LAST week , the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People held a mock funeral for the N-word. But a chilling case in Louisiana shows us how far we have to go to bury racism.
This story begins in the small town of Jena. Last September, a black high school student requested the school’s permission to sit beneath a broad, leafy tree in the hot schoolyard. Until then, only white students sat there. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree. The black students responded en masse.
Then the police and the district attorney, Reed Walters, showed up. Walters told the kids he “could end your lives with the stroke of a pen ”.
Jena, a community of 4000, is about 85% white. Tensions rose.
Robert Bailey, a black student, was beaten up at a white party. Then, a few nights later, Bailey and two others were threatened by a white man with a sawed-off shotgun at a convenience store. They wrestled the gun away and fled.
The next day, December 4 , a fight broke out at the school. A white student was injured, taken to the hospital and released. Bailey and five other black students were charged — with second-degree attempted murder. They each faced 100 years in prison. The black community was reeling.
Independent journalist Jordan Flaherty was the first to break the story nationally. He explained: “I’m sure it was a serious fight, and I’m sure it deserved real discipline within the school system, but he (the white student) was out later that day. He was smiling. He was with friends … it was a serious school problem that came on the heels of a long series of other events … as soon as black students were involved, that’s when the hammer came down.”
The African-American community began to call them the Jena Six. The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, a talented football player who was looking forward to a university scholarship.
Bell was offered a plea deal, but he refused it. His father, Marcus Jones, said: “Here in LaSalle Parish, whenever a black man is offered a plea bargain, he is innocent. That’s a dead giveaway here in the South.”
Before the trial, the charges were lowered to aggravated battery, which under Louisiana law requires a dangerous weapon. The weapon? Tennis shoes.
Bell was convicted by an all-white jury. His court-appointed defence attorney called no witnesses. Bell will be sentenced on July 31; he faces a possible 22 years. The remaining five teens, several of whom were jailed for months, unable to make bail, still face second-degree attempted murder charges and 100 years each in prison.
Flaherty, who grew up in New Orleans, sums up the case of the Jena Six: “I don’t think there is anyone around that would doubt that if this had been a fight between black students or a fight of white students beating up a black student, you would never be seeing this. It’s completely about race. It’s completely about two systems of justice.”
Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco gained national prominence during Hurricane Katrina. There’s another hurricane that’s devastating the lives of her constituents: racism.
The families of the Jena Six are asking her to intervene. Walters says he can end the boys’ lives with his pen. But Blanco’s pen is mightier. She should wield it, now, for justice for the Jena Six.
n Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.