Six young black men from a Jena, Louisiana high school can spend up to 22 years in prison for a racially motivated school fight. The story is very similar to the Jim Crow era where the police, judges and the courts where used to keep the black folks “in their place.” Unfortunately it is sad to see that Jim Crow racism still exists in the 21st century.
In September 2006, a black high school student in the small Louisiana town of Jena, asked the principal for permission to sit under a “whites only” tree. The principal said he “didn’t care where students sat.” The next day, students arrived at school to see three nooses in school colors hanging from the tree. The superintendent dismissed the nooses as a “prank,” and gave the students who hung the nooses only a light punishment of three-day suspension, which resulted in more Black students to sit under the tree in protest. Then District Attorney Reed Walters came to the high school and told the students he could “take [their] lives away with a stroke of [his] pen.”
As racial tensions in Jena increased, Reed Walters did not take any action in response to several cases of violence and threats against black students. However after another white student called several black students “nigger”, and was beaten up as the result, six black students were charged with second-degree attempted murder. The first person to face trial was Mychal Bell who was convicted this July, thanks to an all white jury. Fortunately last Friday a Louisiana appeals court overturned the aggravated-battery conviction of Mychal Bell. The District Attorney now has the option of trying Bell and his friends for attempted murder as an adult or aggravated battery as a juvenile. Each student if convicted could face up to 22 years in prison for just a school fight.
Unfortunately Jena 6 is not the only example of today’s Jim Crow justice. The town of Paris, which calls itself “The best small town in Texas,” convicted Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black freshman to seven years for shoving a white teacher’s aide in 2005, till a special conservator ordered her release this March. In another example, the Douglas County of Georgia convicted Genarlow Wilson of molestation and sentenced him to 10 years for engaging in consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. Genarlow, now 21 still remains in prison while the state appeals his case.
The actions of District Attorney Reed Walters are a disgrace to justice. Mr. Walters should drop all charges against the young men awaiting trial. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco should act immediately and prevent the sentencing of Mychal Bell, even through a pardon if necessary. The District Attorney has refused to protect the rights of Jena’s Black population and has turned the police and courts into instrument of oppression. The state of Louisiana must investigate the conduct of District Attorney Reed Walters, whose actions are a blatant and unacceptable abuse of power, to begin the process of healing in Jena and to make sure this injustice never happens again.