September 19th, 2007 10:29 EST
Jena 6: Too Early to Celebrate
The judge who presided over the trial of Mychal Bell and, more recently, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals have vacated felony charges against Bell growing out of a group of Black teens beating a White youth at Jena High School. Both legal entities agreed that Bell, who was 16 years old at the time, should have never been tried as an adult and ordered all proceedings against him be handled by juvenile officials.
Both actions followed intense public pressure, much of it stimulated by the Black media and communications on the Internet. Bell had been scheduled to be sentenced Thursday, but that has been made moot by the rulings declaring him a minor. Under Louisiana law, 17-year-olds can be tried as adults for serious criminal offenses.
Dropping the sentencing of Bell, who has been held in custody since the attack nine months ago, did not alter plans to hold a national protest Thursday in the tiny town in central Louisiana, not far from Alexandria. Thousands are expected to arrive on buses, easily outnumbering the approximately 3,000 residents of Jena.
While throwing out the charges against Bell of conspiracy and aggravated second-degree battery represents a clear victory for the social justice movement, it is too early to celebrate. Four of the Jena 6 - Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw and Robert Bailey - were at least 17 years old at the time of the attack and therefore can still be tried as adults. There was another unidentified juvenile and District Attorney Reed Walters has already announced that he will petition the Louisiana Supreme Court to allow him to prosecute Bell as an adult.
The facts are startling:
· At a school assembly on August 31, 2006, an African-American student, who noticed that Black and White students congregated separately at Jena High (Whites usually assembled under a shade tree and Black students sat on bleachers near the auditorium), asked if it was okay for African-Americans to sit under the "White" tree. The principal said yes and a a couple of Black students tested the waters.
· The next day, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree, conjuring up the images of lynching. Anthony Jackson, one of two Black teachers at the school said, "I jokingly said to another teacher, 'One's for you, one's for me. Who is the other one for?" Three White students were identified as the culprits and the principal expelled them. However, the Board of Education overruled the principal and gave the students a 3-day, in-school suspension. The superintendent said, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody."
· Black protests followed, with African- American students protesting the incident under the tree, which was later cut down.
· On November 30, a fire destroyed Jena High's main academic building, with some Blacks and Whites accusing one another for starting the fire.
· Robert Bailey, one of the high school protest leaders, was beaten on December 1, 2006 at a mostly White party. The next day, Bailey and two friends went to a convenience store and encountered a student who allegedly participated in the attack on Bailey. The White student went to his pickup truck and grabbed a shotgun. The African-American youths wrestled him to the ground and took the gun away from him. Bailey, who took the gun home, was later charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. No charges were filed against the White student who pulled the gun.
· The central incident that led to the charges against the Jena 6 did not happen in a vacuum. On December 4, Justin Barker, a White student, was said to have used the n-word and "bragged" about Bailey being beaten Friday night. When Barker left the gym, he was allegedly jumped by Bailey and five others. He was struck, kicked and knocked unconscious. His eye was swollen shut and he suffered a concussion. He was examined at a local hospital and released. Barker wasn't too injured to attend a ring ceremony at school that night.
At a press conference in Atlanta on Monday, Charles Steele Jr., president of the Christian Leadership Conference, said: "Rather than seeking prison time for these young people, both Black and White, I say let's wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Adults should act like adults and say, 'There is enough blame to go around for everyone.' Rather than seeing any of these young people have their lives and future careers ruined, let's embrace them and show them through our action that there is a better way."
Whether that happens depends on the actions of the district attorney, the person who was heavy-handed in charging the Black youth in the first place.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.
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