On a late summer day in 2006, in Jena, Louisiana, a Black high school student asked permission to sit beneath the “white tree” in front of the town’s high school. It was unspoken law that this shady area was for whites only during school breaks. But a student asked, and the vice principal said nothing was stopping them. So Black students sat underneath the tree, challenging the established authority of segregation and racism. The next day, hanging from the tree, were three ropes, in school colors, each tied to make a noose.
The events set in motion by those nooses led to a schoolyard fight. And that fight led to the conviction, on June 28, 2007, of a Black student at Jena High School for charges that can bring up to 22 years in prison. Mychal Bell, a 16-year-old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested, was convicted by an all-white jury, without a single witness being called on his behalf. And five more Black students in Jena still face serious charges stemming from the fight.
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Caseptla Bailey, a Black community leader and mother of one of the Black students, told the London Observer, “To us those nooses meant the KKK, they meant, ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die.'” The attack was brushed off as a “youthful stunt.” The three white students responsible, given only three days of in-school suspension.
In response to the incident, several Black students, among them star players on the football team, staged a sit-in under the tree. The principal reacted by bringing in the white district attorney, Reed Walters, and 10 local police officers to an all-school assembly. Marcus Jones, Mychal Bell’s father, described the assembly to Revolution:
“Now remember, with everything that goes on at Jena High School, everybody’s separated. The only time when Black and white kids are together is in the classroom and when they playing sports together. During lunch time, Blacks sit on one side, whites sit on the other side of the cafeteria. During canteen time, Blacks sit on one side of the campus, whites sit on the other side of the campus.
“At any activity done in the auditorium—anything—Blacks sit on one side, whites on the other side, okay? The DA tells the principal to call the students in the auditorium. They get in there. The DA tells the Black students, he’s looking directly at the Black students—remember, whites on one side, Blacks on the other side—he’s looking directly at the Black students. He told them to keep their mouths shut about the boys hanging their nooses up. If he hears anything else about it, he can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen.”
DA Walters concluded that the students should “work it out on their own.” Police officers roamed the halls of the school that week, and tensions simmered throughout the fall semester.
In November, as football season came to a close, the main school building was mysteriously burned to the ground. This traumatic event seemed to bring to the surface the boiling racial tensions in Jena.
On a Friday night, Robert Bailey, a 17-year-old Black student and football player, was invited to a dance at a hall considered to be “white.” When he walked in, without warning he was punched in the face, knocked on the ground and attacked by a group of white youth. Only one of the white youth was arrested—he was ultimately given probation and asked to apologize.
The night after that, a 22-year-old white man, along with two friends, pulled a gun on Bailey and two of his friends at a local gas station. The Black youths wrestled the gun from him to prevent him from using it. They were arrested and charged with theft, and the white man went free.
The following Monday students returned to school. In the midst of a confrontation between a white student, Justin Barker, and a Black student, Robert Bailey—where Bailey was taunted for having been beaten up that weekend—a chaotic fray ensued. Barker was allegedly knocked down, punched, and kicked by a number of Black students. He was taken to the hospital for a few hours and was seen out socializing later that evening.
Six Black students—Robert Bailey Junior, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell, and a still unidentified minor, allegedly the attackers of Justin Barker—were arrested, charged with attempted second degree manslaughter, and expelled from school.
White Supremacy Then and Now
This did not all happen in the “Red Summer” of 1919 when Jim Crow segregation thrived, and Blacks in major cities faced race riots that raged throughout the country. This did not occur in the 1950s after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and young children faced angry white mobs to make history in desegregating public schools. This did not happen in the summer of 1955 when, in Money, Mississippi, a vibrant Black youth by the name of Emmett Till was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. This did not occur in 1960, when on February 1 four Black college students sat in at a “white only” lunch counter, demanding service and launching the civil rights movement to another level. This did not happen during the period 1865 to 1965 during which 3,446 Black people were lynched in the United States.
This is now. When three white students in Jena committed this hate crime, hanging three nooses from the “white tree,” they evoked the ugly history of slavery, segregation, lynching, and police brutality to threaten the lives of Black students at their school. The “white tree” stands in Jena, Louisiana. The Jena 6, as the Black students have come to be called, are in prison and on trial for defending themselves against white supremacist attacks.
The Jena 6 were arrested in December 2006. The outrageously high bail ranged from $70,000-$138,000, leaving most of them stuck in jail for months.
The first student to go to trial this June was Mychal Bell, who waited behind bars, unable to post bail. Like a scene from the Jim Crow South, he was judged by an all-white jury, in a courtroom run by a white judge. Whites sat with Justin Barker and his white lawyer on one side. Blacks sat with defendant Mychal Bell, who was represented by a court-appointed attorney.
The prosecutor called 16 witnesses, mostly white students. The court-appointed defense attorney called none. Accounts of the incident, who was involved, and who did what, vary highly, including whether Mychal Bell was the one who first punched Justin Barker. Barker’s attorney argued that Bell’s tennis shoes on his feet were a “dangerous weapon.” The trial was so outrageous that when a Louisiana TV station polled viewers, 62% said that Mychal Bell was not getting a fair trial.
Mychal Bell was convicted of two felonies: aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. He faces up to 22 years in prison. The remaining five defendants await their trials.
Standing Up to Racism
Few people in the United States have heard of the case of the Jena 6. But the trial was covered by the French newspaper Le Monde, and the BBC aired a documentary on the case. The London Observer reported on the Jena 6 story.
Family, friends, and supporters of the young men are protesting and struggling to free the Jena 6. The Black community in Jena and people from across Louisiana and Texas have come together to support the Jena 6 and fight the injustice of their trials. People have put their lives on hold, and churches have opened their doors. The Jena 6 and their supporters are defiant and continue to be under attack. Marcus Jones told Revolution about the most recent event: “Thursday night we had an NAACP meeting here at the church. The next day, in the morning, the pastor goes to his church and somebody just clean ran through his church yard, knocked his sign down, ran over back and forth on it with they truck, and just took off, you know. People report it to the police (laughs). What good they gonna do here, I don’t know.”
The majority of Jena’s estimated 385 Black people live in an area of town known as Ward 10. Many homes there are trailers or wooden shacks. Rubbish lies in the streets. Only two Black families live in the all white middle class suburban area of Jena. An article in the Observer recounts how one of them bought a house: “A teacher from Jena High had enough money to buy his way in. But when he arrived local estate agents refused to show him a ‘white’ property even though several were advertised in the local paper (‘they’re all under contract,’ the agents lied). The teacher eventually went to see one white owner and offered him cash. ‘The guy preferred green [dollars] to Black, so I got the property,’ laughed the teacher, ‘but since we moved in three years ago we haven’t been invited by a single neighbor.'”
The “white tree” stands in Jena, Louisiana today while entire neighborhoods and precious lives in the 9th ward of New Orleans are left wasting away, even as the more profitable and less Black areas of the city are rebuilt. It stands while a father, a mother, a fiancée, a child, and many friends are still feeling the devastating loss of Sean Bell who was murdered by the NYPD. It stands while the Rutgers University basketball team gets subjected to racist and sexist verbal assault from a national talk show host. While the N word is spouted with rage by a comedian.
In a world such as this, there’s nothing left to do but pull this tree up by its roots and get rid of it for good.