Tensions have been erupting over the past few weeks over a high school fight in Jena, Louisiana that made its way into court, the conflict over which many argue has put racial turmoil again into the limelight in the United States.
“Jena is not just Jena; there is a Jena everywhere,” said civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson at a news conference in Chicago.
Jena is a small town with a population of about 3,000, whose existence had been all but unknown on a national level prior to the past 10 months. It is now famous for a string of incidents, the results of which are a slew of protests and heightened racial conflict.
In August of last year, a black student asked for an administrator’s permission to sit under a certain school tree, a tree which was reputed by unspoken rule to be “reserved” for white students. The administrator told the student that he could sit wherever he wanted, so he and his friends sat under the tree.
The next day there were nooses hanging from the branches, set up by white students at the school.
When the students were discovered, the principal advocated expulsion for them. The recommendation was overturned by the school board, the students were instead sent to alternative schools for a month, and afterwards, they served two weeks of in-school suspension.
The “white tree” has since been cut down. The incident became merely the first in a string of racially charged episodes to occur in the span of the next few months.
The events to follow included a case of arson at Jena High and a dispute over a shotgun at a convenience store.
On December 4 of last year, Justin Barker, a white student, was attacked by Robert Bailey, Jr., who was also 17, and five other black students after Barker allegedly taunted Bailey.
He received multiple wounds, including a concussion and temporary vision loss and was hospitalized as a result.
However, he was able to leave the same day to participate in a school ceremony.
The black teenagers, now dubbed “The Jena Six,” were charged with attempted second-degree murder as a result of the attack, in which they are facing several years in prison.
Five were tried as adults, having been at least 16 years old at the time of the fight.
The legal adult age in Louisiana is 17. The sixth was tried as a juvenile, having been 14 at the time of the fight.
The charges for four of the older five were eventually reduced to conspiracy and aggravated second-degree battery, according to The Associated Press.
Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the fight and had a previous criminal record, was convicted of these charges when tried as an adult.
The conviction was later overturned on the premise that he should have been tried as a juvenile. However, he still remains in prison because he was denied bail in Juvenile Court.
In the meantime, a wave of protests has swept the country, drawing in support for the Jena Six from across the nation and even from abroad.
Last Thursday, a demonstration to protest Bell’s sentence occurred in Jena itself, numbering in the tens of thousands to dwarf the population of the town.
People packed the streets in a journey to the LaSalle Parish Courthouse where Bell’s trial took place, according to The AP.
They wore black T-shirts and chanted “No justice, no peace” in unison to show their support. Businesses and schools shut down for the protest as well.
Among the main things stressed as objectives was the need for peace in protest.
“No violence,” Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, told protesters, according to The Shreveport Times. “Not even an angry word. They will try to provoke you. You have to stand strong.”
Rev. Valentino Lassiter, a religious studies professor at John Carroll University, commented on a televised rally that he had seen. “It was a very symbolic reminiscence of something you would have seen in the 50’s and 60’s, an insistence that we not go back,” he said.
Despite the unwavering support for the Jena Six in light of the past year’s events, Lassiter voiced concerns that still abound about the nation’s progress against racism.
“There’s a fear of resurgence, of racism in given areas,” Lassiter said. “We still have much work to do.
The enlightenments of the 60’s appear to be waning, and the country needs a reminder of the hard work and unified efforts made for equality.”