Nooses stir a year of racial unrest

Times Staff Writer

In December, six black boys jumped a white boy at the high school here and beat him while he lay unconscious.

The victim was taken to the hospital, but he was not gravely hurt. He attended a class ring ceremony later that evening.

The black boys were charged with attempted murder, which threatened to put them in prison for most of their lives. The district attorney alleged they’d used a deadly weapon: their sneakers.

The case of the so-called Jena Six has elicited outrage around the world -- not only because of the stiff charges brought against the black teenagers, but because of the stark contrast between the way black boys and white boys in the same town were treated.


The assault was the culmination of months of racial unrest in Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), a former sawmill town of about 3,000 people in the backwoods of central Louisiana. It started at the beginning of the last school year, when a black freshman at Jena High School asked the vice principal during a school assembly whether he could sit under the “white tree,” a gnarled oak on campus where white students gathered to escape the stifling Southern heat. He was told to sit wherever he wanted.

The following day last September, three hangman’s nooses were dangling from the oak’s branches. Two months later, the school was set on fire.

The three white boys who hung the nooses were identified but not expelled or charged with a hate crime; they were suspended for three days. No one has been charged in the arson.

The Jena Six were kicked out of school last school year. Five were charged as adults with crimes that carry long prison sentences. (The other boy is being tried as a juvenile and was recently allowed to return to classes.)

One of the six, Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted of aggravated battery by an all-white jury this year, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 15 years. On Friday, a state appeals court overturned his conviction after his defense attorneys argued that he was unlawfully tried as an adult.

Still, Bell remained behind bars late Friday, as he had been for the last nine months. It is unclear whether LaSalle Parish Dist. Atty. Reed Walters will seek to drop the charges, retry him as a juvenile or ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s decision. Walters did not return requests for comment.

“It’s not a complete victory; we can’t celebrate yet,” said Louis Scott, one of a team of Louisiana lawyers defending Bell pro bono. “But when we got in this game, we were a couple of touchdowns behind. Now the game is tied.”

The “white tree” at the high school was recently cut down by local leaders, and Walters has been reducing the charges against the Jena Six to aggravated battery; attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of more than 50 years.


But those actions have done little to quell the criticism of the way Jena authorities have handled the case.

“If a black person does something in Jena, they do more time than a white person. It’s always been that way,” said Bell’s mother, Melissa Bell. “The white kids here can run loose, drink beer, whatever. But if you are black, don’t you dare act like that.”

African American leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III argue that the case has raised disturbing questions about lingering racism and uneven justice in the Deep South.

Bloggers and student activists have taken up the Jena Six cause, saying the case is not unique: Studies have shown that black youths often receive harsher penalties than white youths.


Rallies to support the Jena Six are taking place around the country, and the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations had been planning a bus trip to Jena for Mychal Bell’s sentencing, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

It was unclear Friday whether the rally, which was expected to draw thousands including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, would still take place. Jena officials have called off classes at six schools in anticipation of possible unrest.

“Jena is a 1960 town in a 2007 world. It’s like going 47 years in the past,” said the Rev. Raymond Brown, a New Orleans civil rights activist. “The message being sent here is: ‘Don’t you touch any white people, because if you do you will get locked up for life.’ ”

But in Jena, about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans, some whites say their town is suffering the real injustice. They blame out-of-state activists and the news media for painting a sensationalized picture of Jena as a throwback to the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow era. They would prefer that the camera crews and ministers leave for good.


The noose incident was “nothing more than a bad joke. Whites and blacks stuck their heads in the nooses, poking fun at it,” said Billy Fowler, a local school board member. “The black students -- it caused some tension for them, I’m sure, but it’s not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.”

Fowler said that though he and many others agreed that the Jena Six were being excessively punished, many had lost sympathy for the boys because of damage to the town’s reputation.

“If they’d kept their mouths shut, they might have gotten those charges taken off,” he said. “But with the way this town’s been done wrong, I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”

Fowler and others assert that there’s no direct connection between the noose incident and the later beating, a position supported by U.S. Atty. Donald Washington, who has been reviewing the case for possible federal intervention.


But supporters of the Jena Six argue that the nooses divided the town and sparked an ugly series of racial fights that culminated in the six-on-one beating.

After the nooses were hung, Jena High Principal Glen Joiner recommended expulsion for the white students responsible. But he was overruled by LaSalle Parish Schools Supt. Roy Breithaupt -- a decision that angered Jena’s 350 or so black residents. Breithaupt did not respond to requests for comment.

After the decision, black students at Jena High gathered under the tree in protest.

Fights between blacks and whites broke out for days, and the principal ultimately called an assembly in which Dist. Atty. Walters, flanked by armed police, addressed the school.


“With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear,” Walters said. In a court hearing where an attorney tried to have Walters removed from the beating case on grounds that he was biased, Walters, who is white, admitted making the statement. But he denied that he had been looking at black students when he said it, as some have said he had been.

Just before the incident that resulted in stiff charges for the Jena Six, white youngsters had attacked one of the six black boys, Robert Bailey, 17, striking him with beer bottles as he tried to enter a party. Only one of the attackers was charged -- with simple battery.

The next day, a white man who had been at the party brandished a shotgun during an altercation with Bailey and several other black boys.

He was not charged, but the boys, who wrestled the gun away from him, were charged with stealing it.


At a hearing last month in which Mychal Bell’s new attorneys tried to get him released on bail, prosecutors revealed that Bell had been on juvenile probation and had been involved in other violence. Supporters of the stiff charges called the disclosure proof that the charges were just.

On Friday, Bell’s attorneys said they would now seek school reinstatement for Bell -- an honor student and star running back who was being courted by top football colleges including Louisiana State University -- while he fought his legal battles.

“I just hope this doesn’t mess up his mind, being locked up with grown men,” Melissa Bell said tearfully as she stared at a picture of her son in black-and-white prison stripes. “He had such a bright future in front of him. I really hope he can get his life back.”