Do you know how to tie a noose? Get a piece of string and try it. It’s not a simple slip knot. You have to practice it to get it right. If you live in the south, you probably have a special aversion to nooses. We know what they mean, as surely as Cubans know the meaning of the Che graphic that is idiot chic. You can communicate a great deal with a few words or an image. So it is with the noose. It is not a prank. It is not a joke. It is a threat of execution. That threat was made in August, 2007 in Jena, Louisiana against black teens protesting segregation. By December, six of the teens – the “Jena Six” – were arrested for attempted 2nd degree murder for a high school fight in which the victim was not seriously injured.

jena6whitetree.jpgOn August 31, 2006, Jena High student Justin Purvis asked for permission to sit under the “white tree.” The “white tree” is a tree in the school courtyard where whites typically sat. The school administration told Purvis to sit where he liked. But three white students said it all – the next day, three nooses hung from that tree. Black parents were outraged, and met at a church to discuss it on September 5th. Black students were outraged. De facto segregation, where people tend to congregate with others in their race, is one thing. Enforced segregation via threats is quite another. The students stood up against it on September 6th.

JUSTIN PURVIS: It was like, the first beginning, in the courtyard, they said, “Y’all want to go stand under the tree?” We said, “Yeah.” They said, “If you go, I’ll go. If you go, I’ll go.” One person went, the next person went, everybody else just went.

After the impromptu protest, an assembly was called. White students sat on one side of the auditorium, black students on the other. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, accompanied by the police, came out to threaten the black students. He faced their side of the auditorium and told them, ““See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” It was not an idle threat.

The three white students received three days of in-school suspension. The principal wanted them expelled but was overruled by school superintendent Roy Breithaupt who said, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.” On September 10th, black parents tried to address the school board but were refused. They tried again on September 18th, and were finally granted five minutes to speak with the understanding that the issue was closed and whatever they said, it would make no difference.

The tension and violence escalated. On Thursday, November 30, the academic wing of the school was burned. The next day Robert Bailey, one of the Jena 6, attended a party at the Jena Fair Barn. Upon his arrival, he was beaten with fists and hit with beer bottles by a group of whites. Only one, Justin Sloane, was later charged with simple battery and ultimately received probation. The next day, Saturday, Robert Bailey and two friends encountered one of the white men present at the previous night’s Fair Barn beating. The white man was afraid of retaliation and pulled a sawed off shotgun with a pistol grip on the three teens. The teens wrestled the shotgun away from him and ran. When they reported the incident to the police, they were charged with robbery of the shotgun. Word travels quickly in small towns. Teachers at Jena High, fearing trouble, asked that the school be closed the next day. Their request was denied.

On Monday during gym class, Justin Barker and a group of whites, including the three noose hangers, taunted Robert Bailey and other black students. According to reports, they used the word “nigger” and mocked Bailey for having his “ass whipped.” When Barker left the gym, he was attacked by a group of black students – a mirror image of the attack on Bailey at the Fair Barn three days earlier, with two exceptions. Bailey arrived at the party expecting a fun evening, not trouble. He was attacked without provocation. Reports vary as to what happened outside the gym, but tend to agree on some points – Justin Barker was knocked unconscious by either being hit, or hitting his head on the concrete, and was kicked when he was down. An ambulance was called. Barker was conscious and standing by the time it got there. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he complained of eye pain, received a CT scan, and was released within three hours. He attended the school’s ring ceremony later that night, and reported that he took pain pills for a week after the beating.

The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, after spending seven months in jail because he could not pay the extraordinarily high bail. The District Attorney repeatedly delayed the case. Immediately before the trial, when Bell refused a plea bargain, the charges were reduced to the felony of 2nd degree battery. The prosecution listed Bell’s parents as witnesses, so they were not allowed to be in the courtroom with their son, although they were not called to testify in the case. Bell was defended by a public defender who called no witnesses and put on no defense. The jury was all white, which is not surprising in a town where 85% of the population is white. What is surprising is that of the six person jury, according to CNN, “All of them said that they knew some of the witnesses that are expected to be called in this case.” The jury included a high school classmate of Reed Walters, the district attorney who threatened the black students after the white tree protest. It included the mother of one of the prosecution witnesses, and a good friend of Justin Barker’s mother. Bell’s attorney put on no defense whatsoever. He did not call a single witness to refute the prosecution’s case, including the Jena High coach, who had stated that Bell was not involved in the fight.

Bell was found guilty within three hours, and will be sentenced on July 31 for up to 22 years in prison for the December 4 school fight, for which he has already spent over seven months in jail. Four of the Jena Six are still waiting for trial, and one is being charged as a juvenile.

Laura Curtis blogs at PursuingHoliness.com.

Sources:
CNN
The Town Talk (a local newspaper)
Friends of Justice
Injustice In Jena As Nooses Hang From The “White Tree” By Bill Quigley
Democracy Now
NPR
Associated Press
The News Star

More links in the PH Jena Six archives.

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