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Injustice in Jena?

A tree, a fight, and questions of justice in a small Louisiana town

By Richard G. Jones in Jena, Louisiana

They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or the tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade at Jena High School. And when a black student tried to challenge that tradition by sitting under the tree in September 2006, it set off a series of events that have turned Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), a town of 3,000 in central Louisiana, into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Three nooses appeared on the tree a day after the black student sat under it. For Jena's black community, it was a horrifying reference to the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks in the South. Three white students were found responsible, and the principal recommended that they be expelled. But the local school superintendent dismissed the incident as an adolescent prank and suspended the students for three days.

From there, the trouble escalated. A series of fights erupted between black and white students, and a fire believed to be the work of an arsonist destroyed a wing of the high school.

On December 4, a white student named Justin Barker was leaving the school gym when a group of black students allegedly jumped him. Barker was knocked unconscious. Badly bruised and with one eye swollen shut, he was taken to the emergency room, treated, and released in time to attend a school event that evening.

A few days later, six black students—Robert Bailey Jr., 17; Jesse Beard, 15; Mychal Bell, 16; Carwin Jones, 18; Bryant Purvis, 17; and Theo Shaw, 17—were arrested. They were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder; five were charged as adults, according to the Associated Press.

After a series of protests in Jena, charges against some of the students were scaled back to offenses like aggravated battery. In June, Bell was tried as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit the same.

Local civil rights groups objected to what they saw as a throwback to the worst kind of pre-civil-rights-era justice in the South, and that protest developed into a nationwide campaign.

The Jena Six

On September 20, led by civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, an estimated 20,000 people came to Jena to demonstrate against what they see as the unfair treatment of the black students, who have come to be known as the Jena Six.

"In Jena, for those who have been under the illusion that changes have occurred," says Jackson, "this is a wake-up call."

Lawyers involved in the case say the attention that the teenagers have received prompted prosecutors to reduce some of the charges against the youths.

On September 14, an appeals court ruled that Bell should not have been tried as an adult and overturned his conviction. Bell, who will be retried as a juvenile, was released from jail on September 27. But his freedom was short-lived. In October, a judge ruled that the fight at Jena High School had violated terms of Bell's probation for a previous conviction and sentenced him to 18 months in a juvenile facility.

Critics of how the case has been handled have objected to charges of attempted murder for what they characterize as a schoolyard fight. They also say the white students who hung the nooses should be charged with a hate crime.

Reed Walters, the local prosecutor in the case, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that he found the noose incident "abhorrent and stupid" but that it broke no Louisiana law. "Similarly," he added, "the United States Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, who is African-American, found no federal law against what was done."

A Sense of Perspective

Walters disagrees that the altercation at Jena High was a mere schoolyard fight. Barker, he wrote, "was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head."

In Jena, where school officials have cut down the notorious tree, there is a sense of perspective and nuance about the case that sometimes seems to get lost in the larger debate. There are white people, too, who say the teenagers should have been tried in juvenile court, and many blacks who insist that they should be punished if they committed a crime, though in juvenile court.

Mychal Bell's mother, Melissa, told The Town Talk, a local newspaper, that she just wanted things to get back to normal.

"I hate that it happened to the kid," she said of the attack on Barker. "Because he was nothing but a kid, whoever done it to him. . . . I hate that all these kids' lives have been uprooted like this."