Of ‘White Trees’, Black Boys and Jena, Louisiana
If you asked me two weeks ago if I’ve ever heard the name of a little town in Louisiana called “Jena”, I would’ve drawn a blank. Jena? Never heard of it. It made me think of the ill-fated Palestinian village called Jenin that Israel crushed into oblivion several years ago. I think the incumbent president’s daughter has that name (with an additional ‘n’). But, that’s it.
When a friend sent me several Internet articles about recent events there, I was, quite frankly, flabbergasted. I was astonished to learn that today, in the first decade of the 21st century, in Jena High School, there is still a “white tree”called that not because the leaves are whitebut because it is a generous giver of shade, and only white students sit under it.
In September 2006, a young student named Kenneth Purvis asked the school principal for permission to sit under the “white tree.” The principal answered that he could sit where he liked. So, they did. The next day, the “white tree” was festooned with three nooses, in school colors. In the South (or the North, for that matter), nooses have one clear meaningthey are threats of death.
People naturally got riled up, angry, or scared.
Jena’s High School principal looked into the matter, found the three white students responsible, and recommended that they be expelled. The school superintendent felt otherwise, rescinded the expulsion, and instead recommended a 3-day suspension. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, the superintendent said, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
(Perhaps he meant anybody importantor white)
For Jena’s Black community, this was but the latest slap in the face. Black students at the high school decided to resist by holding a sit-in under the “white tree” to protest the light suspensions given to the three white noose-hangers.
When word got out about the pending sit-in, the local DA came to a Jena school assembly, with several cops to threaten the students who dared to think they could do what people did some 40 years ago throughout the South (before the so-called “New South”). He told them if they didn’t stop making a fuss about this “prank” he could be “your worst enemy.” To make the point plain, he told the teen gathering, “I can take away your lives with a stroke of a pen.”
Several days later, a white Jena student, who reportedly made racist taunts, including calling Black students “niggers”, got knocked down, punched and kicked. The boy was taken to the hospital, treated and released. That very night, he was well enough to attend a public event. Within days six Black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder. All six were also immediately expelled.
The six teens were given bails set from $70,000 to $139,000. Bail at these ranges could’ve just as easily been set at $1 million, for they were at rates that none of the local parents could afford. That meant, of course, that all of the accused were held in jail for months, awaiting trial. And if money for bail was out of reach, what about money for attorneys?
Againout of the question.
That meant that public defenders were appointed by the court.
For one of the accused, Mychal Bell, this meant little better than no counsel at all, for his trial was soon decided by an all-white jury, who promptly convicted him of aggravated second degree assault, battery and conspiracy. Bell now awaits sentencing, which may put the teenager in prison for the next 22 years.
The public defender never challenged the all-white jury pool, put up no evidence, and didn’t call a single defense witness.
The law of aggravated assault requires the use of a deadly weapon. What was the weapon? Tennis shoes.
Families and friends of the Jena 6 are organizing against this case, and are also being threatened by the local establishment. One woman told Louisiana ACLU member, Tory Pegram, “We have to convince more people to come rally with us.... What’s the worse that could happen? They fire us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the town anyway. They burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All of that has happened to us before. We have to keep speaking out to make sure it doesn’t happen to us again, or our children will never be safe.”
To contact the Jena 6 Defense Committee, write:
P.O. Box 2798, Jena, Louisiana 71342
Or on the web: email@example.com
Sources: Quigley, Bill, “Injustice in Jena: Black Nooses Hanging From the ‘White’ Tree”, July 3, ‘07; Quigley@loyana.edu; Mangold, Tom, “Stealth racism’ stalks deep South”, BBC News, May27, 2007
July 21, 2007