In Search of Justice in Jena

Paloma Esquivel
September 21, 2007

(Editor's Note: Jim Crow is alive and well in Jena, La., where Mychal Bell, 16, one of six black teens facing unfair sentences for a schoolyard scuffle, was denied bail on Sept. 21.)

It was a scene played out over and over again on this hot Louisiana day. As over 10,000 demonstrators in Jena, La., Thursday made their way past the worn brick buildings of Jena High School, someone would pause for a minute and ask where the "white tree" had been. The tree, which was cut down at the beginning of the school year and which had, according to town residents, traditionally been a gathering spot reserved for white students, has become a powerful symbol of injustice.

"If it wasn't for this tree and it being classified as a 'white's-only tree,' we wouldn't be here," said 23-year-old Clark Atlanta University student Danielle Saint-Vil, standing near a flag that marked the spot where protesters were told the tree once stood.

Students, retirees, working men and women and children, each eager to remember a day when thousands swelled the streets of this tiny Southern town, posed for pictures near the flag. Every once in a while, someone stopped to gather dirt from the mound or to kneel and say a prayer.

By now the story that brought so many thousands to Jena (pop. 3,500) on Thursday is a familiar one -- though for more than six months while it was covered widely in Europe, it was left to black radio hosts, university students and independent media outlets to spread the word in the United States. It was over a year ago that one black student sat under the "white tree" at Jena High School, challenging a long-standing tradition of segregation. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree, setting off a wave of incidents between black and white students. When a white student was allegedly beaten in a schoolyard fight, six black students were charged with attempted murder and together faced over a 100 years in prison. The Jena 6, as the young black teenagers involved in the case have come to be known, range in age from 15 to 17.

On Thursday, the caravans of protesters -- many carrying people who had traveled for hours and even days -- began arriving before sunrise. The story of the Jena 6 seemed to capture the attention of a new generation of activists -- many of whom were protesting for the first time.

Many protesters seemed to coalesce their anger around the racist symbolism of nooses and the segregated "white tree," along with the extreme case of six young men facing 20 years in prison for a schoolyard fight.

Malcolm Beauty, 30, a barber in nearby Lafayette, La., said the case was an ugly reminder of an older type of "blatant" racism.

"What they've done here is like a 1965 or 1925 method. To give a man 22 years in jail for a fight in school is just unheard of," Beauty said.

The Jena 6, however, symbolize the criminalization of black youth everywhere, he added. "I'm tired of police targeting young black males," he said. He described police intimidation of blacks in Lafayette.

"From Thursday to Saturday, you can see the police coming into black neighborhoods and rounding us up like cattle, arresting us for whatever little charge they can come up with," he said.

It was the combination of "blatant" racism and a sense that the criminalization of black youth is pervasive and increasing that created an impetus to converge on Jena en masse, protesters said.

Forty-five-year-old Veromea Smith, a nurse practitioner in Houston, said the case never shocked her because she's seen many black men in her family and among her friends locked up for crimes they did not commit or punished disproportionately for crimes they did commit.

"I've sat in so many court rooms and seen it so many times. There are more black men in prison than there are in college," she said.

Smith, who took an overnight bus to Jena with her husband and 12-year-old son, said her son needed to learn that "it only takes one bad decision," to get caught up in the criminal justice system.

"[My son] needs to be extra careful. He needs to be better than the rest because he is a young black man," she said. "He needs to learn how far we still have to go."

At the end of the day, after most of the rallies had ended and many of the demonstrators returned to their buses and cars to begin the long trip home, about a dozen people made their way back to Jena High School where they gathered near the "white tree's" marker. A few protesters stood talking. Others sat around on benches or took pictures. In the corner, Robert Huggins, of Chicago, knelt in the corner and began digging. A few minutes later, he pulled out a long root.

"Here's the root right here," Robert Huggins, of Chicago, told the bystanders. "Everyone's been looking to the D.A., the judge, the state, trying to find the root of the problem and here it is, right here."

"Racism," someone in the crowd said.

"Naturally," replied Huggins, "Born and bred here in Jena, La. Dig long enough, you're bound to find it."

He took out a pocket knife, cut the root into little pieces, and passed them out to the crowd.


Paloma Esquivel, a frequent contributor to WireTap, is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas.


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Comments

Instead of marching around aimlessly in the streets, these activists should go back to their own communities and work on strengthening families, stress education and ending black on black violence.

Marching isn&;t aimless - it does have a purpose. It is about solidarity and a group of people trying to promote awareness and change for the better; it can also make a statement saying "this is not okay". I also find it disturbing that someone would say things like "THEIR OWN communities", as though they are separate from the rest of Jena. "bigdaddy" is ignoring the issue that has become more evident with the incident of Jena6. Why aren&;t all those other issues "bigdaddy" stated problems for everyone? Racism is rampant all over this nation, and it&;s time that the population, both in and outside of Jena, get a wake up call and take action.

This was horrible journalism that only showed one side of the story. The people almost killed a kid. As in ending a life. I&;m sorry about what the white kids did. But compared to taking a life, it&;s not as bad. You could definetely tell this person was biased. I am extremely dissappointed in wiretap for putting this on.

Smith, who took an overnight bus to Jena with her husband and 12-year-old son, said her son needed to learn that "it only takes one bad decision," to get caught up in the criminal justice system.<br />
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