Searching for Justice in Jena 6 Case
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And our last headline takes us to Jena, Louisiana. Racial tension is high in the small, mostly white, rural town. It's where six black teens have been charged with the beating of a white classmate. Last week, one of the teens, 17-year-old Mychal Bell was convicted of two felonies for his role in the beating.
Last fall, one black high school student in Jena sat down under a tree on his high school campus. The tree was usually a hangout for a group of white students. The next day, three white nooses dangled from the tree. Shortly after, the black students in the Jena 6 case organized a protest. The white students were suspended, but not formally charged with wrongdoing.
So could anything have been done to nip this in the bud and does the punishment in both cases fit the crime?
We've got Jordan Flaherty. He's a journalist living in New Orleans. We've also got Caseptla Bailey. She's the mother of Robert Bailey Jr., one of the teens charged in this case. Caseptla and Jordan, welcome.
Ms. CASEPTLA BAILEY (Robert Bailey Jr.'s Mother): Hello.
Mr. JORDAN FLAHERTY (Editor, Left Turn magazine): Thank you. Thank you for having us on. And thanks for focusing on this really important case.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. Why don't you unpack it a little bit, Jordan, particularly what happened last week?
Mr. FLAHERTY: I think that this is actually a part of something that's happening in a lot of towns around the country, where we see this very disparate sentencing where we see actually two systems of justice; one for especially for black people and one for white people. It also breaks down very much on class lines, as well. And the black students of Jena, Lousiana, I don't think there's anyone that would doubt that if this had been a fight between black students, there's no way these charges would have happened.
White students beating up a black student would not have been charged. In fact, just a day before this fight, white students did beat up a black student and no one was charged in that. So there's a real disparity of justice happening, a system of two justice systems.
If you look at the Scooter Libby case, you have somebody who is convicted of a crime, and Bush is very concerned about the sentencing and wants to reduce the sentencing. And meanwhile, the attorney general has been increasingly defensive and has been trying to be very hard on defense, except if you're one of the people that gets the different system of justice.
What we saw in the Mychal Bell case is a student, who was not positively identified as even being there at the fight, a student, who the district attorney months before had said, if you don't stop causing trouble, meaning organizing a protest, I can make your lives disappear with the stroke of my pen. You have this student charged and now facing 22 years in prison for a school fight.
CHIDEYA: Let me get Caseptla in here. Where does your son fit in this? And when did you hear that your son was arrested?
Ms. BAILEY: Well, I heard that my son was arrested on days before - after the fight, after I received - after the three town cops entered into my yard with my son in handcuffs. And that's when I received information that my son was arrested. I had not received a phone call from the Sheriff's Department, nor had I received a phone call from the school administration at Jena High School.
CHIDEYA: Tell me a little bit about your son. Did he participate in the protest? What kind of a young man is he?
Ms. BAILEY: Well, from my understanding, he did participate in the peaceful protest that they held after the news incident occurred. And they decided that they were going to stand under that tree in a peaceful protest during lunch hour. You know, to stand up for what they believe what is wrong by allowing those students to come back without an arrest or without any type of justice system being involved in the incident.
And then after that peaceful protest, that's when they received word that the D.A. was coming out to do an assembly. And that's where he made a statement that he could destroy their lives with the stroke of a pen. Now, my son Robert, was a junior at Jena High School, a football player, a basketball player. And as far as his involvement in the fight, from my understanding, he said that he is innocent. So we're all, you know, we're presumed innocent until guilty.
But by the negative press within our local paper, The Jena Times, that these young men have received since December 6th paper. Well, they decided that these kids are guilty, you know, and have gone out to perceive them as being guilty. And that probably was the most and - and the most outrageous damage that was done to our children prior to Mychal Bell's case.
CHIDEYA: Jordan, you made a point that this fits into what appears to be a much larger pattern of different kinds of discipline for students of different races. And there have been a lot of studies documenting this.
What can you tell us about Jena, specifically, the town? How has the town - from what I understand, the town is about 85 percent white. What are the schools like? How do the schools operate in terms of race, if you have any sense?
Mr. FLAHERTY: Well, you're exactly right. It's a town about 3,500 people, 250 of them black, and, as you say, it's about 85 percent white. It's rural, central Louisiana.
And these towns, I just want to say, you know, the rural South was the frontlines of the civil rights movement. And you had national organizations really making it a priority to fight these Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow in the rural South. And unfortunately, these practices are continuing. These laws are continuing. But you don't have the national support for folks that are fighting these struggles.
And Miss Caseptla and the other folks in Jena have been very inspiring to me in the way that they have led this struggle, community-led struggle against racism and injustice. They have decided to not lie down and not try and push this under the rug, but to really speak out, and to call this what it is.
In more direct answer to your question, you have several elementary schools. I believe one in the sort of just outside the town is all white and another one is more mixed. And then in the high school, the high school is more mixed between black and white. And so the understanding I have is that many of the white students that started this trouble were students that came from this all white elementary school into the mixed high school.
So yeah, you have - I mean, we're talking, you know, in this new millennium, you still have a segregated schoolyard. You have one private schoolyard was for black kids and one private schoolyard was for white kids.
And this all began because a black kid said at a school assembly, can we sit under that tree that is on the white side of the schoolyard. And the person at the assembly, I'm not sure if it was the principal or superintendent said, yes, you can sit wherever you want. And the next day, there were the three nooses hanging from under the tree. And the blacks just went as a group to sit under them - the tree.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. So there's a difference between what stated and what apparently happens.
Caseptla, take me again a little bit more inside your life. Do you live in a mostly black neighborhood or in an-all black neighborhood? And how does the town of Jena work? Is there a black neighborhood and then the rest is white, or do people intermingle?
Ms. BAILEY: The neighborhood that I live in is an all-black neighborhood. And the ward that I live in - some people in some states, it might be called district - is predominantly black. You know, they've outlined where most of blacks will be in one ward, and it's majority black where I live in. Now, some of the black and white kids do intermingle, you know, and I think it's the - a lot of the powers that be that does not want the children to mix together, of fear, you know, that they have. I don't know what the fear might be.
But fear of the black, you know, male such as, you know, the male - black male is dominant as far as crime and all these types of negative things that we received here as well as the nation. But the neighborhood that I do live in is a predominant black, you know, all-black neighborhood.
CHIDEYA: A lot of times when there are cases like these, people who already weren't really speaking then starts shooting each other, deadly looks and, you know, avoid each other in the grocery store. What's the tone in the town? Do you feel that you are less accepted now? Is there any fallout for you?
Ms. BAILEY: Well, I haven't noticed - and I've noticed a lot of, hello, how you're doing from a lot of the white people. I mean, we've had white friends here in the town of Jena. And some of the younger kids, you know, they mingle with the white kids. It's not totally separated.
But when - as Jordan said when it comes to the justice system. That's why a majority of the separation comes from the school and then it also feeds over into our justice system. So there are a lot of kids - black kids, they have white friends. White kids, they have black friends.
They might not admit it into the light, you know, they might, you know, be friendships under the dark - in the darkness. But there are black and white, you know, co-mingling. And it hasn't been a tar and feather type thing for me since all these have come out.
You know, I received a lot of compliments from white people as well, you know, as negative comments from black people.
Ms. BAILEY: So it's, you know, I don't - though comments doesn't bother me, you know, we are doing this for the children.
CHIDEYA: Jordan, let me hop in. What's the next steps? You have had this play out and go into a full legal action with huge felony ramifications, what happens next?
Mr. FLAHERTY: Well, you know, we first covered this in Left Turn Magazine, the magazine I wrote for back a couple of months ago. And since then, it's gotten major coverage, you know, we're thrilled to be having NPR covering it and the BBC covering it and the Chicago Tribune was one of the first folks also that wrote about.
And so the attention of the world is shining on this trial. And I think because, although, it is very much part of a pattern of what we're seeing around the country, it is so clear and straightforward what is happening. It's so clear these were kids who were just involved in a school fight and were initially charged with attempted murder. And now, I think, partly because of this national attention has been dropped. I believe - I think it's aggravated assault, is what they're calling it now, which is still an outrageous word. You know, a student that was - that was, you know, was beaten up and then was walking around later that day came to the key ceremony later that day. I mean, the ring ceremony later that day. It is just so clear what this is about and it's also really inspiring that the people have decided not to stay silent and have spoken up.
And I've been really inspired to meet those folks from Jena to meet Ms. Caseptla and Mr. Marcus(ph) and all the folks that have been fighting, organizing and…
CHIDEYA: Jordan, we're…
Mr. FLAHERTY: And I just, I think they'd need the support from folks around the country. I hope people around the country can speak up and put pressure on the district attorney in the town.
CHIDEYA: Jordan, we're going to have to leave it there. And we really appreciate your time, Caseptla as well.
Ms. BAILEY: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: And that was Jordan Flaherty, a journalist living in New Orleans, joined us from Audioworks in New Orleans, and Caseptla Bailey, the mother of Robert Bailey Jr., one of the teens charged in the case.