On Sept. 20, the original date for one of Mychal Bell's court hearings, up to 100,000 people descended on the tiny town of Jena, La. Although the court date had been postponed for Bell, the first of the Jena 6 to go on trial for allegedly beating a White fellow student, buses and automobiles from around the nation clogged all roads leading to the central Louisiana town.
Bell, 16 at the time, and the others had been charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, charges that allow anyone 15 or older in Louisiana to be prosecuted as adults. Those charges were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery, crimes that do not allow teens in the state to be tried as adults.
Last June, an all-White jury found Bell guilty of both crimes. However, District Court Judge J.P. Mauffray set aside the conspiracy conviction because of Bell's age but asserted that he should maintain jurisdiction over Bell on the battery charge in adult court.
In the end, a Louisiana appeals court threw out the remaining charge against Bell and his case was remanded to juvenile court, where it should have been all along. Another Black juvenile avoided Bell's fate when the prosecutor made no attempt to try him as an adult.
The crucial test for Black America was not Sept. 20, but Nov. 7. That's when four of the Jena 6 now out on bond – Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw – are scheduled to return to court. And unlike Bell, they can indeed be tried as adults because they were at least 17 at the time of the incident.
Will the international outpouring of support for a single person on Sept. 20 be greater than that for four young men facing Jena's criminal injustice system next Wednesday? Will Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al, SCLC's Charles Steele, radio personalities Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden along with others who protested in September return to Jena in droves next Wednesday?
If we can't organize even more people to return to Jena, the first outpouring will be remembered as a one-day spectacle and be further evidence of our inability to sustain a movement.
Whether it was the Million Man March, the Million Woman March, the Millions More March or the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, a valid criticism of today's organizers is that there is little, if any, follow up once the crowds have dispersed. Sure, we can put on a stirring demonstration – even while some civil rights figures operate on separate but equal platforms – but what happens after the buses have left town? What happens when the cameras are turned off?
It's time to ask the tough questions. Why was Mychal Bell allowed to languish in jail for so long? At one point, his bond was as high as $130,000 and later reduced to $90,000 prior to the trial. Upon Bell's conviction in adult court this summer, he was not allowed out on bond. But the appellate court reversed his conviction, ruling that he never should have been tried as an adult; his bond was then reduced to $45,000.
Only 12 percent of the bond was needed to get Bell released. Still, civil rights leaders did not act, which causes me to wonder whether some of them were so busy concentrating on gaining publicity for themselves that they forgot about the fate of Bell. And when Bell did make Bond, it was because of the efforts of Dr. Stephen Ayers, a Black physician in Lake Charles, approximately 135 miles away. Ayers, who did not participate in the Jena march, put up $5,400 to get Bell out of jail. Two weeks later, Mauffray, the original judge in the case, switched roles and as a sitting juvenile judge revoked Bell's probation on a previous juvenile conviction and ordered him back to jail.
The parents of the Jena 6 have established a defense fund. Donations can be sent to: The Jena 6 Defense Fund, P.O. Box 2798, Jena, La. 71342.
Additionally, there are creative ways of opposing the selective prosecution of African-Americans in Jena. My favorite one was undertaken by the Philadelphia NAACP's youth division. Because LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters originally charged the Jena 6 with attempted murder, claiming the murder weapons were sneakers worn by the accused, branch members are urging people to send their old, dirty, smelly, sneakers to the district attorney (His address is 1050 Courthouse Square, Jena, La. 71342-1288).
It would be even better to attend a second march next Wednesday and save time and postage by leaving the sneakers with Walters before leaving town.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.