Friday, September 7, 2007

The Jena Six -- Background Facts

This is the second part of a three part series on the Jena 6 case. Part I can be found here. Part III should be up in short order, and when it is I will provide the link. [Update: Part III here.]

The Jena 6 case is about six high school students in Jena Louisiana all of whom have been charged, in connection with an attack on a fellow student named Justin Barker. One of the six, sixteen-year-old Mychal Bell, the only one to go to trial thus far, has been convicted, and he faces serious prison time. The other five still await trial.

In this post, I'm going to review the background events leading up to the attack on Justin Barker. I do so because everybody is talking about this stuff, and such knowledge may be necessary to understand some elements of the case. However, let me be clear that I think all of the background stuff is utterly and completely irrelevant to the question of whether the Jena 6 are being treated unjustly.

Even if it is true that Jena is a horrible, racist town, and that all sorts of bad things happen, this doesn't give them license to stomp their fellow students into the ground. Unless they can show self-defense or the like, the preceding events just don't matter. What matters is what they did on that December day.

But it is important, I guess, to understand the context. Factual background can be found in this Washington Post article, or in the Wikipedia entry. At Jena High School, in Jena Louisiana, there is a shade tree which white students would sit under when they were outside. Black students sat elsewhere. This was not a school-mandated rule, but appeared to be an ingrained custom.

A black student asked permission of a school administrator to sit under that tree. It's not clear to me whether in fact any black students actually sat under the tree, but what is clear is that, shortly thereafter, three nooses were hung from the tree. When it turned out that some white students had placed the nooses in the tree, the school's principal recommended expulsion, but his decision was overturned, and the sentence was reduced to a three-day in-school suspension.

This resulted in a great deal of consternation among the black residents of Jena, who thought the punishment was too leniant. A number of ugly incidents followed. In school, there were fights and verbal conflicts among white and black students. The school was set ablaze, and ultimately had to be gutted and rebuilt. Both blacks and whites blame members of the other group for the arson.

One precipitating incident involved five black students, including one named Robert Bailey. They attempted to enter a private party which included white students, and a fight resulted. As a result of that fight, a white man named Justin Sloan was charged with simple battery. Bailey alleged that Sloan broke a bottle over his head, but there is no indication that he sought medical treatment.

Shortly after the party, there was an incident at a local convenience store. The facts are in some dispute, but one of the whites who had attended that party ran into Bailey and some of his friends. There was an altercation of some sort, during the course of which the white student pulled a shotgun from his truck. Bailey and his friends wrestled it away from him and refused to return when asked to do so.

Following this incident, the white studend who pulled the shotgun was not charged, but Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, robbery, and disturbing the peace.

The assault on Justin Barker, the event that resulted in the Jena 6 prosecution, occured shortly thereafter. The Wikipedia article describes the assault thusly:

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.

The six students, including Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw, and an unidentified juvenile, were originally charged with aggravated assault, but that was later riased to attempted to attempted second-degree murder. Mychall Bell, who has been convicted of four prior juvenile offenses, was the first to face trial. At his trial, the charges were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery, and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, and he was convicted on both counts. The judge recently tossed the conspiracy count, meaning he will face a potential sentence of fifteen years in prison.

So what do I think about all this? Well, I think that the kids who put up the nooses should have been given a punishment more serious than a three-day in-school suspension. I think that the kid who pulled a shotgun should probably have been charged with a crime, and that the people who kept it probably shouldn't have (unless we learn more facts -- that he pulled it in self-defense, for example). And I think that the adults in Jena -- of all races -- have, by the look of things, behaved like children.

But like I said at the beginning, I don't think any of that stuff matters to the issue at hand. The issue at hand is whether we all ought to get up in arms about the punishment these six defendants face. I'll talk about that in part three.


Anonymous said...

I am discussing and writing a paper on this case in my class, I am glad that someone (you) are able to put the facts in perspective in such an eloquent way.


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