A year ago, Mychal Bell was known in Jena, La., simply as a 16-year-old sophomore at Jena High School and a winning starter on its football team. Today, known as one of the young men called the Jena Six, he stands convicted of aggravated second-degree battery and faces up to 22 years in prison. A rally is scheduled in Jena on Sept. 20 in conjunction with universities and individuals who wish to support the six.
According to accounts of the developments, their case began on Aug. 31, 2006, when a Black student in Jena asked permission to sit underneath what was understood to be the “white” tree at school — and he did. The next day, three nooses were found hanging from the tree. Three White students were held responsible and the principal recommended that they be expelled. The school board and superintendent, however, decided that an in-school suspension would suffice.
Outraged, Black students organized a protest and, again, sat underneath the “White” tree. Two incidents took place the next weekend.
On the Friday night, Robert Bailey, one of the six, was punched and kicked at a party attended by mostly White students. Then, Saturday, a confrontation took place between a group of Black students and one of the White students involved in Friday’s fight.
Once back at school, Justin Barker, a White student, teased Bailey about getting beaten Friday night and used racial slurs to do so. One student punched Barker in the back of the head and others kicked him while he was down, leaving him unconscious. An ambulance arrived to pick Barker up, but he was never officially hospitalized and, later that night, went to a school function.
Six Black students were arrested over the Dec. 4 school fight and their bonds were set. The highest reached $138,000.
Bell and the other five were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy in the fight with Justin Barker. On Sept. 4, charges for Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw were reduced to aggravated-second degree battery, The Associated Press reported, citing a media report.
In July, Bell became the first to stand trial. After being represented by a public defender who did not call witnesses in Bell’s defense, an all-White jury convicted him of aggravated battery and conspiracy charges after two days of deliberation. On Aug. 24, Bell was denied a reduction in the $90,000 bail after prosecutors disclosed four previous brushes with the law.
On July 31, as many as 300 supporters rallied in Jena in support of Bell and all of the defendants.
Victoria Kirby, a junior speech communication major at Howard and a member of the Save the Jena Six Planning Committee, said the Jena Six issue cannot be ignored. The group was to have a rally yesterday in support of the accused at Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel.
“It’s crucial for us to be involved,” Kirby said of the Howard community. “What we do affects what happens in the Black community.”
Chigozie Onyema is a part of the planning team as well. The group is working to raise money for and awareness of the case. “It would behoove students at a historically Black university to show solidarity with any case that calls into question the blindfold that the court is supposed to wear,” he said. Onyema is a senior African American studies major and the president of the Howard chapter of Amnesty International.
“Historically, there has been a separate criminal justice system for Black and White citizens,” he said. He then referred to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, saying that it taught us that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Vanessa Rozier, a student at Howard University, writes for The Hilltop
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