Today a judge in Jena, LA threw out a conspiracy conviction against Mychal Bell, one of the Jena 6. The district attorney also reduced the charges for two of the other accused students from attempted murder to aggravated battery. Bell’s conviction on the lesser charge may send him to jail for 15 years. The Chicago Tribune reports:
The six black youths were all initially charged with attempted second-degree murder after an incident in December at the local high school in which a white student was attacked and knocked unconscious after an alleged taunt by him.
That altercation capped months of violent racial unrest between blacks and whites throughout the town that was triggered in September 2006, when three white students hung nooses from a shade tree in the high school courtyard in a warning aimed at discouraging blacks from sitting there.
The white youths received brief suspensions after the Jena school superintendent termed the incident an “adolescent prank,” which in turn angered black students and parents who saw the nooses as a hate crime because of the history of lynchings in the Old South.
Clearly we’re dealing with misapplication of the law . The white kids who incited violence received misdemeanors or other slaps on the wrist by school officials. And the idea of charging these kids with attempted murder (and going even further to push for a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, that weapon, prosecutors argued, was a shoe) is egregious, and a ridiculous travesty of the laws on the books. The defense attorneys for the Jena 6 are working hard to unravel and rectify those abuses:
Bell’s new defense attorneys said they plan further appeals before the Sept. 20 sentencing hearing in a bid to get his remaining conviction vacated.
“Basically, we are knocking things out one piece at a time,” said Louis Scott, the lead defense attorney. “We are going to try to knock the rest of it out soon.”
But the piece by piece undoing of a criminally unjust Jim-Crow redux court system is only part of the story. The law alone can’t provide justice for the Jena 6 and the assaults they faced at the hands of their schoolmates with the acquiescence of school administrators. Even if they get their charges and convictions narrowed or dropped, it may be that, fundamentally, nothing will have changed in Jena. There could be more nooses, more fights, more convictions. In the fight against racism, we must be concerned not only with the cruelty of punishments delivered on the color line, but also the barriers to privileges large and small that characterize contemporary racism in Jena and beyond.
Because there was no way for Black kids in Jena to fight for their right to public space, no law that could or would prevent the creation of a “white tree” where Blacks were barred, they fought peacefully by taking over that space. It wasn’t until they were confronted with violent symbols of racial hatred- the noose-the wholesale symbol of pornographic, vigilante murder and social control that they took it seriously and they fought with their fists.
What this means for those standing with the Jena 6 - demanding justice, not just equality under the law - is that while the lawyers work, we have to stand against Mychal Bell’s incarceration, but also for his freedom. So that when he and the rest of the Jena 6 get free - and they must - they are released into a Jena, in an America that is changed. They should be released into a nation that has stood up for them as victims of racism in the legal process. But we also stand because we won’t tolerate racism in their lives or our own; we stand to tell the 6 kids in St. Louis or Cincinnati that they too should fight back; and we stand to show those that would strike fear in the hearts of a few Black kids in this small town and many others, that their days are numbered.