'Jena Six' controversy swirls around football star

JENA, La. -- It was a scene reminiscent of civil rights marches a half century ago: tens of thousands of demonstrators, mostly black, converging on a small town in the Deep South; a black teenager sitting in a correctional facility about 10 miles up the road while demonstrators flooded the streets of his hometown, protesting his racially charged court case.

To fully appreciate the scope of Thursday's demonstrations that brought the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III to this sleepy former mill town, you just had to be there.

They came by the busload, clogging the few roads into town as early as 5 a.m. -- an odd mix of loosely connected social justice crusaders, commentators and even pop culture mainstays -- everyone from the New Black Panthers to rapper Mos Def to the Revolutionary Communist Party.

They marched side by side in support of the so-called "Jena Six," a group of current and former high school students including Mychal Bell, the best football prospect to emerge from Jena in years.

Crowd estimates ran north of 50,000, a figure that was both impossible to confirm but difficult to deny. The protest shut down the town, closing schools, the government and most of the businesses on the main street that cuts through this community of fewer than 3,000 people.

As one of the black demonstrators said of the overwhelmingly white town, in the waning moments of the march, "They haven't seen this much black here since night."

This story began not long after daybreak in August 2006, the start of the high school calendar. Junior Kenneth Purvis, a running back on the Jena Giants, asked the principal a question at a school assembly, a question about an oak tree in the school courtyard.

"I asked if black people could sit under the tree," Purvis said, "and, then he said yes, that we could, sit under the tree."

The tree had been a traditional gathering spot for white students at Jena High School. Purvis, who is black, and several of his black friends stood under the tree later that day. The next day, when students arrived at school, three nooses hung from the tree.

"Real nooses!" said Robert Bailey Jr., a member of the football team. "The ones they play in the movies hanging all the people."

It didn't take long for the news to spread through town. Tina Jones' son, Bryant Purvis, Kenneth Purvis' cousin, was a junior at Jena High last year.

"I was shocked and I was mad," Jones said. "We, as black people, we know what nooses hanging from a tree mean."

Jena High School principal Scott Windham acted swiftly, expelling the three white students responsible for hanging the nooses, but a special school board committee overturned Windham's decision. The three students instead attended an alternative school for two weeks and were placed back inside Jena High on what's known as in-school suspension, according to superintendent Roy Breithaupt. Many in the community were outraged at the reversal.

School board member Billy Fowler, who is white, is one of the few school officials willing to discuss the incident.

"I thought whoever did that, if it was done in a malicious manner, should've been expelled," Fowler said.

Amid concern about rising tensions at the school, La Salle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters was called in shortly after the noose incident to address the students. While Walters was speaking, many black students felt singled out when he threatened harsh penalties for any further misconduct.

"He pulled out his pen [and] he said he could make our lives hell with just one stroke of a pen," senior Cardemeshia Purvis, Kenneth's sister, said.

In the months that followed, it became clear the noose incident was just start of Jena's troubles. Over Thanksgiving break, arson destroyed an academic wing of the school. No arrests have been made and there's no proof the fire was racially motivated, but several students and parents say it added to the atmosphere of tension at the school.

In December, Bailey, a member of the football team, told police he was assaulted and hit with a beer bottle by a group of young men at a predominantly white party.

Only Justin Sloan, 22, was arrested and charged with simple battery. Sloan was ordered to pay a $250 fine and received a year of probation -- a punishment that several in the black community considered a slap on the wrist.

A day after the fight, Bailey and two of his friends were involved in a fight with a white teenager at a gas station on the edge of town. Witnesses' accounts of what transpired vary. Bailey says he was threatened by Matthew Windham, 18, and that when Windham pulled a 12-gauge shotgun out of his vehicle, Bailey wrestled it away.

Windham says he was jumped by Bailey and two of his friends, that they beat him up and stole his shotgun. In the end, only Bailey was charged, with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace.

At Jena High School, with its small student body of 540, news of the back-to-back fights spread quickly.

"If any fight would have popped off, black and white … everybody would have been fighting," Kenneth Purvis said when asked today about the school atmosphere.

Mack Fowler, Jena's former football coach, was worried. According to Fowler, Bailey and the team's star running back, Mychal Bell, had been wearing out a path to the principal's office for weeks that fall semester for repeatedly misbehaving in class.

Bell had the most to lose. The only All-State player on the Jena Giants, Bell had attracted the interest of a number of Division I schools. LSU, Mississippi State and others had come to Jena to see the two-way player who frequently led the team in rushing and tackles.

"I sat him down, I told him, 'Mychal, you know, you've got the grades, you've got the athletic ability … if you don't let the streets whoop you, you're going be able to get you some type of scholarship,'" Fowler said.

On Dec. 4, Bell's future was suddenly placed in jeopardy.

According to several witnesses, junior Justin Barker, a white student, had taunted Bailey during lunch, mocking him for the beating he received at the predominantly white party a few days before. Several witnesses later told police Barker also used racial slurs, including the n-word.

Barker walked out of the gym after lunch, into a covered walkway and, according to dozens of witnesses, a fight broke out.

ESPN has reviewed more than 40 witness statements relating to the fight. Several indicate Bell punched Barker from behind, instantly knocking him to the concrete walkway. Witnesses say a group of black students then stomped on Barker, kicking him in the face and head as he was on the ground.

"He was lifeless when they put him in the ambulance … they thought he was dead," Fowler said.

According to hospital records, Barker's injuries were not as severe as initially feared. He was knocked unconscious during the fight and bled from both ears. But Barker spent a little less than three hours in the hospital and was healthy enough to attend a school ring ceremony that same night.

Barker told ESPN he doesn't remember the fight and has only faint memories of being loaded into an ambulance. He said he thought as many as 10 to 12 black students took part in the attack in some way.

Six students ranging from 14 to 18 years old, including Bell and Bailey, were charged. The parents of the teens, later dubbed the "Jena Six," initially were told their sons would face aggravated battery charges. District Attorney Walters, who'd warned the students months earlier about retaliating with violence, had other plans.

"That's when we found out that the charges had been upgraded to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit the same, you know, and we all looked at each other like, 'What, are you kidding me?'" said Tina Jones, whose son, Bryant Purvis, was among those charged.

"I was horrified," Jones said. "I was driving home and I had to stop on the side of the road a couple times before I ever made it home because I thought I was going to puke in the car, you know."

The attempted murder charges triggered a wave of protests across the country. How, many in the black community wondered, could whites accused of participating in seemingly racially motivated fights be subjected to such lighter punishment?

Bell was convicted in June by an all-white jury on the lesser charge of aggravated battery. His court-appointed lawyer didn't call a witness.

"I know for a fact that he was getting railroaded," said Bell's mother, Melissa Bell.

Walters, who denied ESPN's request for an interview, met briefly with reporters Wednesday, a day before the massive protest that shut down Jena.

Walters said Bell and the rest of the "Jena Six" are guilty of an unprovoked attack.

"The victim was sucker punched and knocked immediately unconscious before being stomped and kicked," Walters said.

As for the charge Walters is practicing uneven justice, the district attorney responded in a written statement: "At no time … did race enter into any decision that was made."

On Sept. 14, after Bell had spent more than nine months in prison, an appellate court threw out his adult conviction on aggravated battery.

But Friday, Bell again was denied bond.

While Bell is held up as a symbol for activists, what many of them either don't know, or don't choose to dwell on, is the fact he's been in trouble before.

During a previous bond hearing it was revealed Bell has a string of juvenile offenses.

Sources told ESPN that one of those cases was a battery in which Bell punched a 17-year-old girl in the face.

Louis Scott, one of a team of attorneys now representing Bell, calls Bell's juvenile offenses "youthful indiscretions."

"One of the purposes for the structure of our juvenile system is to allow people when they grow up to turn over a new leaf," Scott said.

As Bell's case winds its way through the courts, the world now watches Jena.

"Our town is a good place to live," Billy Fowler said. "The rap Jena has been plagued with … we've been marked as the most racist town in the world."

That's not the image one gets on Friday nights in Jena. Home football games are among the few times residents set any lingering racial tensions aside.

Jesse Ray Beard, the lone member of the "Jena Six" who is back at the high school, is now the Giants' star running back -- his success yet another reminder that Bell, the player he replaced, remains in prison. And the future of the rest of the "Jena Six" remains unclear.

Charges for five of the six have been reduced recently. Bryant Purvis, 18, still faces attempted murder charges. He has a hearing scheduled for Nov. 7. Purvis has been living with his uncle, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher, and attending school nearby. Back in Jena, his mother remains concerned about his future.

"We can't let the justice system, the school system, or whomever … just, do our kids any kind of way, without a fight," said Tina Jones. "We've got to get up and stand up for our kids."

John Barr is a reporter and Nicole Noren is a producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."