I first blogged about the Jena Six on July 4, if not at length, courtesy of Counterpunch. The media have been on the story since last week, when they were able to shake their attention loose from OJ's latest fun and games. But few commentators have filled in the blanks.
Briefly, white high school students in Jena, Louisiana, were in the habit of congregating under the tree pictured here. A new student in town, who was Black, asked the principal if Blacks were allowed to sit under the tree as well. The principal said yes, and a couple of Black students did just that. So some white students hung three nooses in the tree, to make what is still a pretty obvious point in Louisiana. While the principal thought they should be expelled, the school board said it was just a prank, and the white kids got off with a slap on the wrist.
Chapter Two: some Black students held a peaceful protest under the tree. Local law enforcement freaked out. A school assembly was called, with police in attendance, and the local District Attorney, one Reed Walters, threatened the students sitting in the hall, Blacks on one side, whites on the other, telling them (and attendees said he was looking at the Black students when he said this), "With one stroke of my pen I can make your life disappear."
Chapter Three: Fights began to break out among students. Someone set fire to a wing of the school. A 16-year-old Black student, Robert Bailey, tried to go to a party attended mostly by whites, and was beaten. The next day, Bailey confronted one of his attackers in a convenience store. The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a shotgun on him. The Black kid and his friends wrestled the gun away from him, and Bailey took it home. Bailey was charged with theft and disturbing the peace. The white kid wasn't charged with anything.
Then Justin Barker, another white student, was overheard laughing to friends about Bailey. That got him a beating by six Black students: he was knocked unconscious, but was well enough to go out that evening to a high school ring ceremony.
Chapter Four: The local DA, who must have been sleeping when white kids beat up Bailey, and confused when one threatened him with a shotgun the next day, leaped into action, and had the Black students charged with second-degree murder. Only one student, Mychal Bell, a star school athlete who was sixteen years old at the time, has actually been tried, on reduced charges of aggravated battery (assault with a weapon--his tennis shoes). He was convicted before the usual good ol' boy white jury--his court-appointed "defence" attorney didn't mount a defence at all, resting his case as soon as the prosecutor was done--but his conviction was thrown out by an appeal court, which ruled that he should have been tried as a juvenile, not an adult. He remains in jail, where he's been since last year. His family can't afford the $90,000 bail imposed by the judge.
Chapter Five: Today, tens of thousands of outraged civil rights protesters converged on Jena, pop. 3,500, to let the locals know that they aren't living in a time warp. The DA has apparently hired a PR person to write his address to the media there assembled, because it sounded literate, if not particularly convincing. Nope, racism had nothing to do with it. Let's not forget the victim in this case. Putting those nooses in the tree was downright "villainous," though.
But he's not letting the kids off the hook--he's still in full control of that pen of his. One boy remains charged with second-degree murder, one is headed to juvenile court, and three others are facing aggravated battery charges; Mychal Bell's successful appeal is being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Somehow, though, I don't think these kids are going to disappear anytime soon.
(The tree shown in the picture, while all of this was going on, has been chopped down. I hardly know what to make of this. It resonates, though, doesn't it?)
Here in Canada, we see a drearily familiar response from the right side of the blogosphere: stony silence, or posts like this at Small Dead Animals. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, annoyed at Barack Obama who has kept himself at an opportunistic distance from the fray, said that Obama was "acting white," an obvious reference to the bad old days when some were able to "pass" for white and avoid the racial hard stuff. But this was too much for the crowd at SDA, beginning with Kate herself, mimicking a Black accent ("aksing"), and followed by comments such as these:
I would say that Jesse Jackson is more of a burr head; that from his perspective, everyone looks white. Maybe Obama needs to poppa cap in Jesse's ass and wear some more bling to be more palatable for the black community...
Jesse Jackson won't consider anyone authentically black unless they're an ebonics-speaking, knuckle-dragging, nappy-headed, ghetto-dwelling, gold-toothed gangsta-wannabe.
Move over Reed Walters--you've got company. Maybe Jena's more mainstream than we like to think.