The "white tree"
At Jena High School
, students of different races customarily seldom sat together. Black students traditionally sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large shade tree, referred to as the "white tree," in the center of the school courtyard.
During a school assembly on August 31
, a black male freshman student asked permission from the principal to sit in the shade of the "white tree."
According to the recounting of events given by U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, the question was posed in a "jocular
The principal told the students they could "sit wherever they wanted."
The following morning, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. Anthony Jackson, one of two black teachers at the high school, recalled, "I jokingly said to another teacher, 'One's for you, one's for me. Who's the other one for?'" Jena's principal learned that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion
. The board of education
overruled his recommendation, to which Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed. The punishment was reduced to three days of in-school suspension.
The school superintendent was quoted as saying, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody."
Black residents of Jena claim that this decision stoked racial tensions that led to subsequent events.
The school district and parents who were aware of the incident did not report it to the police or any legal authority, though such incidents may be prosecuted as federal hate crimes
by the Federal Bureau of Investigation
District Attorney Reed Walters and the "pen statement"
Accounts differ as to what happened afterward. According to some accounts, on September 5
, 2006, a number of black students organized a peaceful sit-in under the white tree in response to the commuted punishment of the perpetrators. The protest was then dispersed by police.
U.S. Attorney Washington, speaking in July 2007, stated he could find no confirmation of this protest occurring. He could confirm that police were called to the school several times in the days after the noose incident in response to a rash of interracial fights between students.
The principal called an impromptu assembly on September 6
, in which students segregated themselves into white and black sections. The Jena Police Department asked LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters to attend and speak at the assembly. Walters was unhappy with the request because he was busy preparing for a case and, upon arrival, felt that the students were not paying proper attention to him.
Walters is alleged to have threatened the protesters if they didn't stop fussing over an "innocent prank" and to have stated, "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen." Black students state that Walters looked specifically at members of the black audience as he said this. Walters and school board member Billy Fowler, also present, deny that the comments were specifically directed at black students.
Nevertheless, police began patrolling the halls of Jena High on September 7, and the school was declared to be in total lockdown the day after.
On September 10
, several dozen black students attempted to address the school board concerning the recent events but were refused because the board was of the opinion that "the noose issue" had been adequately resolved.
Racial tensions and fights continued through the fall but were held in check by the ongoing football season. The high school team was doing unusually well, in large part due to efforts of several star black players, and students were unwilling to do anything to upset the season.
Events prior to the Jena Six assault
On November 30
, the main building of the high school was set on fire. The building was gutted and had to be later demolished. Blacks and whites accused each other of the arson.
On Friday, December 1
, there was a private party, attended mostly by whites, at the Fair Barn. Five black youths, including 16-year-old Robert Bailey, attempted to enter the party at about 11pm. According to U.S. Attorney Washington, they were told by a woman that they were not allowed inside without an invitation. The five youths persisted, stating that some friends were already in attendance at the party. A white man, who was not a student,
then jumped in front of the woman and instigated a fight. After the fight was broken up, the woman told both the white man and five black youths to leave the party. Once outside, the black students were involved in another fight with a group of white men, who also were not students.
Police were then called to investigate. Several months later, Justin Sloan, a white male, was charged with simple battery
for his role in the fight and was put on probation
. Bailey later stated that one of the white men had broken a beer bottle over his head,
but there are no records of medical treatment being given.
The following day, an incident apparently stemming from this fight occurred at a local convenience store. A student who had attended the party encountered Bailey and several friends. An argument ensued, after which the white student ran to his pickup truck
and produced a pistol-grip shotgun
. Bailey ran after the white student and wrestled him for control of the gun. Bailey's friends intervened in the scuffle and took the gun away. Bailey refused to return it and ultimately took it home with him. Local police reported that the accounts of the white student and black students contradicted each other and formed a report based on testimony taken from eyewitnesses. This resulted in Bailey being charged with three counts: theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who had produced the weapon was not charged.
Jena Six assault
The following Monday, December 4
, a white student named Justin Barker, aged 17, loudly discussed - "bragged," as characterized by National Public Radio
- how Bailey had been beaten up by a white man that Friday night.
When Barker walked out of the school gymnasium into the courtyard later that day, he was assaulted by Bailey and five other black students, and was temporarily knocked unconscious. The concussion he suffered has been described in the media as resulting either from a punch to the face or from hitting his head on concrete when thrown to the ground. While on the ground, Barker was kicked repeatedly. Barker was examined by a doctor at the local hospital.
After two hours of treatment and observation for his concussion and an eye that had swollen shut, Barker was discharged in time to go to the school Ring Ceremony that evening.
In the meantime the six black students, eventually dubbed the "Jena Six"
, were arrested.
Trial, prosecution, and legal proceedings
The six students - Robert Bailey Jr., Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw, and an unidentified minor
- were initially charged with aggravated assault
. However, District Attorney Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder
, provoking protests from black residents that the charges, which could result in the defendants being imprisoned past age 50, were disproportional to the crime.
On June 26
, the first day of trial for defendant Mychal Bell
, Walters agreed to reduce the charges for Bell to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.
A charge of aggravated battery requires the use of a "deadly weapon". Walters thus argued that the tennis shoes that Bell was wearing and used to kick Barker were deadly weapons, an argument with which the all-white jury agreed. Despite conflicting witness accounts on whether he was even involved in the attack
, Bell was found guilty and will face the possibility of up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced on September 20
In late July, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington
noted the lack of connection between the noose incident and the beating at Jena High school, noting that the more than 40 statements all failed to mention the noose incident.
The case is currently in dispute as the court-appointed public defender
did not call a single witness in his attempt to defend Bell.
Bell's new defense attorneys, Louis Scott and Carol Powell-Lexing, requested that a new trial be held on the grounds that Bell should not have been tried as an adult and that the trial should have been held in another parish.
On September 4, 2007, a judge dismissed the conspiracy charge but let the battery conviction stand, though he agreed that Bell should have been tried as a juvenile.
On September 4
, 2007, Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw also had their charges reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy,
as did Robert Bailey Jr. on September 10.
Bell's criminal history
Mychal Bell's juvenile record was recently released, revealing that he had been previously convicted of four other crimes. Bell was put on probation for a battery that occurred December 25, 2005, and he was later convicted of yet another battery charge and two charges of criminal damage to property.
In the wake of these events, numerous groups in support of the "Jena Six" and against the way the cases were and are being handled have appeared on social networking site Facebook
as well as an online petition circulating boasting over 243,254 signatures as of September 13, 2007.
A rally is scheduled for September 20, 2007, the day of Mychal Bell's sentencing.
Rapper Mos Def
plans to attend.