Justice in Jena

Rolling Back Injustice – a Story of Our Time

by Jordan Flaherty

There is a fist fight in a high school.  No one gets seriously hurt.  And yet some of those involved now face sentences of between 25 and 100 years in prison without parole in a case that reveals just how much work needs to be done to overcome this nation's racial divisions. 

Here is what happened in the mainly white town of Jena, Louisiana, population 2,500.

On August 31, 2006 a group of African-American students asked the vice-principal of the high school if they could sit under a tree which traditionally had been used by white students.  The next day there were three nooses hanging from the tree. 

The following week, Black students staged a protest under the tree.  At a school assembly soon after, Jana district attorney Reed Walters, appearing with local police officers, warned Black students against further unrest.  "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen," he threatened.

According to many in Jena, tensions simmered in the town over the fall, occasionally exploding into fights and other incidents, including an arson attack on November 30, which badly damaged a school building.  No white students were charged with serious offenses.  The students who were found to have been responsible for hanging the nooses – which an expulsion hearing committee said was a silly prank - were given only a few days in-house suspension. 

Bryant Purvis, one of the Black students now facing charges, states that after the incident, "There were a lot of people aggravated about it, a lot of fights at the school after that, a lot of arguments, and a lot of people getting treated differently."

In the first weekend of December, a Black student was assaulted by a group of white students, and a white graduate of Jena High School threatened several Black students with a shotgun.  The following Monday, white students taunted the Black student who was assaulted over the weekend.  A fight broke out in a crowded area of the school and one of the white students was beaten up. 

Within hours, six Black students were arrested.  "I think the district attorney is pinning it on us to make an example of us," said Purvis.  "In Jena, people get accused of things they didn't do a lot."

Soon after, their parents discovered that the students were being charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder.  They were also immediately expelled from school.

Tina Jones, the mother of Bryant Purvis, recalled that at the court hearing when the charges were announced, "The courtroom, the whole back side, was filled with police officers...I don't know how the DA or the court system gets involved in a school fight.  But I'm not surprised – there's a lot of racism in Jena.  A white person will get probation, and a Black person is liable to get 15 to 20 years for the same time."

Update: June 29, 2007

Seventeen-year-old Mychal Bell was found guilty by an all white jury after charges against him were reduced from attempted murder to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.  He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 31.  The other trials are forthcoming...