Thousands rally in La. for the 'Jena Six'
Rights leaders, students mass for black teens
JENA, La. - Drawn by a case tinged with one of the most hated symbols of Old South racism - a hangman's noose tied in an oak tree - tens of thousands of protesters rallied yesterday against what they see as double standard of prosecution for blacks and whites.
The plight of the so-called Jena Six, a group of black teens initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, became a flashpoint for one of the biggest civil-rights demonstrations in years.
Old-guard lions like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined hundreds of college students bused in from across the nation who said they wanted to make a stand for racial equality just as their parents did in the 1950s and '60s.
"It's not just about Jena, but about inequalities and disparities around the country," said Stephanie Brown, 26, national youth director for the NAACP, who estimated that about 2,000 college students were among the throngs of protesters who overwhelmed this tiny central Louisiana town.
But the teens' case galvanized demonstrators as few legal cases in recent years.
The cause of yesterday's demonstrations dates to August 2006, when a black student at Jena High School asked at a student assembly whether blacks could sit under a shade tree that was a frequent gathering place for whites. He was told yes. But nooses appeared in the tree the next day. Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said this week he could find no state law covering the act.
The noose incident was followed by fights between blacks and whites, culminating in the attack in December on white student Justin Barker, who was knocked unconscious. According to court testimony, his face was swollen and bloodied, but he was able to attend a school function that same night.
Six black teens were arrested. Five were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder - charges that have since been reduced for four of them. The sixth was booked as a juvenile on sealed charges.
Brown said the Jena case resonates with the college-age crowd because they aren't much older than the six youths charged. Many protesters had been sharing information about the case through Facebook, MySpace, and other social-networking websites.
Jackson, who led a crowd of people three blocks long to the courthouse with an American flag resting on his shoulder, likened the demonstration to the marches on Selma and the Montgomery bus boycott. But even he was not entirely sure why Jena became the focal point.
"You can never quite tell," he said. "Rosa Parks was not the first to sit in the front of the bus. But the sparks hit a dry field."
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said that punishment of some sort may be in order for the six defendants, but "the justice system isn't applied the same to all crimes and all people."
People began massing for the demonstrations before dawn yesterday, jamming the two-lane highway leading into town and parking wherever they could. State Police estimated the crowd at 15,000 to 20,000. Organizers said they believe it drew as many as 50,000.
Demonstrators gathered at the local courthouse, a park, and the yard at Jena High where the tree once stood (it was cut down in July).
At times the town resembled a giant festival, with people setting up tables of food and drink. Some danced while a man beat a drum.
Sharpton admonished the crowd to remain peaceful, and there were no reports of trouble. State Police could be seen chatting amicably with demonstrators at the courthouse.
In Washington, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said he would hold hearings on the case, but didn't offer details.
Walters, the district attorney, has denied that the charges against the teens were race-related and lamented that Barker, the victim of the beating, has been reduced to "a footnote" while protesters generate sympathy for his alleged attackers.
President Bush said he understood the emotions and the FBI was monitoring the situation.
"The events in Louisiana have saddened me," the president told reporters at the White House. "All of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
Many white residents of Jena also expressed anger at the way news organizations portrayed this town of 3,000 people.
"I believe in people standing up for what's right," said resident Ricky Coleman, 46, who is white. "What bothers me is this town being labeled racist. I'm not racist."
Mychal Bell, now 17, is the only defendant who has been tried. He was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery, but his conviction was tossed out last week by a state appeals court that said Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, could not be tried as an adult on that charge.
He remained in jail pending an appeal by prosecutors. An appellate court ordered yesterday that a hearing be held within three days on his request for release. The other five defendants are free on bond.