Speaking to a crowd of demonstrators in front of a rural Louisiana courthouse last week, Alan Bean, a Baptist minister from the Texas panhandle, inveighed against injustice. “The highest crime in the Old Testament,” he declared, “is to withhold due process from poor people, to manipulate the criminal justice system to the advantage of the powerful, against the poor and the powerless.”
Bean was speaking at a rally organized by residents of Jena, Louisiana. In the space of a few weeks, more than 150 of this small town’s residents have organized an inspiring grassroots struggle against injustice. The demonstrations began when six Black students at Jena High School were arrested after a fight at school and charged with conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder. The students now face up to 100 years in prison without parole; in a case that King Downing, National Coordinator of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, has said “carries the scent of injustice.”
Local activists say that this wave of problems started last September when Black high school students asked for permission to sit under a tree at an area of the high school that had, traditionally, been used only by white students. The next day, three nooses were hanging from the tree.
The following week, Black students staged a protest under the tree. At a school assembly soon after, Jena district attorney Reed Walters, appearing with local police officers, warned Black students against further unrest. “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen,” he threatened.
According to many in Jena, tensions simmered in the town over the fall, occasionally exploding into fights and other incidents. No white students were charged or punished for any of these incidents, including the students found to have been responsible for hanging the nooses. Bryant Purvis, one of the Black students now facing charges, explained to me that, after the incident, “there were a lot of people aggravated about it, a lot of fights at the school after that, a lot of arguments, a lot of people getting treated differently.”
In the first weekend of December, a Black student was assaulted by a group of white students, and a white graduate of Jena High School threatened several Black students with a shotgun. The following Monday, white students taunted the Black student who was assaulted over the weekend, and one of the white students was beaten up.
Within hours, six Black students were arrested. “I think the district attorney is pinning it on us to make an example of us,” said Purvis. “In Jena, people get accused of things they didn’t do a lot.”
Soon after, their parents discovered that these students were facing attempted murder charges. “The courtroom, the whole back side, was filled with police officers,” Tina Jones, Bryant’s mother, recalls. “I guess they thought maybe when they announced what the charges were, we were gonna go berserk or something.”
At last week’s demonstration, family members and allies spoke about the issues at the center of the case. “I don’t know how the DA or the court system gets involved in a school fight,” said Jones. “But I’m not surprised–there’s a lot of racism in Jena. A white person will get probation, and a black person is liable to get 15 to 20 years for the same crime.”
Alan Bean, director of an organization called Friends of Justice, began his activism in response to a string of false arrests in 1999 in Tulia, Texas, where he lives. Since then, he has dedicated himself to supporting community organizing around cases of criminal justice abuse in rural Texas and Louisiana. Small towns like Jena–which has a population of 2,500, and is 85 percent white – are often left out of the organizing support, attention, and funding that struggles in metropolitan areas receive.
This disparity was not always the case. Rural southern towns were the frontlines of the 60s civil rights movement. Groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were active throughout the rural south. And these rural towns have been important sites of homegrown resistance. In 1964, in Jonesboro Louisiana, just north of Jena, a group of Black veterans of the US military formed the Deacons for Defense, an armed self-defense organization, in support of civil rights struggles. The Deacons went on to form 21 chapters in rural Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Outrageous violations still occur in many of these towns. A few months ago, Gerald Washington of Westlake, Louisiana was shot three days before he was to become the town’s first Black mayor. Less than two weeks after that, shots were fired into the house of another Black mayor, in Greenwood Louisiana. Jena itself is a mostly segregated community that was also the site of the Jena Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth, a legendarily brutal prison that was shut down in 2000.
Jena residents formed their own defense committee, without the support of national organizations. They have been holding weekly protests and organizing meetings that have attracted allies from near and far. A gathering last week was attended by Bean, as well as allies from other northern and central Louisiana towns, and representatives from the ACLU, NAACP, and National Action Network.
Many parents questioned why the noose and other threatening actions were not taken seriously by the school administration. “What’s the difference,” asks Marcus Jones, the father of Mychal Bell, one of the students, about the disparity in the charges. “There’s a color difference. There was white kids that hung up a noose, but it was black kids in the fight.” Sentencing disparity is a big issue in many of these small towns, where many see it as the modern continuation of the ugly southern heritage of lynching.
Jones explains a litany of reasons why the children should not be charged with attempted murder. “The kid did not have life threatening injuries, he was not cut, he was not stabbed, he was not shot, nothing was broken. There is no evidence of conspiracy to commit attempted murder. You talk about conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder, you think about the mafia, you think somebody paid a sniper or something. We’re talking about a high school fistfight. The DA is showing his racist upbringing, his racist acts and his racist nature, and bringing it into the law.”
For three of the youth, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw and Mychal Bell, their trial starts May 21. I asked Bryant Purvis how this has affected him. “One of my goals in life is to go to college, and not to go to jail, and that changed me right there,” he tells me. “That crushed me, to be in a jail cell.”
When asked how her life has changed, Purvis’ mother described the sadness of having her son taken away from her without warning. “You wake up in the morning and your son is there. You lay down at night and he’s there. Then all of a sudden he’s gone. That’s a lot to deal with.”
JORDAN FLAHERTY is an editor of Left Turn Magazine and a community organizer based in New Orleans. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.