For those who haven’t heard the story behind the recent protest march and demonstration in Jena Louisiana, you can find a brief timeline summary on CNN.com and a very detailed summary from The Jena Times and a narrative summary in The Nation. We have excerpted portions of a New York Times overview below, which picks up the story in August of 2006, when a student asked the assistant principal at Jena High School’s back-to-school asemly if he could sit under “the white tree” in the school’s courtyard.
* * *
“You know you can sit anywhere you want,’’ answered Gawen Burgess, the assistant principal. The next morning, according to the account, two nooses were found hanging from the tree.
Most students did not even see the nooses before they were cut down, Still, school officials suspended three white students for their part in hanging the nooses. After some parents complained about the matter, the United States Attorney’s office and the F.B.I. investigated, but decided not to bring hate-crime charges against anyone.
Over the next few weeks and months, parents and some students continued to complain to officials about the nooses hung on the trees, which they said was an unambiguous gesture of racial intimidation. The news media picked up on the matter. Some white people in the town were quoted saying that the noose business was little more than a youthful prank. Fights erupted in the school, but officials said they were not necessarily related to the tree and nooses. In November, a fire broke out at the high school, which is being investigated as arson.
The high school was closed down for several days, and when classes resumed, in December, another fight broke out during the lunch hour. A white student, Justin Barker, was beaten and taken to the hospital. That is when the six black students were arrested.
Richard G. Jones wrote about the series of events in The New York Times . . . . His first few paragraphs encapsulate what has become a nuanced tale:
“They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade here at Jena High School.
And when a black student tried to defy that tradition by sitting under the tree last September, it set off a series of events that have turned this town of 3,000 in central Louisiana’s timber country into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
The white student was treated at a local hospital and released; the black students were charged, not with assault, but with attempted murder.”
As Mr. Jones writes, local civil rights groups have objected to the course the case has taken, calling it a “throwback to the worst kind of Deep South justice.”
Five of the black youths were charged as adults, after they allegedly knocked out classmate Justin Barker and stomped him during the school fight. One of the five, Mychal Bell, has already been tried. He was 16 when the beating took place last December, and in June he was found guilty on second-degree battery charges by a six-member, all-white jury.
* * *
Last Friday, the state’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mr. Bell’s conviction.
Mr. Bell’s lawyers have argued that their client was not old enough to be tried as an adult and that the maximum penalty that he faced – 22 years in prison – was excessive. In the wake of the growing public furor, prosecutors have reduced the charges against some of the other defendants who are awaiting trial as well.
* * *
In Jena – Part II, we offer a brief sample of the growing evidence racial bias in our criminal justice system and some situational reasons for it.