Their story, startling in its resemblance to battles from the Civil Rights Era, has struck a nerve and sparked national outrage. From around the country, hundreds flocked to the small town of Jena, Louisiana, in July to march in support of the group of Black teenagers who have come to be known as the Jena Six. The boys were arrested and charged with attempted murder as the result of a fight at their high school last December. They now face a possible lifetime behind bars. In recent months a deluge of mass e-mails about the case has spread around the Internet, and high-profile activists such as the Reverend Al Sharpton have lent their voice to the groundswell of support for the young men.
The boys, who range in age from 15 to 17, were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder for allegedly assaulting a White student at Jena High School last December. In June an all-White jury convicted Mychal Bell, 17, on lesser charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. He stands to spend up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced September 20. The five others-Bryant Purvis, Jesse Beard, Carwin Jones, Theo Shaw and Robert Bailey-are still awaiting trial and could be jailed for up to 100 years each.
With his bail currently set at $90,000, Bell has remained incarcerated since being charged. On Friday, August 24, Bell had a bond reduction hearing that could have resulted in his release on bail, but a LaSalle Parish judge denied the request. “The support is great, but it’s all about the legal matters now,” Bell’s father, Marcus Jones, told essence.com.
According to news reports, this is what transpired: In September 2006, a group of Black students at Jena High School challenged the long-standing “tradition” of Whites sitting under a tree on one section of campus. After Black students asked school administrators if they could also sit under the tree, they crossed over into the designated “White” side of the courtyard. The next day three nooses dangled from the tree. The school superintendent wrote that incident off as a harmless prank, and the White students responsible received a three-day suspension. But the turmoil escalated in December when six Black students allegedly attacked a White student who had allegedly spewed racial slurs. The nature of how seriously hurt the White student was is in dispute, but according to reports, the same student attended a ring ceremony at the school later that night. Police gathered contradicting testimony from other White students. Despite the conflicting stories, the Black teenagers named were immediately arrested on charges of attempted murder. Melissa, Mychal Bell’s mother, told essence.com that out of nearly 20 witnesses, only two students said they saw her son, and those two accounts differed. “I always did worry about what was going on here in Jena,” she said wearily, describing it as a racially divided town where African-Americans are indisputably second-class citizens. “I really never wanted to raise Mychal here, but I never had the money to move.”
Bell’s parents believe that the LaSalle Parish District Attorney, Reed Walters, is trying to make an example of the six teenagers to keep the town’s African-American community in its place. In Louisiana, aggravated battery requires the use of a weapon, and Bell’s parents have said no weapons were drawn during the alleged attack. But Walters has argued that the sneakers Bell wore during the alleged assault qualified as a dangerous weapon. Several of the other young men charged had bonds set as high as $138,000. The District Attorney’s office declined to comment because of a gag order on the case.
“Keep your kids educated about America and who runs this country,” Jones told essence.com as a message to other Black parents.
“Once the police target your boys and get their hands on them, it’s hard to get them away,” said Melissa Bell. “Keep praying for Mychal and the rest of those boys, and keep us in your hearts.”