Free the Jena 6
by Li Onesto and Alice Woodward
An intense and growing struggle in the small southern town of Jena, Louisiana reveals this country's deep roots of slavery, Jim Crow law, and lynch mobs: Black high school students sit under a "whites-only" tree in the schoolyard. Racist white students respond by hanging nooses from the tree. After Black students stand under the tree as a form of protest, a school assembly is called. A white district attorney tells the Black students to keep their mouths shut about the nooses and that if he hears anything else about it, he "can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen." When racist white students jump a Black student, one white student gets probation.
But when a fight breaks out that sends a white student to the hospital
for an hour, the law comes down on six Black students—now known as the
Jena 6. Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant
Purvis, and an unnamed minor are arrested, originally charged with
attempted murder, and now face decades of prison time (see "Free the
Jena Six! Jim Crow Injustice in Jena Louisiana," Revolution #96).
Mychal Bell has already been convicted of second degree battery and
conspiracy to commit second degree battery and could be sentenced for
up to 22 years in prison. And the system is trying to make good on the
threat to ruin the lives of the other five youth who still face
On July 31, some 300 people rallied in support of the Jena 6 at the
courthouse where Mychal Bell was scheduled to be sentenced. People
came from all over the country, including people from New Orleans
fighting for justice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And a massive
stack of petitions, which organizers said contained 43,000 signatures,
was delivered to the Assistant District Attorney of Jena. On August 5,
Al Sharpton spoke at a church in Jena. And in recent weeks this story
has started to get more national and international coverage
Still, the story of the Jena 6 has been way downplayed in the
mainstream media. Many people still do not know about this tremendous
outrage—and the importance of a real battle to free the Jena 6. And
the authorities, from the local DA on up to the U.S. Department of
Justice, are moving to both ruin the lives of these youth, and to
confuse and demobilize the people who are struggling to free them.
Mychal Bell has now been sitting in jail since December 4 and was not
able to graduate. His trial was a complete outrage, with the
court-appointed lawyer not even calling any witnesses! Now, a group of
lawyers from Monroe, Louisiana have come forward to take up Bell's
case, and upon their request his sentencing date has been moved to
September 20. Bell's new legal team says their goal is to overturn
Bell's conviction. Bob Noel, one of the lawyers now on the case, said
they got involved not only because Bell came to them, but because it
was the right thing to do. "The interest of justice cried out [for us]
to get involved," Noel said.
"We Want the Entire World to Hear"
The weekend before the July 31 scheduled sentencing of Mychal Bell,
the "whites-only" tree in front of the high school was cut down. NPR
reported that "Jena High School had the big shade tree in the
courtyard chopped into firewood." But the tree disappearing hasn't in
any way lessened people's anger and their determination to spread the
word about this case and build the struggle to free the Jena 6.
Talking about the significance of the July 31 rally, Caseptla Bailey,
mother of one of the defendants, Robert Bailey, Jr., said, "This is a
beautiful thing that I'm seeing here today— all types of browns,
seeing all types of blacks, all types of whites. We love that, people
coming together." And Khadijah Rashad, representing Lafayette's
Community Defender television show, said, "We must remember that the
entire world is watching… When there is going to be sentencing again,
we need to flood this area with as much people as we possibly can. We
want the entire world to know" (towntalk.com).
Bell's father, Marcus Jones, agreed: "Justice, that's the main thing
we want. He's still in jail, and we want justice for him and the other
boys. And now the whole world sees the wrong done to these boys."
Bell's mother, Melissa Bell, told The Town Talk (a paper in
Alexandria, Louisiana), that the actions on July 31 should send a
message to the community: "We are serious, and everyone is serious
about freeing these kids."
U.S. Department of Justice: Nothing "Irregular" or Wrong with Jim Crow
Jena is a small town where racism and segregation is the status
quo—enforced in official and unofficial ways as well. A young Black
man told us, "Well you walk a sharp line and you cross the line and
you face the consequences." He told us there was a history of the KKK
in Jena. One resident told us that not that long ago, a Black man was
killed by a group of white men because of his relationship with a
white woman—and that the murderers are now free.
But the forceful imposition of white supremacy is not simply or even
fundamentally a case of "good ole boys" going wild. The case of the
Jena 6 is happening at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest
judicial body in the land, has overturned Brown vs. Board of
Education— officially fortifying segregation and savage inequalities
in the schools. And from the school officials to the police to the
courts –authorities and government officials have been and are a part
of the completely unjust and racist treatment of the Jena 6.
For anyone who doubts this, officials from the highest levels of the
U.S. government recently descended on Jena to make this crystal clear.
On July 26, more than 165 people packed into the Good Pine Middle
School auditorium. The crowd was almost all Black. The event was
billed as a "community forum" to discuss issues arising out of the
Jena 6 case. But this was definitely a case of the fox guarding the
The four-hour forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice featured
Lewis Chapman, assistant special agent in charge of the New Orleans
FBI office; U.S. Attorney Donald Washington from the Justice
Department; and Carmelita Freeman, regional director of the Department
of Justice's Community Relations Service.
Washington (who is Black) told the crowd that he empathized "very
publicly with all the families involved in this dispute…white, black,
purple and green."
Some people in the crowd may have thought this was good because it was
an attempt to "bring people together." But this is not about "can't we
all (including racists and the government that enforces this whole
racist setup) get along." This is about justice and stopping and
reversing a terrible outrage that is now going on. And what kind of
"justice" is it when someone from the U.S. Justice Department says he
supports all sides in this conflict? The lynching nooses, and those
Black students who sat under a "whites-only" tree? You can't support
all sides. The question is—which side are you on? What Washington said
means support for the status quo of racism and segregation and all the
rights this gives to racist whites. What Washington said means
supporting the racist white students who hung nooses and attacked
Black students. What Washington said means NOT taking a stand against
the injustice of what is being done to the Jena 6.
During the Q&A period at the end, someone in the audience asked
whether the hanging of the nooses on the tree was a "hate crime."
Chapman, from the FBI, responded, first of all, by revealing that the
FBI had agents in Jena a week or so after the incident. Then
Washington claimed that there were all the elements of a "hate
crime"—except for the threat of use of force. In fact, force was used
-- by the goverment -- to back up those nooses. The the arrest of the
Jena 6, who are facing decades in jail, is all about enforcing those
nooses with the force of the state.
The Department of Justice serves as an enforcer for a system that has
enslaved, worked to death on plantations, lynched, enforced Jim Crow
against, segregated against, and turned fire hoses and KKKers (often
organized by the FBI) on Black people and those who joined in the
struggle for equality. This is part of the same "justice" system that
sent a DA to the school assembly to threaten Black students who
protested the nooses. Washington and the FBI are no friends of the
people, and identifying with the system's logic is not any kind of way
for the people to be thinking.
History tells us, no question about it— when white people hang nooses
on trees, this is nothing but a murderous, racist threat against Black
people. And Washington and Chapman, as representatives of the FBI and
U.S. Justice Department, have only underscored how this kind of lynch
mob "justice" is bolstered and supported by the government
institutions of this system.
And then came the most revealing moment in the so-called "community
forum." The Jena Times quoted Washington discussing the high school's
handling of the noose incident and the fight for which the Jena 6 are
on trial. He said: "We have examined all of their actions and I'm not
saying I agree with what they've done but I can say that we could find
no violation in the way they handled each event. All of their
procedures were `regular' and not `irregular.'"
"All their procedures were regular and not irregular."
Well, this was the one statement in the meeting by Washington we have
to agree with.
No punishment for white students who hang lynch nooses on a schoolyard
tree: REGULAR. Threatening Black students who protest this racist
threat: REGULAR. Giving a slap on the hand to white students who
attack Black students: REGULAR. Black students facing decades of
prison time for fighting with white students: REGULAR.
On this, Washington is right: This is the "regular" workings of a
white supremacist system.
And we would add another "regular." Officials from the highest offices
of the system, holding a "community meeting," wolves in sheep's
clothing— to cool things out and at the same time justify and bolster
the enforcement of segregation and white supremacy: REGULAR.