Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bond blow for Jena 6 member

A Louisiana judge has denied bail for Mychal Bell, who is the first member of the Jena Six to come to trial. Bell is accused of beating a white student last year. While attorneys in the 3rd circuit court of appeals would not confirm bail was denied due to the secrecy of juvenile court proceedings, the father of one of Bell's co-defendants said the bail request was rejected. The case of the all black Jena Six has now emerged as a serious crack in the faultline of US race relations.

The small southern town was the scene of a major rally on Thursday last week led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, radio show host Michael Baisden and the families of the accused six teenagers. Thousands wearing black shirts with messages of solidarity, marched 3km from the town centre courthouse to the high school where the problems started. The school and all town businesses were closed for the day. There is ... unjustice here,” said marcher Rhonda McClain of Nashville. “There was no option but to come.”

The term Jena Six refers to a group of six black teenagers charged with the assault of a white teenager in Jena, Louisiana on 4 December 2006. Jena is a tiny sawmill town with a population of just 2,971. Although this area was once Ku Klux Klan country, locals disagree on whether the town has a history of racism.

The incident that sparked the crisis occurred at Jena High School. The school is split along racial with roughly ten percent of students black and the rest white. White students sit around a tree in the courtyard, while black students congregate near the auditorium. A few days into the first semester of 2006, a new black student asked the principal at a public assembly if he could sit under the tree. The principal said he could sit anywhere he liked.

Some of the white students did not take kindly to the question. On the following morning, they hung three nooses from the so-called “white tree”. The nooses were supposedly a code for the KKK (though some say only two nooses were hung). School administrators investigated the incident and determined it was a prank. The three boys who hung the nooses were given an in-school suspension. On the morning afterwards, the black students held a silent protest under the tree. They were confronted by white students and the school authorities called in the police. What happened next is disputed. According to black students, District Attorney Reed Walters looked at them directly and warned them he could be their friend or their worst enemy. Walters himself denies he aimed the comment only at the blacks.

While Walters diffused the immediate incident, resentment simmered behind the scenes. Sporadic racially-motivated fights broke out at the school. An uneasy truce held while the black-dominated school football team had a good season. But when the season ended, matters took a turn for the worse. On 30 November 2006, unknown parties burned down the high school. The case remains unsolved. At the time, both sides blamed each other.

That night 16 year old Robert Bailey and some black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. There he was attacked and beaten. On the following day Bailey had another fight with an unnamed white attendee of the party. During the fight, the white men pulled out a gun. Bailey wrested a gun from him and took it home. Police later charged Bailey with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student was not charged.

A few days later a white student, Justin Barker, loudly told his friends in the school hallway that Bailey had lost a fight to a white man. Barker was later attacked by black students. Barker was knocked unconscious but recovered sufficiently to attend a party that night. Six black students were arrested and initially charged with aggravated assault. The six men were Mychal Bell, Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw. Then DA Walters decided to increase the charges to attempted second-degree murder. Only Bell and Beard were under 17 at the time of the arrest. The four others still face adult trials where they could face long prison terms.

Walter’s move provoked a storm of black outrage and allegations of racial unfairness. Supporters launched a “Free the Jena 6” website which tracked media mentions of the case. In July 2007, the first of the six to be tried, Mychal Bell, was convicted after two hours of deliberations by an all-white jury on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it.

Despite his age, Bell was tried as an adult on the grounds that he had a prior criminal record. The judge sent the conspiracy charge to juvenile court, but he upheld the battery conviction. However, the appeal court overturned the battery conviction on 14 September, stating it also belonged in the juvenile court. Having had the conviction overturned, the judge had the discretion of granting a new bond or releasing him pending appeal. With the latest denial of bail, Bell remains the only member of the six in prison.

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