By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 15, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
JENA — Thousands are expected to descend Thursday on this town tucked amid the tall timber of central Louisiana to protest the case of Mychal Bell, the first of six black teenagers to be tried on felony charges for attacking a white classmate in school last December.
On Friday, Bell‘s conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which ruled he could not be charged as an adult on an aggravated battery charge because he was 16 at the time of the incident. Bell, who faced up to 15 years in prison if his conviction had been upheld, still could be charged in juvenile court. The ruling also will not affect four other teenagers also charged as adults, because they were 17 at the time of the fight and, legally, no longer juveniles in Louisiana.
The defendants are known collectively as the Jena Six, and in the four months since their story broke to a broader public, the youths have emerged as an international cause celebre, latter-day Scottsboro Boys exciting outrage and organizing on their behalf and trying Jena itself in the court of public opinion.
“Everybody around the world — China, France — everybody knows about this,” John Jenkins, the father of Carwin Jones, another of the six, recently told black students at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
It is an evocative tale, trading on every trope of race, from the provocation of nooses in a tree to the swift deliberations of an all-white jury. In the retelling, it has bled from breaking news into bluesy ballad. Especially for every black son’s mother and father, there is something heartbreakingly familiar in its refrain.
“We’re standing strong,” Jenkins declared. “We’re not going to hand our kids over to them.”
But — call it rough justice or awful irony — Jena, population 3,000, finds itself victimized by the same mob emotion, prejudice and rush to judgment of which it stands accused, with perhaps ominous implications for the protest.
“We tried to do this thing in a peaceful way,” said Jenkins, who has been a temperate voice among the parents. “Now we’re going to have 10,000, 15,000 people coming in and everybody’s not going to be on the same chord as the families. Everyone that’s coming in has their own agendas.”
It all began a year ago with a black student asking at an assembly if he could sit under the tree where the white kids found shade in the courtyard at Jena High School, which is about 80 percent white. Sure, he was told. But the next day, there were nooses hanging from the tree, the handiwork of three white students, who were suspended.
There were some fights at school in the ensuing days, and LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters addressed another assembly, trying to restore order. Apparently perturbed by students’ inattention, Walters warned: “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” Some black students thought he was looking straight at them.
At the end of November, the main school building burned. The case remains unsolved. That weekend, Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena Six, was involved in two separate confrontations with white residents.
In school that Monday, Mychal Bell, according to testimony at his trial, identified another student, Justin Barker, as “that white MF-er that was running his mouth,” and punched him once in the face. Barker was knocked to the ground, where he lay unconscious as — witnesses said — Bell and the others kicked him wearing the tennis shoes the district attorney would identify as potentially lethal weapons, justifying attempted murder charges. Those were later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery.
Barker was taken to the hospital, but attended a high school ring ceremony that night. The Jena Six were arrested. Bail was high, ranging from $70,000 to $138,000.
“When he was arrested, it was a mother’s instinct. I said, ‘You’re going to jail,’ ” said Bailey’s mother, Caseptla Bailey, who lives with her own mother in a trailer on the backwoodsy black side of town. “I don’t have $138,000 in cash and I certainly don’t have $138,000 in property.”
Caseptla Bailey, who served three years in the Air Force after Grambling State University, is resourceful, a gifted speaker and organizer. She asked “Dr. Bean” — Alan Bean of Arlington, Texas, founder and director of Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization that works on criminal justice reform — to come to Jena.
Beginning in January, Bean conducted his own investigation, creating a timeline that has been the template for much of the reporting since. He reframed the school assault for which the Jena Six were arrested as the culmination of a season of racial taunts and the discriminatory administration of justice.
Bean, who is white, did what many black people do all the time when it comes to race: He connected the dots to reveal a pattern. But white people often look at the same scenario and see someone drawing lines in thin air.
“I realized if no one intervened, these kids were going to end up with felony convictions that they would be dragging with them through their lives,” Bean said.
“I didn’t really think they were going to get 80 years in prison, but I thought they might end up with a decade or two. . . .
“Young black males,” he said, “are going to prison in bizarre numbers.”
Bell‘s public defender, who is black, did not present a defense. The jury was all white, but LaSalle Parish is only 12 percent black. Black residents were called for the jury pool, but none showed up. Bell was convicted of aggravated battery and would have faced sentencing on Thursday until the appeals court ruled the prosecution was improper because he was a juvenile.
Bean said he believes attitudes toward poor black people no worse in Jena than they are everywhere else. But he knew the small Southern town, uncamouflaged by political correctness, would prove an easy mark for the national and international press.
“I felt bad about that, because even though Jena does have its problems, I don’t think at the end of the day that’s what this story is about,” he said. “It’s really about the denial of due process protections to poor people and poor people of color in particular.”
“We’re a perfect scapegoat for America‘s national sin,” said Eddie Thompson, pastor at SanctuaryFamilyWorshipCenter.
Before all this, Thompson had been preaching that Jena was being held back by its people’s latent, unconscious racism. But in recent months, Thompson has found himself standing up for a hometown he, too, would despise if it actually were as it is being depicted.
“I’ve become almost a defender of what I used to attack, and that’s the complexity of this story,” he said.
Thompson believes the district attorney wrongly overcharged the boys. But Free the Jena Six? That’s not right either, he said, though he believes that under normal circumstances, Judge J.P. Mauffrey Jr. would let Bell off with time served.
“I understand the entire scenario, and nobody in America, no matter how they think they feel, grieves more over those boys sitting in that prison than the people of this town do,” Thompson said. “People think we’re glad we got them black kids locked up finally, and that’s not what people feel.”
The Jena Six played football for the Jena High Giants, Jena‘s focal point. In a town meeting this summer, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, Donald Washington, who is black, said he had studied the stands at games. “I didn’t see pictures of a divided community,” he said.
Bell and Jones were the team’s tandem stars — “double trouble,” said a headline in The Town Talk newspaper in Alexandria.
Bell especially was a rare talent, according to Billy Wayne Fowler, a retired coach and member of the School Board, whose brother was Bell‘s football coach. He could have gone all the way, Fowler said — “He had a chance to play on Sunday.”
But football was part of the problem.
A bond hearing this summer revealed that Bell had a record of violence as a juvenile. “I think he was a bit of a bully,” Bean said. “The kid really shouldn’t have been playing football. He should have been benched.”
Instead, in Bean’s view, Bell found himself the big man on a campus in which a subset of the white students, such as Barker, were from out in the country. “If you say Jena didn’t get the memo on the civil rights movement, that’s true in triplicate in the country,” Bean said.
Last Monday, standing alongside Bell‘s mother, Melissa, the Rev. Jesse Jackson invoked Selma and Little Rock. “The whole world is watching Jena, Louisiana,” Jackson said.
But get too close and the view is made murkier by the blanks and ellipses of real life.
“There was wrong on both sides,” Jenkins said. “There’s something that happened in that school that hasn’t come out.”
Bailey’s grandmother, Bernice Mack, who taught in Jena both before and after integration, is also perplexed. “I just really don’t know the roots of what happened,” she said. She’s picked up some of the story from TV, and her daughter in Milwaukee sent her Jet magazine’s coverage. All she gets from her grandson, she said, is “grunts.”
Bailey, who made a reduced bail after four months in jail, is off just now with Theo Shaw, 17, another of the Jena Six, and Kevin Ceaser, a beguiling and spiritual rapper from Lafayette who learned about the case while watching the BBC on cable. Ceaser came to Jena unbidden, and when he met the Baileys, felt like he was home. He is helping to organize Thursday’s events.
The other two defendants, with Bell, Jones, Bailey and Shaw, are Bryant Purvis and Jesse Ray Beard.
“What we’re talking about is a black family reunion,” Ceaser said of the upcoming gathering.
Said Bean: “This thing has become bigger than the Jena Six. It’s an American melodrama.’’