Racial tension sparks debate among students

By Megan Pellegrino
October 11, 2007

Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

“I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen,” Jena district attorney Reed Walters said, according to freethejena6.org.

In September 2006, a chain of events happened at Jena, La. leaving a small town of 3,000 in racial tension.

Thousands stood up in protest including students from the Greater Philadelphia area. Cheyney and Temple University participated and petitioned the following chain of events.

Incident 1

African American students at Jena High School asked permission to sit under the “white tree,” outside the school where typically white students gathered. The next morning three nooses where found hanging from the “white” oak tree.

“Black students, it is reported, were initially delighted by the sight of nooses hanging from the tree. they stuck their heads through the loops, laughing and clowning. A good time was had by all,” Dr. Alan Bean, executive director of Friends for Justice, said.

The nooses were considered to be merely a prank by school officials and “light punishments” were given to the three white students.

Incident 2

Jena High School’s main academic building was burnt down. The crime to date remains unsolved. Some officials suspect it is link to arson and the actions are related to the ongoing racial tensions at Jena.

Incident 3

Tensions continue to grow. At a private party Justin Sloan, a 22-year-old white male, struck 17-year-old Robert Bailey with a glass bottle.

Sloan was charged with battery. His punishment: probation.

Incident 4

On Dec. 4, 2006, six African American students entered into a fight with a white student. The following series of events give the title “Jena 6” to these boys forever.

These six African American boys jumped white student Justin Barker, leaving Barker unconscious.

The boys said that they were provoked by Barker’s racial epithets. Barker’s parents said that Barker is innocent of racial slurs.

Barker was treated for injuries to his eyes and ears. He was released from the hospital later that day.

Later that month, the six black students were arrested and charged as adults with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

“It’s not equal. Black people get the harshest extent of the law, where as the white people will get, you know a slap on the wrist the first day,” Tina Jones, mother of Carwyn Jones, a boy of the Jena 6, said in an interview with CNN.

A few weeks later three of the six had their charges reduced to aggravated battery. Mychal Bell was not among those three.

At the age of 16, Bell was imprisoned as an adult and held bail of $90,000 and faced up to 22 years in prison if convicted.

Nine months later, in September 2007, Bell was denied his request for a lower bail in being tried as an adult.

A week later on Sept. 21, a rally of thousands was held in Jena, La.

“A few of my peers here at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania did in fact take a trip to Jena, La on the day of the rally,” Khalid Y. Long, Cheyney University president of the NAACP, said.

Bell’s case was taken to juvenile court where his bail was lowered to $45,000.

On Sept. 27, Bell was released on bail under the conditions that he would not appeal the decision to move Bell’s case to juvenile court.

“We have been very proactive here at Temple for this case,” Darius Alexander, Temple University progressive NAACP president, said.

“We still have mountains to climb, but at least this is closer to an even playing field,” Rev. Al Sharpton at LaSalle Parish in Jena said.

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Megan Pellegrino

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