Yale students are seeking ways to show their support for the Louisiana black teenagers known as the “Jena Six.”
The Black Student Alliance at Yale has teamed up with groups like the Yale chapter of the NAACP and the Yale Black Men’s Union to protest the prolonged imprisonment and initial attempted murder charge against six black high school students who were arrested in December for beating a white student. Students posted information about the growing controversy on campus bulletin boards and donned black clothing on Thursday to show their opposition to the allegedly racist legal proceedings in Louisiana.
Yale NAACP President Andrea McChristian ’09 said these actions are meant to introduce the conflict gradually to those within the Yale community who are not familiar with it.
“One of the major issues is that people just are not aware of it,” she said. “I think we can make the Yale campus more aware by introducing the issue slowly.”
McChristian said she hopes knowledge of the Jena Six conflict will bring attention to the fact that there is racial injustice in the United States even while “so many people are saying that racism is dead.”
The controversy erupted on Dec. 4, 2006, in Jena, La., a small city of nearly 3,000 residents, when white Jena High School student Justin Barker was assaulted during school, allegedly for taunting one of the assailants the day before. Witnesses said Barker was knocked down by a group of black students and repeatedly kicked. Unconscious, Barker was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for injuries to the head and hand, including a mild concussion. He was released later that day to attend a school function.
Local authorities arrested and charged teenagers Robert Bailey Jr., Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw with attempted second-degree murder. The sixth assailant, Jesse Ray Beard, was charged as a juvenile. The indictments sparked outrage among thousands in the nation, who said that the attempted murder charge was excessive and racially motivated.
Only Bell’s case has made it to trial so far. Before the trial, the local district attorney agreed to reduce Bell’s charges to second-degree battery and conspiracy, and an all-white jury found Bell guilty.
But a state appeals court overturned the decision, arguing that Bell should not have been tried as an adult. Bell, who has a criminal record, has been in jail since December awaiting an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court by the district attorney.
Four of the other teenage assailants have seen the charges against them reduced to attempted battery and conspiracy as well.
Gerald Jaynes, director of graduate studies in African-American Studies, said he thinks the inadequate effort by school officials and local authorities to mitigate racial tensions prior to the assault are more troubling than the legal proceedings themselves.
A number of incidents revealing race-based conflicts in the high school cropped up in the months leading up to the assault, including a report that nooses were found hanging from a tree that white students usually sat under, but that had been occupied by black students the previous day. LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters spoke to the school a few days later, allegedly using a threatening tone to warn students who protested the noose incident to stop making a fuss about an “innocent prank.”
“Based on what I’ve seen, my first inclination would be to say that the district attorney was definitely racially motivated,” Jaynes said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently launched an investigation into a Web site that posted what it claims are the addresses and phone numbers of some of the black teenagers.
Since the December assault, activists and students across the nation have been mobilizing to draw attention to the Jena Six. Last week, thousands of demonstrators marched on the city to support the imprisoned teenagers. An online petition created to lobby the United States Department of Justice to determine whether the students’ civil rights have been violated has collected over 400,000 signatures. Hundreds of Facebook groups — both for and against the Jena Six — have formed to monitor the legal proceedings.
At Yale, students are finding subtler ways to make their voices heard.
McChristian said she was pleased to see many students outside of the minority community demonstrating alongside herself by wearing black on Thursday and raising awareness on an individual basis by sending informative postcards and making donations to Jena Six support groups.
But Brandon Johnson ’09, who did not wear black, said that while he would endorse any person speaking in support of the Jena Six, he does not think the symbolic gesture of wearing black was particularly effective.
“Something more visible and audible would have stirred more support,” he said.
Ethnic counselor Justin Hayase ’08, who wore black on Thursday, said that while he did not think the gesture did much to generate awareness, he hopes to participate in future events that more effectively relay the conflict to the Yale population.
McChristian said the Yale NAACP and other groups hope to supplement these early gestures in the upcoming weeks and to continue their awareness campaign with table tents in dining halls and other activities.