Civil rights protestors are still planning to converge on tiny Jena, La., next week—even though the "Jena Six" claimed a major victory Friday. It's been nine months since six high school students were arrested and accused of trying to beat a white classmate to death. Even longer since nooses were found hanging from a schoolyard oak tree favored by whites the morning after black students dared to venture under its boughs.
Mychal Bell, the 17-year-old former Jena High School football star convicted on a felony assault charge in the case, has been incarcerated since the December fight. But on Friday, a state appeals court vacated Bell's conviction. He was 16 years old at the time of the fight and should not have been tried as an adult, the court ruled. The attempted murder charges were also reduced recently for the other Jena Six teens facing adult punishment. Local black residents and many outside observers said the murder charges were overly harsh. The only weapons involved were the students' tennis shoes, and while the white victim was treated for injuries at a hospital, he went home the same day.
The ongoing controversy has thrown Jena, population about 3,000, into an uncomfortable spotlight that isn't likely to dim with the latest court decision. Civil rights activists, bloggers and black radio hosts helped spread the word about the case, demanding an end to what they see as unequal justice. On Saturday, some of the Jena Six and their relatives and lawyers joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Chicago at his Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters. "We will not rest" until all charges are dropped against the Jena Six, Jackson said. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is reviewing data from the La Salle Parish district attorney's office for evidence of racial disparities or violation of civil rights. The district attorney has declined to comment on the case, citing a gag order.
Jackson and other activists say what's happened in Jena is indicative of the "new Jim Crow" racism that inflicts many parts of the country. There is a "misuse of the criminal justice system as a kind of poverty control," says Alan Bean, an activist with the civil rights group Friends of Justice. "We have basically criminalized poor people … I think Jena is a particularly egregious example of business as usual in the American criminal justice system."
According to a review of the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics released by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice center, African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics nearly double the rate. Louisiana has a higher rate of black incarceration than the national average or that of nearby states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. But it has a lower rate than Texas, Florida and others. Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, blamed the growing disparities on racial bias and a failure of social and economic interventions to address crime effectively.
While national activists continue to push for change, Bell may finally be able to go home after a new bail hearing on Monday. Bean doubts that any of the other Jena Six cases will ever go to trial, though the La Salle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, has vowed to appeal Bell's case to the Louisiana Supreme Court. "We're not necessarily out of the woods yet, even as far as Mychal's case is considered," Bean said. "But vacating a conviction is a very, very positive step."
Bell's father, Marcus Jones, said his son never tried to kill anyone and that the charges against him were ludicrous. More than anything, Jones wants Mychal to realize his dream of playing college football with one of the top schools that had been recruiting him. On the field, "he's like poetry in motion," Jones recalled last month in Jena, describing the last time he saw him play at Jena High. "I want his credibility back, his eligibility, like this never happened. That's the way it should be."
On the other side of the Jena color divide, the town's white leaders feel equally misrepresented. Billy Fowler, a white school board member, says most people in his hometown agree that the Jena Six were dealt with too harshly. But he bristles at the charges of racism. "They want to see our town as being the most racist town in the world. That's what's being painted of Jena. Obviously this is the Deep South. If we went back in time 50 years, maybe what they're saying would have been true. But today we have come a 1,000 miles from that." If the Jena Six supporters ultimately prevail, the town could go a lot further still.