Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter cry.
–Billy Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
On the morning of July 31, a long-armed tree on the lawn of La Salle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana provided shade to two hundred people. Hundreds of people from across the country—Atlanta, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Jackson, New Orleans— arrived in Jena, where the population of 3,000 is twelve percent black. They came to rally in support of Mychal Bell, recently convicted of second-degree battery, and five other black students charged with second-degree attempted murder for a one-sided fight on school grounds last December 4.
The “Jena Six,” are bearing out the final consequences of a storm of racially-tinged incidents in months leading up to the fight and the out-of-proportion legal backlash in a systematically white-controlled justice system. Ironically, it all stemmed from a seemingly innocent question of a student at the opening school assembly.
Nearly a year ago, on August 31, 2006, a student at Jena High School asked the vice principal whether he could sit under what had traditionally been known as “the white tree” in the school’s square. As a ninth grader, he was new to the school and had heard rumors about the tree, which was the outdoor congregating space for shade in the blazing heat of late August. The vice principal answered that the boy could sit wherever he wanted. With this information, the student and two friends integrated the tree the same day during lunch, without incident.
Not twenty-four hours later, three nooses in the school colors of black and gold were hung from that tree. The school immediately investigated and when it found the three white students responsible, the principal recommended expulsion. Some people in the white community, however, termed the nooses a “prank,” even going as far as to make up tales that the students were influenced by old westerns such as “Lonesome Dove,” rather than talk about it as a hate crime.
The black community of Jena, about 350 people or 12 percent of the town’s population, immediately viewed the nooses as a hate crime, stemming from the ugly history of lynching in Louisiana and the deep south after the inhumanity of slavery. “To us those nooses meant the KKK [Ku Klux Klan], they meant, ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die,’” Caseptla Bailey, mother of accused Robert Bailey and the President of the new La Salle Parish Chapter of the NAACP, told the London Observer. And it was not an abstract image of history, of past violence, but an image pertinent to the present. It was placed on school property to reestablish order, the separation of races, by intimidation and threat of violence after three black students dared to find shade and equality.
“It began under a tree where three ninth graders just coming into high school, we call them the ‘Rosa Parks of Jena’, stepped forward and said we’re not gonna take it anymore,” said King Downing, National Coordinator of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, to start off the rally on July 31. Downing is a one of the few outside folks that the families trust because he has been alongside them for months. He was helping the families long before the two hundred people gathered, back when only thirty or forty people came out to the rallies on this same courthouse lawn. “The rest is history, the nooses hung from the tree. All around this area, we may find a tree somewhere, where someone who was black was hung,” he continued. “That’s the reason that there was the reaction that there was. Because for us, hanging a noose—I don’t care if it’s in school colors or what—is no joke. Brings back memories that go back generations.”
Racial tensions continued in Jena largely because the school superintendent Roy Breithupt and the school board did not take the noose incident as an historically significant and threatening symbol. They overruled the recommendation of the principal to expel the three students and instead came down with the lightest punishment: three days in-school suspension. There was no acknowledgment that hanging nooses was a hate crime, a threatening, intimidating symbol of violence against black people. Instead, even the administrators opted for the white community’s line that it was all a “prank.”
Catrina Wallace, step-sister of Robert Bailey and secretary of the La Salle Parish NAACP Chapter, said the administrative response showed how black students would have to go at it alone if they wanted equality. “If you go back to the nooses, there’s the problem. Those kids were told hey these nooses were hung, that it was a prank. For them to say it was a prank, left those kids to do only one thing: defend themselves,” said Wallace, wearing a green “Free the Jena 6” t-shirt. “They don’t want to talk about the tree inside La Salle Parish Courthouse, but that’s where it started. They [the school administration] slapped those three kids on the wrist and said, ‘Job well done.’”
Back in early September 2006, most of the school’s black students were shocked at the leniency given to the three white students and spontaneously organized a sit-in under the tree during lunch on September 6, 2006. Led by some male black athletes, perhaps not surprisingly the same who now face charges, the protesters were nonviolent.
When administrators witnessed some heated verbal exchanges during this protest, they asked police officers to come address the student body at an assembly the same day. The officers, in turn, asked La Salle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters to come speak at Jena High. Though he was preparing for an important sexual assault case, Walters obliged. He entered the Jena High auditorium to the traditionally segregated student body: black student on one side of the aisle and white students on the other.
In his address, Walters issued a zero tolerance policy for disturbances in the school. “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen.” Walters even verified that he made this statement, but as he held that he was speaking to the entire crowd, a black teacher and many black students contend that Walters, as he held up his own pen, looked right in their direction. The consequence of this statement, as Catrina Wallace alluded to, was for the black students to feel as if they had no voice to nonviolently protest, and from then on would have to resort to self-defense.
“There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly but those are the facts of life…The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it–whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
–Atticus Finch, lawyer defending an innocent black man in To Kill A Mockingbird
Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena 6 to be tried, was convicted of second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit on June 28, 2007. The sentence, if the conviction is upheld upon appeal, could put Bell in prison for 22 years. Blane Williams, the public defender assigned to the case, called no witnesses and filed no motions on Bell’s behalf. On the steps of the courthouse directly after the trial Williams, who is black, said, “There will be people second-guessing me from this day on. This may even become a law school case.” He has since been replaced with Louis Scott from Monroe, La. and three co-counsels. They quickly filed appeals to the conviction based on inadequate counsel and several motions including the necessity of changing venues and questioning the validity of the original second-degree attempted murder charge, which allowed Bell to be tried as an adult.
The severity of the charges upgraded by District Attorney Walters followed the visceral response of the white community to the one-sided attack. On December 4, Justin Barker, a white student, was punched once in the back of the head, which knocked him temporarily unconscious and to the ground where several black students kicked him. Despite the seriousness of the incident, Barker survived with cuts and bruises to his face and no proven long-term damage. There are few consistencies from the 45 witness statements of the incident. The consistencies are precisely those just mentioned, a punch to Barker and kicks, but it is unclear who threw the punch and who kicked. Another consistent part of witness statements is the acknowledgment of a verbal argument before the punch, in which Robert Bailey, at that time in the gym, was taunted about getting his “ass whipped” last Friday. One of the most credible impartial witnesses, the gym teacher, stated that Barker taunted Bailey and that he added racial slurs to his other taunts. Barker denies this assessment of the events, stating on the witness stand at the first trial that he was walking with his girlfriend down the hall when something hit him in the head.
The six black minors arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy to commit—Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and an unnamed juvenile—were all important leaders in the nonviolent protest under the “white tree” back on September 6. They were marked by the law, by teachers and by the district attorney as troublemakers. Even with so many contradictory statements coming from witnesses to the incident, the district attorney’s office still took this as a criminal case instead of allowing the school to move forward with a punishment. Jena High School’s handbook describes the punishment for a school fight as three days suspension.
The Jena 6 faced bail amounts from $70,000 to $138,000, which most families could not pay and immediately tried to reduce. Some families were able to raise the amount in a week, but for others, including Caseptla Bailey, it took months. Robert Bailey was in jail until April, a total of over four months. When Caseptla visited Robert in jail, she tried to convey the best advice she could. “Robert had to learn a lesson from this misfortune. And I also let my son know while he was incarcerated: ‘You don’t just lay down here all day. You got to educate yourself’,” she recalled telling him. “You got to read, you got to learn, you got to understand why you are in this place. It’s not a good place right now, but you got to make the best of where you are. Educate your mind and keep your mind free—from any negativity.” All of the six, except Mychal, are now at home with their families awaiting trial.
“This did not all happen in the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919 when Jim Crow segregation thrived, and Blacks in major cities faced race riots that raged throughout the country. This did not occur in the 1950s after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and young children faced angry white mobs to make history in desegregating public schools. This did not happen in the summer of 1955 when, in Money, Mississippi, a vibrant Black youth by the name of Emmett Till was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. This did not occur in 1960, when on February 1 four Black college students sat in at a ‘white only’ lunch counter, demanding service and launching the civil rights movement to another level. This did not happen during the period 1865 to 1965 during which 3,446 Black people were lynched in the United States. This is now. When three white students in Jena committed this hate crime, hanging three nooses from the "white tree," they evoked the ugly history of slavery, segregation, lynching, and police brutality to threaten the lives of Black students at their school.” –Alice Woodward, July 10, 2007
Mychal Bell’s sentencing date on July 31, the reason for the gathering, was pushed back to September 20 due to his new counsel’s appeals and motions. The spectrum of organizations ranged from the Nation of Islam from Houston, the New Black Panther Party, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, N’COBRA, Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund of New Orleans, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Interfaith Worker Justice, ANSWER Coalition from Miami, Color of Change and Community Defenders TV and Radio Station in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Pins and t-shirts were worn with the slogan, “Free the Jena 6!” When one person mentioned they couldn’t believe the incompetence of Bell’s public defender, another attendee said back, “it’s not the public defender, he’s the prison deliverer.” Groups mingled, waiting for all the supporters who were driving overnight to arrive. Signs accumulated and accompanied the later rotating chants between speakers and during the march: “Stop the Jena-cide!”; throwback “No Justice, No Peace”; “Free Mychal Bell”; “Schools YES! Jails NO!”; “Educate don’t Incarcerate!”; and “Stop the War on Our Youth.” A young man with glasses and a ponytail strummed a guitar and sang social justice songs quietly. The Nation of Islam folks, decked out in sparkling dark grey suits, made the rounds shaking everyone’s hand, stopping longer and talking with the families. Media readied their cameras and microphones.
As the couple hundred gathered and circled around the statue where family members of the Jena 6 now stood, the scene on the lawn became very quiet. The families spoke first, the outspoken, strong voice of Caseptla Bailey taking the megaphone in hand. “We want to stress, very importantly, that this is a peace rally. We want to do this in peace, we want to do this in order. I want to keep stressing that. This is a peaceful rally. We can be loud, we can make some noise, but we also want to do this in a positive manner.”
Melissa Bell, soft-spoken and humble, directed her comments to the awe-inspiring turnout. “Thank you for coming out and supporting us. Y’all stay with the fight for us.”
King Downing, a tireless organizer standing 6’3” always with a five o’clock shadow and hearty voice, dramatically called on the protest gatherers to take an oath. “Everybody who’s come here I hope, is pledging that they will defend these families. And we’re gonna ask you to do that right now,” Downing beckoned. As he continued, the group echoed every phrase: “I/ [your name]/ swear solemnly/ that I will come to the defense of the Jena Six/ the Families/ their supporters/ in any way/ in any fashion/ by any means/ that I am asked/ that I am requested/ by the families/ by the FAMILIES/ by the families ALONE.” And in the cathartic finale, cheers and hollers and drumming seemingly cleansed the lawn in front of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse.
Speakers emphasized different aspects of the perceived injustice in Jena. Krystal Muhammed, the southern representative of the New Black Panther Party, dressed completely in black, compelled the crowd to see the racial tensions at every stage in Jena as institutional, including the recent community forum held by the US Department of Justice Community Relations Division. “Genocide is the systematic annihilation of a people. Every system that is, in this state, came against our young men, from the school superintendent to the District Attorney to the judge to the people in this town, to the US Department of Justice, who had the nerve to come and tell these families that nooses don’t represent a hate crime. They said that it was a potential hate,” she preached into the microphone. “When’s it a hate crime? When one of our brothers is swinging from the tree?”
Color of Change a New Orleans-based organization, was the first national group to work with the Jena families. Their national outreach strategy was to compose an online petition letter, which could be signed by national supporters and would be delivered to District Attorney Reed Walters and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. [others?] By the time of the rally on July 31, over 45,000 signatures were appended to the petition letter.
As he stood in front of a paper stack a yard tall, James Rucker of Color of Change conveyed responses he received from people around the country when they first heard of the Jena 6. “It’s not a black-white problem. It’s a justice problem,” reasoned Rucker. “People in a lot of places think ‘Oh this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore’ I have some people say, ‘Wait maybe I’m missing something because this sounds like something from the Jim Crow era, this doesn’t sound like something that could happen in 2007.’ But people are waking up and realizing everything isn’t always as it seems.”
Before a small group including family members, Rucker and others delivered the printed out signatures to the District Attorney’s office, where they would pass a dozen uniformed and plainclothes police on the inclined plane leading up to the courthouse doors, one more speaker called out that presence at this peaceful rally.
Dasaw Flood, a representative of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund of New Orleans, used the megaphone and incited the crowd to confront the uniforms near the courthouse gates. “Please turn around and look at these individuals up here. You need to look them in the eye. Their faces are some of the same faces that some of us have seen in photographs from the 60s and 50s,” he spoke deliberately, each syllable landing like a large stone on the earth. “They got patches, they got uniforms but we should all know, especially our young people—please look at them and understand that with all the badges and all the uniforms, they stand for absolutely…NOTHING. Which means if there’s a body that stands for nothing then it’s on us to stand up for one another.”
In this mood, in this exclamation capping the rally under a tree on the courthouse lawn, the petition deliverers walked solemnly along the sidewalk, supporters lining their path up the inclined plane to the sleek glass of the courthouse doors. Six people who held a share of the petition walked in without struggle as others rushed in behind them. The deliverers, including Caseptla Bailey, Melissa Bell, and Catrina Wallace, waited in front of armed sheriffs at the District Attorney’s door for someone to come out and accept their grievances.
After a very quiet two minutes, assistant District Attorney Walter Dorroh, Jr. emerged from the office and calmly received the signatures and brief personal statements by each deliverer. When his turn came, Rucker explained the petition’s content and significance to Dorroh, who took each batch of paper and placed it in the office. “I’m grateful for you handing me them,” he said after accepting the stacks. Though Walters could not accept the petition as he was out of town at a District Attorney convention, the families felt that it was powerful to show Jena public officials the amount of outside support, in essence that the world is watching and will continue to be involved.
Caseptla Bailey, self-proclaimed ex-military, hardly stopped moving. After delivering the petitions, she raised up an African flag of black, red and green strips, motored past the now docile crowd and started along the march route, allies following two-by-two after her lead. Chants immediately broke out and, in an instant, faces appeared out of adjacent businesses, on balconies, between the shades of windows.
At a car dealership, two middle-aged working class folks held the entrance door slightly open and distantly gazed upon the march. When asked about their feelings about the march, the woman responded quickly: “I think it’s ridiculous. That’s all I’m gonna say, it’s ridiculous.” The man complained about the march consisting of outsiders: “They all paid. They have a job to do. It ain’t no big secret. Ain’t none of these people from Jena. There ain’t nobody from La Salle Parish here. They’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
Jena, two hundred thirty miles northwest of New Orleans and close to the Arkansas border, is a relatively quiet lumber and, more recently, oil town of rolling hills whose local businesses have largely been bought out by global retail stores along its main strip: WalMart, Ace Hardware, every fast food chain and others. The stores provide service jobs that remove the skilled labor force, and any sense of growth, from the area. It is these rural isolated towns where a district attorney, school administrators and others in public capacities occupy the most powerful positions. Yet, in these towns, everyone knows everyone. It’s harder for someone to get away with anything unless the community lets them.
Public officials in Jena remain relatively silent on the case. The Mayor refuses to comment. Roy Breithaupt, the school superintendent who approved the three day in-school suspensions has stopped commenting. Even District Attorney Reed Walters, after his mid-December editorial in the Jena Times, has stopped talking to the media unless he’s at court. Sheriff Carl Smith made a brief statement that the crimes justified the charges and denounced the coverage: "It’s gotten into the media, and the media has spread it all over the United States that this is about race when it’s not about race.” Billy Fowler, a new LaSalle Parish School Board member, concurred in his letter to The Town Talk on August 2. “It is time someone from Jena stands up and defends our honor. The citizens of Jena, black and white, are mostly Christian, law-abiding citizens who do not want any trouble. I am angered and amazed at how the media has painted us to be the most racist town in the world.”
In fact, Fowler is one of the only officials who has recently spoken to the press, appearing in The Town Talk articles on the community forum, but also in the Washington Post. He largely admits past historical wrongs committed against the black community, but turns around and defends Walters’ actions.
All of the silence from public officials has not kept the international, national and alternative media from coming to Jena since Bell’s trial was set in May. Le Monde newspaper from France, London Observer, BBC, CNN, NBC, NPR, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Democracy Now!, Counterpunch, and Indymedia’s have all carried coverage of the Jena 6. Alan Bean, a founder of the Texas-based organization Friends of Justice, worked with the families very early on, lately taking on the role of attracting journalists and coordinating media access to the families. The news that has gotten out to the media is entirely attributable to this grassroots organizing and the tireless effort and faith of the families to fight for their sons’ freedom.
A police car leads the marchers on second street, the route now leading away from Jena’s main road and back to the courthouse spread as wide as the road and as long as a town block. People hold signs high, one group with a banner “Stop the Legal Lynching!”, and everyone keeps chanting, pulling into the courthouse lawn again on “Free Mychal Bell!”
Marcus Jones, missing from the pre-march rally, stands on a rock to address the crowd. Given the megaphone, Jones is awestruck at the number of people who have come in support of his son. Suddenly stage fright, he says he enjoyed that “Free Mychal Bell!” chant just now and sincerely thanks everyone for coming.
Pending an appeal, the sentencing date for Mychal Bell is still set for September 20 when Judge J.P. Mauffray will decide if the crime on which the jury’s verdict of guilt rests is worthy of more than a twenty-year prison term. In the worse case scenario, Mychal would be leaving prison, and living in the world as an adult for the first time, at the age of 39.
The grassroots organizing surrounding the Jena 6 issue continues, including protests of support in cities around the country—New York City, Boston—as well fundraising benefits, and even a resolution of support for the Jena 6 and their families by Cambridge, Massachusetts City Council. The Color of Change petition, put together and endorsed by the Jena 6 families, was the presence of supporters who could not make it for July 31.
As Deric Muhammed pleaded and prognosticated in a speech earlier in the day, “We need for them to be here on the twentieth of September when they seek to publicly lynch Mychal Bell. We need to bring a city to this city. We gonna take Jena, Louisiana over. We gonna turn it upside down, grab it by its ankles, and shake it and shake it until the coins of justice fall out of its pockets.” Justice for the Jena 6 may be that another generation of black students will never have to face a two-tiered system of the law.
In an act befitting a lumber town, where the exploitation of resources now becomes the exploitation of memory, the tree where white students maintained a schoolyard version of white supremacy by denying black students equal rights to shade was cut down in late July. The school superintendent Roy Breithaupt authorized the final decision, while Billy Fowler cited that Jena High School needed “a clean slate.”
Construction of the new academic is underway to replace the one lost to fire back in November, which would have necessitated that the tree be cut for construction, according to Fowler. “There’s nothing positive about that old tree. It’s all negative. And I’m serving on the new School Board, and we’re wanting to start fresh on some things,” he told The Town Talk, adding that “We don’t want the blacks coming back up there looking at the tree knowing what happened, or the whites. We just want to start fresh.”
The families and supporters had different reactions. “Cutting down that beautiful tree won’t solve the problem at hand,” Caseptla Bailey has said. “It still happened.” Now only a stump, the iconic symbol of racial prejudice is left to historical memory.
Deric Muhammed dressed in a suit characterized by the Nation of Islam, gyrated and inflamed his voice as it grew louder and more earnest. He highlighted perhaps the greatest victory of the protests and the struggle so far. “The very noose that they hung our people from for hundreds of years in this state, and many others, is the same noose that brought the tree down and the same noose that our youngsters protested against. But our message to them has to be: You’ve already made history."
For the full history (up to June 2007) of the Jena 6 from the families perspective go here: http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/jena-6/ and click on the “Jena 6 Summary” link within the text.