The Jena Six

Haven’t heard about the Jena Six? I’ll give you a quick update.

On August 31, 2006, three black high school students decided to sit under a tree at their high school in Jena, Louisiana. One of the students had asked the principal in jocular fashion if it would be okay if they sat underneath it. The principal predictably replied that the students could sit wherever they wanted.

They day after, the students discovered that some white students at Jena High School had hung three nooses from the tree that the black students had sat underneath. Naturally, there was a considerable public outcry. The white students were suspended for only three days; the school board decided that it was a “prank” instead of a thread. Not satisfied with the meager punishment, black students and Jena citizens were outraged and tension built steadily in the community.

Fights broke out at parties, at school, and elsewhere. One black student, Robert Bailey was beaten for crashing an all-white party, for instance. The fight had been instigated by adult white males. The next day, Baily got into an altercation with a white student, who ran to his truck and grabbed a shotgun. Witness accounts contradicted each other (surprise!), and Baily was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery, and disturbing the peace.

On December 4, 2006, a white student named Justin Barker was jumped and assaulted by six black students. Witnesses say that Barker was knocked unconscious from the first punch that was thrown. He collapsed to the ground, and the six students continued their assault for at least a minute. Barker was treated at the hospital for a concussion, and was released two hours later with an eye swollen shut; he went on to attend a school ring ceremony that night. The newly-dubbed “Jena Six” were arrested.

One of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, faced up to 22 years in prison for aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. The prosecuting attorney classified Bell’s shoe as a “deadly weapon,” under the grounds that Bell could’ve lethally wounded Barker while kicking him in the head while he was unconscious. The charges were later dropped. Bell has a history of violent behavior, having been convicted of four other violent crimes. Bell was also under probation at the time of the attack.

The other five have been charged with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy; their charges will not be altered because they were all 17 at the time of the attack, making them adults under Louisiana law.

For more information, check the Wikipedia article entry “The Jena Six.”

Several mistakes were made here…

1. There should have never been a “white tree” at Jena High School. The fact that the school board had knowledge that the school grounds had been sectioned off by students according to race with nothing being done about it is reprehensible.

2. Three days suspension for hanging nooses from a tree was not enough of a punishment. A month suspension should’ve been the bare minimum punishment. Hanging nooses from a tree is not a prank, it is a threat. It calls up memories from the 20th century of pictures taken of black men hung from a tree, the result of a public lynching. Personally, I would’ve expelled the students.

3. Despite my feelings concerning the student-imposed segregation and the noose incident, the Jena Six absolutely deserve whatever punishment the jury concludes is appropriate. Barker was knocked unconscious almost immediately; everything that happened after that could’ve killed him. To kick an unconscious person in the head repeatedly indicates a desire to do more than fight someone or even hurt them. It shows that the intended desire was to maim them. Even if the rage passed and the Jena Six regretted the crime, such a violent act cannot be tolerated under the law.

Jena is being looked on in disgust by most of the nation right now. The inaction of an impotent school board, the racism of its students (no doubt passed down from their parents), and the violent rage from both sides leave a taste in our mouths that we are unlikely to forget. Too many seem content to excuse the actions of those involved depending on the color of their skin, forgetting that there is a lot of blame to pass around to people on both sides.

It’s sad that we’re still going through this.

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