Seeking Justice in Jena
Just below the surface of the United States of America, there is an undercurrent. It flows silently, seeping into structures, doing damage and causing erosion that can only be viewed as result.
Beginning over a year ago in the small town of Jena, in LaSalle Parrish in Louisiana, with its inhabitants numbering approximately 3,000, only 350 of whom are Black, eyes have been on Jena, Louisiana.
Six Black high school youths, Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and another unidentified, young male, were arrested and charged in connection with the beating of a White youth in December 2006.
Racial tensions had been escalating in Jena since three nooses, in the high school colors, were hung from a tree in the high school courtyard on September 2, 2006. The nooses were hung, an act termed by local school officials as an "adolescent prank" , the day after two Black students, who had asked about sitting under the tree and had been told, by the vice principal, nothing was stopping anyone, sat under the tree, a custom usually observed only by White students. The tree, known to most in the town as the 'white tree', has been cut down.
For many Black people in the U.S., the horror of lynching comes to mind when viewing a noose slung over a tree limb. This repugnant pastime, that occurred for an acknowledged 100 years, although the actual number of years will never be known, was meted out upon Black men, women and children, often drawing crowds of thousands from miles around.
Those 'hosting' these brutal events, which often concluded with physical 'trophies' being obtained, frequently delayed the 'happening' to allow for the arrival of spectators. The haunting ballad, Strange Fruit, sung by the late Billie Holiday, immortalized this savagery.
In its own way, the U.S. government was complicit in these acts, by refusing to legislate against the practice and in allowing postcards to be sent, through the U.S. Postal Service, without any action or charges brought against those distributing items that documented a crime, with the perpetrators posed, smiling for the camera.
The first Black youth due to be sentenced in Jena was Mychal Bell, after his conviction for the beating. He, along with the other five youths, was initially charged with attempted murder. The local prosecutor, Reed Walters, according to the Chicagotribune.com, had contended that Mychal Bell's tennis shoes " .... constituted a dangerous weapon." Mychal Bell was later charged with aggravated second-degree battery.
On September 14, 2007, Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell, stating the case should have been tried in juvenile court.
An excerpt of the three paragraph ruling stated:
"The defendant was not tried on an offense which could have subjected him to the jurisdiction of the criminal court."
District Attorney Reed Walters, in a statement delivered to the weekly Jena Times, a local newspaper, has said he will appeal the ruling of the Louisiana Supreme Court, ".... after I review the decision thoroughly."
".... If we - and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others - do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
The Fire Next Time - published in 1963 - James A. Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – November 30, 1987) novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist