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.