Protesters from around the country gathered in the tiny town of Jena LA today, marching in support of six black teenagers who were initially charged with attempted murder after they beat up a white classmate — who was badly bruised but still able to attend a school function the same night. The beating was the culmination of a series of confrontations that began in August 2006, when black students at the local high school received permission from school administrators to sit under a tree where white kids usually gathered. Some of the white students retaliated by hanging nooses from the tree.
Just pause and take that in for a minute. In 2006, black students had to get permission to sit under a tree because it had been reserved for whites only. And because they did so, white students responded by hanging nooses, the symbol of lynching, in the tree.
Those white students were briefly suspended from school even though the principal recommended that they be expelled. It has been reported that after the school superintendent dismissed the noose incident as a prank, black students began sitting under the tree in protest. This drew the attention of the District Attorney, who came to the school to demand the students end their protest (sitting under a tree?) and told them he could “take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”
More incidents followed, with name-calling and violence and even an unexplained fire that destroyed the main academic building at the high school. A black student was beaten by a white student at an off-campus party. A white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store. The white student was charged with simple battery. The white man who pulled the gun wasn’t charged, but the kids who wrestled the gun away from him were arrested for aggravated battery and theft.
Shortly thereafter, in early December, six black students beat up a white student who they say was taunting the black student who had been beaten and calling several students “nigger”. The victim was hospitalized for a few hours and released in time to go to a school function, but the District Attorney chose to charge the attackers with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. Robert Bailey, Jr., 17, was one of the students so charged — and also the victim of the previously mentioned beating, which resulted in simple battery charges.
Somewhat cooler heads prevailed; Bailey and two other students saw their charges reduced to battery and conspiracy, while one has not yet been arraigned. The disposition for a fifth student, who was fourteen at the time, is unknown. Mychal Bell, who remains in jail because his family couldn’t scrape up the $90,000 bail (yes, that’s $90,000 — the range was $70,000 to $138,000), was convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, but the charges have been vacated, pending further action by the District Attorney.
Let me say very clearly that I don’t condone students attacking and beating other students. I’m particularly angered when a group gangs up on one person. Any student who attacks another student, on campus or off, should be punished appropriately.
That said, it seems this powder keg could have been defused before it blew. I’m still reeling from the words I typed in the first and second paragraphs. There is no place in the 21st century for “whites only” gathering places at public schools (or anywhere else). White students have no business hanging nooses from a tree. It’s not a joke. It’s not remotely funny. Nooses are a symbol of vigilante attacks, period. They are an implicit threat. Any school superintendent who has so little understanding of history as to write off that incident as a prank really needs to find another line of work. And what looks like ridiculous over-charging of the black students, particularly in contrast with the white attacker, did nothing to ease tensions.
I can only hope that today’s demonstration, which has been peaceful and purposeful by all reports, will shed light on the ongoing racism that all people of good will would like to end. An excellent way to start is to recognize it and confront it early, before we end up with another Jena.