Most of us had never heard of Jena, Louisiana. But in 2006, six teenage boys were arrested and the small town of 4,000 would soon be thrust into the national spotlight as a prime example of 21st century Jim Crow justice.
It all started on August 31st at Jena High School when a Black student sat under a tree in the courtyard that had come to be known as for White students only. When students returned to school the next day, they found three nooses hanging from the same tree.
School administrators dismissed the incident as a prank and gave the students responsible three days suspension. African-American parents were never notified of the incident. In response, Black students held a peace rally under the tree, gathering there in solidarity during lunch. Administrators responded to the peaceful demonstration with hostility, and the school would later call in the district attorney. Flanked by police officers, District Attorney Reed Walters infamously told Black students, “I can end your life with a stroke of a pen.” We would soon see the lengths he'd go to prove it.
Throughout the fall of 2006, a series of racially-charged incidents occurred in Jena. On one occassion, a White student drew a gun on a group of African-American students, claiming self-defense. After the Black students wrestled the gun away, they went to the police to file charges. Local law enforcement responded by charging the Black students with assault and stealing the gun. The White student was never charged.
Tensions continued to rise among community members, and eventually six Black teenagers were taken into custody for beating a White classmate who was severely battered after he allegedly shouted racial slurs at them. The six boys, all between the ages of 15 and 17 years old, were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. Each of them faced between 20 and 100 years in prison -- a life sentence for what was essentially a schoolyard fight. And the district attorney made it clear in a press release that he would seek the maximum penalty.
Mychal Bell, 16 at the time, was the first to appear before an all-White jury. He was charged with aggravated battery and conspiracy and faced up to 22 years in prison. Marcus Bell, father of Mychal, would later say, “You know, if this don’t teach him what it is to be Black now, I don’t know what will." Marcus Bell’s words speak to a sobering fact: Black boys face a 1 in 8 chance of entering prison once they enter their twenties. Racial disparities within the criminal justice system have been at the center of much of our work at ColorOfChange.
Hosts on Black radio shows and a network of racial justice bloggers and organizers began getting the word out about what was happening in Jena. Soon ColorOfChange was in the midst of one of our most dynamic campaigns to date.
More than 300,000 ColorOfChange.org members would eventually sign petitions to elected officials, urging that the charges be dropped and that then-Governor Kathleen Blanco intervene. More than 10,000 of our members marched in Jena on September 20, 2007. Some observers estimated that as many as 40,000 people showed up in the town that day to show their support for the young men. The same day, thousands of members in more then 150 cities across the country held rallies and vigils, distributed flyers about the case, and made more than 6,000 phone calls to public officials in Louisiana. ColorOfChange members also contributed more than $275,000 toward high-quality legal teams that were able to get a biased judge removed from the cases and ultimately achieve the victory.
The voices of our members had a clear impact on the outcome for the five remaining Jena 6: Jesse Ray, Carwin, Robert, Theo and Bryant pleaded "no contest" to misdemeanor simple battery charges. They spent no time in jail, served seven days of probation, and paid relatively minor fines and court fees.
Mychal Bell was the only boy convicted, but the decision was later set aside. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge. Bell would go on to play cornerback on Southern University’s team. And Robert Bailey Jr., a member of the ROTC, lived out his athletic dreams as a wide receiver at Grambling.
Injustice of this scale had taken root in the small town of Jena because of the town's isolation. But as a result of an intense and concerted online lobbying effort, these stories emerged from the shadows. Our co-founder James Rucker put it best at the height of the campaign when he said:
This small victory didn't come because the Governor or the Justice Department stepped in, and it wasn't because of a hard-hitting expose by a major news organization (all of which would be welcome developments). It was because a relatively small number of concerned citizens -- informed by reports in alternative media and spurred to action by grassroots and online organizing -- stood behind the Jena 6, their families, and dozens of other Jena residents who are courageously resisting injustice.
Justice for the Jena Six signaled a turning point in our history. Black online activism spurred multiple actions that not only got hundreds of thousands of concerned people to click on a link, but also to invest their time, money and energy to the cause. This campaign and its eventual success shows the true power that Black America has when it rallies together to fight the injustices that members of our community face.