On Nov. 26, 27 and 28, Western will be holding a series of discussions entitled “In Light of Jena Six: A Call For Accountability.”
The discussions are the collaborated efforts of five Western groups: the Social Issues Resource Center; the Black Student Union; the Ally Building Network; the Center for Law, Diversity and Justice; and the Center for Educational Pluralism.
According to National Public Radio Web site, the events in Jena, La. reportedly were started when a black student of Jena High asked the principal if he could sit under a courtyard tree traditionally known as a white student hangout. Afterward, three nooses appeared, hanging from the tree. The students suspected of hanging the nooses were suspended from school for a short period of time. This event sparked racial tensions at the school which grew heated and finally led to an attack on a white student. Six black students were accused and arrested for the crime.
The events sparked controversy when five of these six students were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder—crimes that carry punishment of up to eighty years in jail. The sentences have since been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.
The first of Western's discussions is entitled “What Really Went Down: Facts and Significance of Jena Six,” and will be held at 7 p.m., Nov. 26 in VU 565. This discussion will feature a panel of Western professors, an American Civil Liberties Union representative, and a student, and will divide the events of Jena into four components: racism, legality, media influence and a plan of action.
The events in Jena, which happened a year ago, initially slipped under the radar of mainstream media. Awareness was largely spread through the internet in blogs and through social networking internet systems such as Facebook. Facebook currently has over 100 groups dedicated to supporting the accused Jena Six, and even a handful of anti-support groups, although they are outnumbered.
Dennis Williams Jr., co-coordinator of the Black Student Union (BSU), said he learned of the events through word-of-mouth from his girlfriend who learned of it at her university. He found more information through the internet on YouTube and through blogs.
Originally the BSU expressed interest in doing something about the events and coordinated with the AS Social Issues Resource Center (SIRC) to hold the first awareness raising event on Vendor's Row about a month and a half ago, Williams said. The groups had a table and wore black t-shirts which sparked students' interest, he said.
Next week's forums are the next step—a way of “breaking it down so people can know what it is,” Williams said.
The events in Jena have raised questions as to why an event like this went unnoticed from the media for so long.
“Race crimes happen in America all the time, if you take these events out of context it's easy to ignore because as a society we've become accustomed to them,” said Sonja Prins, co-coordinator of the SIRC. “Our country is one who has historically condoned these actions.”
Not everyone believes that Jena is a town divided by race. David Barker is the father of Justin Barker, the white student allegedly beaten by the Jena Six.
“They're making us look like a real racist town, but it's not,” he said in an NPR article. “Prior to this, I speak to some of these kids' daddies and shake their hands. Even today, I still do.”
Williams was unsure how the events could be viewed as not involving racism.
This event had “all kinds of racial connotations…if it was a white kid they wouldn't be going to trial,” Williams said.
The second Western event is titled “Symbols of Hate,” and will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 27, in the Fairhaven Auditorium. This lecture will explain hate symbols, such as nooses and swastikas, and their historical context in an attempt at showing the impact of a hate symbol on the community it's targeted towards.
Although it is easy to isolate the events of Jena to the distant South, Jena is also described as illustrating a national problem. Prins said that although the Northwest is a considered a liberal place, racism is not something that can be removed from the larger community.
“Their small southern town has kind of been offered up as a sacrifice for America's national sin,” said Pastor Eddie Thompson in an NPR article. Thompson is a pastor of the Sanctuary Family Worship Center in Jena.
The final panel discussion to be held at 7 p.m. on Nov. 28 in VU 565 is entitled “Bringing it Home: Local Connections and Consequences of Jena Six.” This forum, followed by spoken word, will relate the events in Jena to events in Bellingham, highlighting the way racism has permeated the local community.
Williams described the goal of the discussions as to spread awareness which will build to support of the Jena Six and lead to action.
“[I hope] this will spark interest in things that are bigger than us,” Williams said.
T-shirts in support of the Jena Six will be sold Nov. 19 and 20 in Vendor's Row, and also in the SIRC, Ethnic Students Center, Center for Educational Pluralism, and the Wellness Outreach Center. Proceeds will go to the pay for the defense attorneys of the accused men.