Saturday, June 27, 2009
Who are the Jena 6?
The Jena Six are a group of six black teenagers convicted in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, United States, on December 4, 2006. Barker was injured in the assault by the members of the Jena Six, and received treatment for his injuries at an emergency room. While the case was pending, it was often cited as an example of racial injustice in the United States, due to a belief that the defendants had initially been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly.
A number of events took place in and around Jena in the months preceding the Barker assault, which have been linked to an alleged escalation of racial tensions. These events included the hanging of nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard, two violent confrontations between white and black youths, and the destruction by fire of the main building of Jena High School. The incidents were often linked in the extensive news coverage regarding the Jena Six.
Six individuals (Robert Bailey, then aged 17; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 18; Bryant Purvis, then 17; Jesse Ray Beard, then 14; and Theo Shaw, then 17) were arrested in the assault on Barker. One, Mychal Bell, was initially convicted as an adult of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. His convictions were overturned on the ground that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Prior to a retrial in juvenile court, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of simple battery. The other five defendants later pled no contest, and were convicted of the same offense.
The Jena Six case sparked protests by those viewing the arrests and subsequent charges, initially attempted second-degree murder (though later reduced), as excessive and racially discriminatory. The protesters asserted that white Jena youths involved in other incidents were treated leniently. On September 20, 2007, between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters marched on Jena in what was described as the "largest civil rights demonstration in years". Related protests were held in other US cities on the same day. Subsequent reactions included songs alluding to the Jena Six, a considerable number of editorials and opinion columns, and Congressional hearings.
Background to the assault - Noose hanging
Jena High SchoolAt Jena High School, about 10% of students are black and more than 80% are white, reflecting the population of the town of Jena, which has about 3,000 people. Some early reporting indicated that students of different races seldom sat together, although this has been disputed. According to early reports, black students typically sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large tree in the center of the school courtyard, referred to as the "white tree" or "prep tree". According to some of the school's teachers and administrators, the tree in question was not a "white tree" and students of all races had sat under it at one time or another.
A school assembly was held on August 31, 2006. A black male freshman asked the principal whether he could sit under the tree. According to Donald Washington, United States Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, the principal stated that the question was posed in a "jocular fashion". The principal told the students they could "sit wherever they wanted". According to some reports, the freshman and his friends then sat under the tree.
The following morning, nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. Reports differ as to whether there were two or three nooses. A black teacher described seeing both white and black students "playing with [the nooses], pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them" that same day. Craig Franklin, assistant editor of The Jena Times, stated that the nooses were actually a prank by three students aimed at white members of the school rodeo team, and that the school's investigating committee had concluded that "the three young teens had no knowledge that nooses symbolize the terrible legacy of the lynchings of countless blacks in American history." The names of those who hung the nooses have not been publicly disclosed.