The Jena Six

On December 4, 2006, in the small town of Jena, Louisiana, a 17 year-old white high school student by the name of Justin Barker was beaten up by 6 of his fellow high school students by the names of Robert Bailey, Jr., Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw, and Jesse Ray Beard, all of them black.

This event represented the culmination of racial tensions stretching back to August 31, 2006, when a black male freshman jokingly asked the principal of Jena High School to sit in the shade of “the white tree”, which was a location where white students from the school typically sat in their self-segregated social arrangement.  The principal told him that he could sit wherever they wanted and so he proceeded to sit under the tree with some of his friends.

The next morning, three nooses hung from the tree, an obvious reference to the old practice of “lynching” blacks in the South.  The principal recommended expulsion for the three white students involved but was overruled by the school board and school superintendent, who reduced the punishment to three days suspension.

There were several incidents in between, including arson resulting in the destruction of one of the large buildings of the high school on November 30, but the incident most pertinent to the beating on December 4 was an incident 2 days earlier at the Gotta Go convenience store in Jena, where a fight broke out between a white man and some black students, including Robert Bailey, Jr. over an incident from the previous night where black students were denied entrance to a party.

The man ran to his pickup truck where he produced a shotgun.  Bailey wrestled the gun out of the man’s hands and took it home with him.  He was charged with battery and theft while the gun owner was not charged with any crime.

Apparently statements by Justin Barker about that fight to the effect of Bailey getting beaten by a white man were what motivated the beating.  Barker ended up unconscious with a concussion and an eye swollen shut.

Five of the six (all except Jesse Ray Beard, who was 14) were originally charged by LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters with attempted second-degree murder, a crime requiring 10-50 years in prison.

The focus of this case has been the trial of Mychal Bell, the only one which has occured.  He was found guilty of  second-degree battery and conspiracy charges by an all-white jury on June 28 this year.  The maximum sentence for these charges was 20 years.  On September 15, these charges were thrown out as he was 16 and the court found that he should not have been tried as an adult.

To me this case represents a great problem of injustice with racial overtones.  Obviously the six high school students who perpetrated the act should have been punished.  However, a price of 10-50 years of their lives in prison seems to be more than excessive.  It is true that they severely beat Barker, but I do not see how school yard thuggery should cost 10 years of one’s life at minimum.

I am also disappointed by the inconsistent and biased reporting of this incident.  If you read through the links in this post, you will find that there are contradictions between the sources.  Furthermore, in popular lore, it seems that the noose incident and the beating have been conflated as being directly related, when really, they are quite distant events that are both part of an underlying racial tension in the town of Jena.

Yesterday, there was a large protest staged in Jena, which included former black presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  While hopefully this raises national awareness to the racial tensions that are still alive and well in America, it is also worth noting that though the charges laid out by the district attorney are unreasonable, the six students should not be let off the hook for beating a fellow student to unconsciousness.  More than anything, this case emphasizes the fact that there doesn’t have to be a “right” side in a conflict and quite often both sides are wrong.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
This entry was posted in Current events, Opinions, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Jena Six

  1. blair says:

    The private party at the Jenna Fair Barn was an invitation-only affair. Both whites and blacks attended. Trouble started with a group of uninvited black teenagers, including Robert Bailey, attempted to crash the party. When one of the hosts, a woman, asked them to leave, they refused. Rather than calling police to eject the party crashers, a 22-year-old white male, Justin Sloan, hit Robert Bailey. The Jena Police Department and prosecutors office has stated several times that no beer bottles or other weapons came into play. In his statement to police, Bailey merely says that Sloan and Matt Windham, a 21-year-old white male, hit him. (It’s unclear why Windham wasn’t charged) In his statement to police, Bailey does not allege he was hit by a beer bottle. The beer bottle allegations only emerged once the Jena incidents drew national attention.

    The shotgun incidence occurred the following day at the Gotta Go Grocery Store. Bailey and two other black teenagers say Windham approached them with a shotgun and threatened to shoot them. Windham claims the three black youth confronted them as he was about to enter the store. He says Bailey shouted “We got action” and that he retreated to his truck when he saw the three black teenagers “running after me.” Windam says he pulled an unloaded shotgun from the back seat of his truck to defend himself. The three black youths wrestled the unloaded shotgun away from Windham and beat him up. Witnesses, including the store employees, who called police, and two customers supported Windham’s version of the episode. Windham was treated for injuries at local hospital and released. The police arrested the three black youths and charged them with aggravated robbery and theft of a firearm.

    It’s difficult to see how the incidents reveal unequal treatment. At the private party, the police interviewed witnesses and arrested a while male for assaulting Bailey. At the convenience store, they interviewed witnesses and arrested the three black youths.

  2. Ben Main says:

    It wasn’t the party that concerned me. It is the handling of the more popularly known tree nooses affair. The students who did that were merely suspended whereas the beating could result in tens of years in prison.

    Obviously, the circumstances are not the same, but the punisments do not seem to be proportional to the crimes and that I what I was getting at.

    Now, it sounds like you are more familiar with the story than I am and it is great to get extra detail, but while what the Jena Six did was definitely wrong, do you think a few decades in prison in proportional treatment of the issue? I don’t.

  3. brianna says:

    i think that there was no reason 4 that, i mean it just doesnt make sence

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