This story represents a major step forward. BlackAmericaWeb gets a million hits a day, so this gives our cause terrific exposure. Moreover, a number of critical issues emerge in this article that have not received adequate attention in the mainstream media. The media has the attention span of a two year-old, so we need to keep reaching out to bloggers, independent journalists and conventional print and television people. Keeping a story alive is a lot like stoking an old-time steam locomotive–you can never stop shovelling coal.
My comments were made via cellphone between Jena and Shreveport, and I had no idea I would be quoted directly. So, while my remarks are a bit rambling and imprecise, they are also spontaneous. I touch on some rather sensitive issues that I might have avoided had I realized that my words would end up in print–but that’s probably just as well. The advocacy community is simply not organized to respond effectively to cases like this and that needs to change–immediately!
Friends of Justice
3415 Ainsworth Court Arlington, TX 76016
Supporters of Teens Convicted, Accused of Beating White Student Seeking Outside Assistance
Date: Monday, July 02, 2007
By: Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, BlackAmericaWeb.com
Family members and supporters of Mychal Bell, the first of the six black teenagers accused and convicted of beating a white student last December, are calling for outside help with legal representation.
“His court-appointed defense lawyer didn’t present a defense. He rested the case without challenging the prosecution’s story,” Alan Bean of the Texas-based Friends of Justice told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “He never said the young man was innocent. He only told the jury, ‘You should find him not guilty.’”
“It’s as if the lawyer who was appointed was appointed so he could just roll over. He is a black lawyer, but in this case, it didn’t make a difference,” Bean said. “We’ve contacted the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, but unfortunately those organizations will not get involved until after a conviction.”
Bell and five other black teens are accused of beating Justin Barker, a white student, on Dec. 4, 2006. All students attended Jena High School in a Louisiana town of about 2,900, where only 15 percent of the residents are black.
They accused teens have been dubbed the Jena Six.
For months leading to up to the fight, there was a series of incidences in and around the Jena High School, including the hanging of three nooses in a tree after blacks asserted their rights to sit under it, an area which had been a gathering place for white students.
The students who hung the nooses were suspended from school for a few days, according to published reports.
“When white kids do something, they get a few days out of school. When our kids do something, it’s attempted murder,” said John Jenkins, whose son Carwin Jones, is one of the six accused.
Efforts to reach the LaSalle Parish District Attorney and the school superintendent were unsuccessful.
The 17-year-old Bell is now awaiting a July 31 sentencing on a conviction for aggravated second-degree battery and a conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. The conviction could carries a sentence of up to 20 years for Bell, who was a standout halfback on the high school’s football team and, as a junior in high school, had already captured the attention of college recruiters.
Bell was convicted by an all-white jury, and no black witnesses were called to testify, Bean said. One of the students, Theo Shaw, has remained in jail since December while his family tries to raise money for bond. The other students — Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Ray Purvis and another student who is unnamed because he still is a minor — await their fate.
Family, friends and supporters say the events leading to Bell’s arrest and conviction began unfolding last August.
On Aug. 31, some black students asked the vice principal at Jena High School if they could sit under a tree on the traditional white side of the square. The vice principal said they could sit wherever they chose, and they did.
The next day, three nooses — including two in the school’s colors one black, one gold — were found hanging from the tree.
On Sept. 6, black students staged a protest under the tree. The next day, police officers patrolled the halls at the school, and on Sept. 8, the school was placed on lockdown.
The school principal recommended expulsion of the three white youths who hung the nooses, but a school committee decided it was a silly prank and gave the boys a few days suspension.
Black parents went to the school board to complain, but the school board said the issue had been resolved.
On Nov. 30, the school’s main academic wing was destroyed by fire, and authorities suspect it was deliberately set.
In the days to follow, a black student was beaten by a white adult and white students when he attended a party with mostly whites, according to accounts. Also around that time, a white graduate of Jena High School pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black high school students as they left a local convenience store.
Several black students reported being taunted at school after those incidents.
On Dec. 4 after lunch, a white student and a black student got into a fight, and the white student, Justin Barker, was reportedly beaten by several black students as he lay on the floor.
There were just too many things that were not handled correctly with the trial, Bean said.
One of the white teens who testified against Bell was one of the youths suspended for hanging the noose, and a girl who testified was the daughter of one of the jurors, Bean said. There was a coach who had a statement that wasn’t introduced as evidence maintaining that Bell did not throw the first punch. And there were others, Bean said, who could have testified to the taunting.
“These are not thugs looking to hurt people,” he told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “We have got to get some help. You know what happens once these kids get into the system.”
National attention on the case grew over the weekend as word of Bell’s conviction spread.
In a news story aired Sunday on CNN, Bell’s parents and relatives of the other accused teens talked of racial tensions that have long divided their town. The parents of Justin Barker, the boy who was beaten, said they considered the beating of their son attempted murder. They said Justin’s medical bills were about $12,000.
However, in an interiew with BlackAmericaWeb.com, one of the parents questioned the seriousness of the injuries.
“We had been told he was in a coma, but about 6 p.m. that night, he was there at the ring ceremony where juniors get their class ring. When they called his name, he walked across the stage,” Jenkins said.
“This was a school yard fight. He was released from the hospital the same day,” he said.
Jenkins said his son received his high school diploma this spring, but was not allowed to march with his class. He’s working now on an oil rig while he awaits trial.
Jones said a private attorney will defend his son in court.
“We’re not going let a public defender do this,” he said.
Last week, Jenkins made several visits to the courtroom. “During these times, we have to try to support each other,” he said.
But Mychal Bell’s parents were not allowed in the court room during the trial.
“At the beginning of the trial, they placed a gag order on all the witnesses. We couldn’t be in the courtroom while the trial was going on, and we couldn’t talk to the press,” Mychal Bell’s father, Marcus Jones, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“His mother and I were never called as witnesses. The white kids parents were in there. We tried to tell them we needed to be in there to support our our son. We could only go in there between breaks,” Jones said.
Jones also took issue with the representation his son received in the trial. “Right now, we are just trying to raise some money so we can pay for a lawyer so we can appeal before he gets sentenced on July 31.”
Bell’s convictions comes after months of racial tension, observers say.
“The tension has been between the ‘redneck faction’ and the black male athletes,” said Bean, a white Baptist preacher who is devoting his ministry to helping poor people who are underepresented in legal issues.
“In Louisiana,” he said, “if you’re poor and black in a small town and screwed by the system, you are out of luck.”