A movement to stop the railroading of 6 youths in Jena Louisiana in the wake of virulent racist attacks is getting national attention.
beating case stirs racial anger
By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
A grass-roots movement is spreading across black
America in support of six black high school students
charged with attempted murder for beating a white
classmate in the small Louisiana town of Jena.
On black radio, black college campuses and websites
from YouTube to Facebook, the young men known as the
Jena 6 are being held up as symbols of unequal and
unfair treatment of blacks in a case that evokes the
Deep South’s Jim Crow era, complete with nooses
hanging from a tree.
“People are fed up,” says Esther Iverem, 47, a
Washington, D.C., writer who runs a website called
Seeingblack.com, which has featured articles about the
Jena 6. “It’s another case of young black men
railroaded unjustly. We do not want to see this happen
to young boys who got involved in a school fight.”
Tenisha Wilkerson, 20, of Chicago, posted a page on
Facebook supporting the Jena 6. It has attracted
“Why is this kind of thing still going on?” she asks.
Symbolism evokes outrage
The events in Jena have caught the attention of
national civil rights activists. Al Sharpton, Jesse
Jackson and Martin Luther King III have marched on
Jena in protest.
“The case plays to the fears of many blacks,” Sharpton
says. “You hear the stories from your parents and
grandparents, but you never thought it would happen in
2007. I think what resonates in the black community is
that this is so mindful of pre-1960 America.”
For a year, Jena (pronounced JEEN-uh), a poor mining
community of 3,000 people, has been embroiled in
racial tensions pitting the black community against
white school officials and a white prosecutor. It
began last August when a black student asked at an
assembly if black students could sit under a tree
where white students usually sat. The next day, two
nooses hung from the tree.
Black parents were outraged by the symbolism,
recalling the mob lynchings of black men. They
complained to school officials. District
superintendent Roy Breithaupt and the school board
gave three-day suspensions to the white students who
hung the nooses, overruling the recommendation of
then-principal Scott Windham that the students be
Breithaupt and current principal Glen Joiner did not
return calls for comment.
In November, an unknown arsonist burned down part of
the high school.
Over the next three days, fights erupted between black
and white students on and off school grounds. Police
arrested a white man for punching a black teen. He
pleaded guilty to simple battery.
The skirmishes culminated with a fight in which the
six black teens, star players on Jena’s champion
football team, were charged as adults with attempted
murder. The white student they’re accused of beating,
Justin Barker, 17, was knocked unconscious and
suffered cuts and bruises. He was treated at an
emergency room but not hospitalized.
Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted in May of a reduced
charge, aggravated second-degree battery, which
carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Since then, charges against two youths have been
Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish prosecutor who
brought the charges, did not return calls for comment.
The anger fueled by the case shows no sign of letting
up. More than 1,500 people, including California
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, rallied at Howard
University in Washington on Wednesday. Rallies are
planned in Chicago and Boston.
Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and Friends
of Justice, plan to rally at the Jena courthouse on
Sept. 20, the scheduled date of Bell’s sentencing.
Their websites anticipate busloads of marchers from
across the country.
The black students’ supporters say the white teens in
Jena were not punished as severely as the blacks.
“The question here has always been about fairness and
equal justice,” says Tony Brown, a Louisiana radio
host. “The bottom line is that there is a two-tiered
judicial system. If you’re black, they want to lock
you up and throw away the keys. If you’re white, you
get a slap on the wrist and get to go home with your
He points to a case in nearby Bunkie, La., in which
three white teens were charged this spring with the
minor crime of battery for beating a white teen, who
spent three days in the hospital for brain swelling
The case of the Jena 6 has launched “a modern-day
civil rights movement,” Brown says.
Tired of the attention
Blacks are overrepresented in the criminal justice
system. A 2007 study by the National Council on Crime
and Delinquency found that blacks are 17% of the
nation’s juvenile population, but 28% of juveniles
arrested are black.
“I don’t think you grow up black and think this kind
of thing doesn’t happen,” says Maliza Kalenza, 19, a
Howard University sophomore from Minneapolis.
Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s
Western District, says his office investigated the
events in Jena but did not find evidence to support a
criminal case in the noose hangings. He says black
students had sat under the tree where the nooses were
hung, too, and he found no evidence that the noose
incident led to the fights three months later.
The tree was cut down this summer.
Washington’s office is reviewing the history of Jena
school district punishments of black and white
students but so far has found nothing inappropriate.
Some people in Jena don’t appreciate the attention.
School board member Billy Fowler says the year’s
events have been blown out of proportion. On the other
hand, he says, in the unlikely event that another
student hung a noose, the incident would be taken more
seriously. He also notes that some of the original
charges against the six teens, which he says were
excessive, were reduced.
“I feel like my town has been raked over
unmercifully,” Fowler says. “I’m tired of hearing how
racist my town is and it’s just not so. … And the
outsiders are not helping any with this.”