Public Outcry Intensifies as Jena Sentencing Draws Near
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
And now we're going to turn to the story of the Jena Six. It started more than a year ago when black students at Jena High School in central Louisiana broke an unwritten rule. They sat under a tree that was normally a hangout for the white kids. Three nooses were hung from the tree in retaliation, and that ignited a series of racial confrontations. A black student named Robert Bailey was attacked at a party. A white student, Justin Barker, was beaten in retaliation. Six black teenagers now known as the Jena Six face felony charges for the assault on Barker.
But a growing number of people across the country are saying that the treatment of the black students is excessively harsh. Mychal Bell, the only one of the six to be tried so far, faces up to 15 years in prison. His sentencing is set for next Thursday, and now thousands of people are believed to be heading to the town to protest on behalf of Bell and the others.
We're going to spend the rest of today's program talking about this story. First, we're going to turn to two journalists who have been covering it. Howard Witt is the southwest bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. He joins us by phone from his home in Houston. We're also joined by Kimberley Pierce Cartwright. She is the news director at member station WNCU in Durham, North Carolina. She joins us from their studio in Durham. Thank you so much for joining us.
KIMBERLEY PIERCE CARTWRIGHT: Thank you very much.
HOWARD WITT: Hello.
MARTIN: Howard Witt, if you'd start. Tell me about the protest that's being planned for next week. Do you have any sense of the scope of this protest? Who's expected? How many people are expected to be there?
WITT: Well, it's really impossible to know because of the very nature of this protest. It's really being organized largely via the Internet and the various blogs as well as assorted civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the Millions More Movement, and others. But, you know, it's expected several thousands, perhaps more than 10,000 people might be there. And whatever number it is, it's going to be pretty overwhelming in this little town of 3,000.
MARTIN: Tell me about the charges against Mychal Bell and the other students. They've undergone some evolution. First they were charged with aggravated second degree battery, then attempted second degree murder and then reduced again to aggravated battery - which is still a felony, but what's going on there?
WITT: Essentially, what you have is a small town trying to send a lesson apparently. You have the local district attorney there who, very quickly, lodged these attempted murder charges against these six boys. What they're alleged to have done is, basically, waited it outside a school cafeteria or a school gymnasium for this white kid to come out, allegedly jumped him, knocked him unconscious, and then beat and kicked him when he was on the ground - unconscious. There's a lot of witness statements saying that, basically, that happened.
But the question is: Is that really attempted murder? The young man was briefly seen at the hospital but he wasn't hospitalized. And that evening, he was well enough to attend a school ceremony. So the prosecutor did charge them with attempted murder, but then just on the eve of the first trial for Mychal Bell back in June, he abruptly reduced the charge to second degree battery and conspiracy to commit that crime. It's still a very serious felony.
Why he actually dropped the charges he won't say. He hasn't talked to the media at all about this case. There's a lot of speculation that he was responding to a lot of the outside pressure that's being brought over the case.
MARTIN: And speaking about such pressure, you've been reporting on this case from the beginning. How did the story of this small town get to be this big issue?
WITT: Well, it's fascinating to me because I think this is a function of the Internet. I mean, this - we wouldn't all be hearing about this story if this had happened five years ago. I first wrote about this story in May. My story started circulating through e-mail and some blogs devoted primarily to African-American interests. And pretty soon after that, other reporters started nosing around down there to see what was going on. But the story really started to get traction in June after Mychal Bell's trial, after he was convicted of this aggravated second degree battery. There was a lot of questions about the propriety of that trial and what went on there. And pretty soon, CNN came down and then other major media - meanwhile in the black blogosphere, this story just lit fire; and it's now featured literally on thousands of blogs and has then caused this whole kind of grassroots organization to grow up around it.
MARTIN: And Kimberley Pierce Cartwright, do you buy Howard's argument that the spread of this story owes a lot to the growth of the blogosphere and the social networking sites, that this is sort of a part of a reflection of the community that has sort of now come up online - do you think that's true?
PIERCE CARTWRIGHT: Mm-hmm. I do buy his argument. In my research in going to look for information about the story, just like he said, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sites, but there are so many people who are just ordinary people who are offering their opinions about the case. And I'm finding, too, that in their disseminating of the information, that people have the chronicling and the foundation of what the story is about and they're passing it on. And people are definitely responding to what they are reading and hearing. YouTube - I saw many, many people on YouTube who they couldn't express very eloquently what they wanted to say but you could see the passion in their faces and you could hear the passion in their voices about how they felt that this was an unjust situation brought against these young men in Jena.
MARTIN: You're planning to go down to Jena to cover the events next week. Why do you think that this story so resonates with your listeners?
PIERCE CARTWRIGHT: I think it resonates with my listeners, first of all, because, here in Durham, North Carolina, specifically locally where I live, it is a large African-American population. And there are so many issues here that have - take on the same kind of like as the Jena Six situation, and people aren't really speaking out about it. So I think people are taking hold to this in an effort to feel a part of something. And an organizer, Kevin Williams, decided that he would a bus trip to Jena, Louisiana, and that people are literally climbing on the bus. And Kevin, in hopes of, after coming back from Jena, Louisiana, that people will have the same kind of spirit and come back and then take on some of the issues that are here in our local community, so that's why I think they're...
MARTIN: What are the - I'm sorry, what are the issues that people see in the story that they believe relates to issues that they may be experiencing in other communities?
PIERCE CARTWRIGHT: First of all, young African-Americans in the judicial system, young African-Americans not being able to be - have adequate representation in the judicial system, young African-Americans not being treated fairly in the judicial system, I think those are the issues.
MARTIN: Okay. And, Howard Witt, after the sentencing of Mychal Bell, what's next? And were the persons who hung those nooses to begin with - have they ever been held accountable for their role in the said situation?
WITT: Yeah, well, that's a good question and that's actually what set off a lot of this tension in this town. After these three white kids hung the nooses, the principal there recommended that they be expelled but his decision was overridden by the school superintendent and the school board who decided to simply suspend those three, white kids for three days. That, in turn, outraged a lot of the African-American kids and their parents who really felt the symbolism of those nooses was a very serious offense against them, and they wanted to see more serious punishment. And that then triggered these series of fights that went back and forth over several months between blacks and whites. And the fact that, in general, whenever these fights happen, the blacks were punished more severely than the whites. And ultimately then, these severe charges against the black kids for beating up the white kid is what set off this tension over the perception that there was two standards going on in this town as far as how black kids and white kids are treated.
MARTIN: Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt is the newspaper southwest bureau chief. He joined us from his home in Houston. And Kimberley Pierce Cartwright is news director at member station WNCU in Durham, North Carolina. She joined us from their studio in Durham. I hope we'll get a chance to speak to both of you again from Jena next week as you report on these events. And thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
PIERCE CARTWRIGHT: Thank you very much.
WITT: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.