Just weeks after some 20,000 demonstrators protested what they decried as unequal justice aimed at six black teenagers in the Louisiana town of Jena, controversy is growing over the accounting and disbursing of at least $500,000 donated to pay for the teenagers’ legal defense.
Parents of the “Jena 6” teens have refused to publicly account for how they are spending a large portion of the cash, estimated at up to $250,000, that resides in a bank account they control.
Michael Baisden, a nationally syndicated black radio host who is leading a major fundraising drive on behalf of the Jena 6, has declined to reveal how much he has collected. Attorneys for the first defendant to go to trial, Mychal Bell, say they have yet to receive any money from him.
Meanwhile, photos and videos are circulating across the Internet that raise questions about how the donated money is being spent. One photo shows Robert Bailey, one of the Jena 6 defendants, smiling and posing with $100 bills stuffed in his mouth. Another shows defendants Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis modeling like rap stars at the Black Entertainment Television Hip-Hop music awards last month in Atlanta.
The teenagers’ parents have strongly denied that they have misused any of the donated money. Bailey’s mother, for example, insisted that the $100 bills shown in the photograph were cash her son had earned as a park maintenance worker.
Civil rights groups report that donations to the Jena 6 defendants had slowed to a trickle in recent weeks as the story fell out of the headlines.
A spokesman for the NAACP, which collected nearly $20,000, including a $10,000 check from rock star David Bowie, said it is winding down its Jena 6 fund and preparing to distribute the remaining cash to the attorneys for the six youths after deducting some of its expenses.
The case, now a national civil rights touchstone, grew out of a September 2006 incident at the high school in Jena when three white students hung nooses from a tree in the school’s courtyard in a warning directed at black students not to try to sit in its shade. School officials dismissed the nooses as a prank, angering black students and their families who regarded the incident as a hate crime.
A series of fights between black and white youths ensued, culminating in a Dec. 4 attack in which the six black students are alleged to have beaten a white student, knocking him briefly unconscious. Although the white student was not hospitalized, the prosecutor initially charged the six teenagers with attempted murder, while declining to charge white youths who had earlier attacked blacks with similarly serious crimes.
The prosecutor, Reed Walters, later reduced the charges against the black teenagers to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. But civil rights groups have denounced the prosecutions as excessive and say they reflect racial injustice in the mostly white town.
Exactly how much money has been collected for the Jena 6 defendants is impossible to know, because many donors did not go through Color of Change, the NAACP or other mainstream groups and instead contributed directly to the defendants’ families. Many Internet operators raised money by selling T-shirts or otherwise invoking the Jena 6 cause, but much of that money disappeared without a trace.
Tensions over the money have begun to surface among the Jena 6 families, most of whom are impoverished. Marcus Jones broke with the other families, for example, in criticizing Color of Change.
The largest remaining Jena 6 account, said by some activists close to the families to contain up to $250,000, is under the control of Tina Jones, mother of defendant Purvis.
Robert Bailey and money he earned as a park meintenance worker.