national outcry, a Georgia Superior Court judge ordered his sentence reduced and Wilson released. (Workers World, Jul. 22)

Similarly, Marcus Dixon was convicted of “aggravated child molestation” for having sexual relations with an almost 16-year-old white classmate when he was 18. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned his sentence in May but not before he did significant prison time.

Sixteen-year-old Shaquanda Cotton was serving a seven-year sentence in Paris, Texas, for shoving a white teacher’s aide before a special conservator ordered her release this year. The Washington Post reports, “Months earlier, the same white judge had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl who burned down her family’s home.” (Aug. 4)

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