Thousands Overwhelm Tiny Town in Support of 'Jena Six'

Thousands Overwhelm Tiny Town in Support of 'Jena Six'

Published February 11, 2008

Do you think this rally will actually affect the Jena 6 case?

Posted Sept. 20, 2007 People of all races and ages and from all over the country crammed their way into the dot of a town known as Jena, La., Thursday delivering a clear and resounding message heard 'round the world: "We will not sit idly by while the American justice system becomes a vehicle of injustice."

The theme of Thursday's crusade was justice for the "Jena Six," the Black teens facing protracted prison terms for their schoolyard scuffle with a White classmate. That classmate, Justin Barker, allegedly had been beaten and knocked unconscious by the group. But, still, the issue for those who abandoned jobs, schoolwork and their normal everyday lives to stand with the young men from this rural Louisiana town is whether the parish prosecutor would have brought charges of attempted murder and conspiracy against White youths accused of the same thing.

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As civil rights leaders, students, rappers and regular folk pointed out during the rally and march from the Lasalle Parish Courthouse to Jena High School, the apparent Jim Crow justice perpetrated in this 86-percent-White community over the past several months transcended the confines of north Central Louisiana. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the throng, "There's a Jena in every state."

Protesters wearing all black, in a scene Martin Luther King III called reminiscent of the early Civil Rights Movement, flooded Jena’s courthouse grounds and overflowed onto the narrow surrounding streets.

Adding to the sense of urgency to address America's racial chasm – also reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic 1963 March on Washington, when Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando and others trekked in solidarity to the Washington Monument – many of today’s biggest names in entertainment joined together in Jena. Among them were playwright/actor Tyler Perry and rapper/actor Mos Def. Just days before, rock star David Bowie donated $10,000 to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund.
 
“People are saying, ‘That’s enough, and we’re not taking it any more,” Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, told the crowd gathered at the scene.
Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others emphasized that the protest was not against the inhabitants of the town.

“We have no problem with justice; but when you are talking about a school fight where one of the students was allegedly kicked with a tennis shoe,” it is definitely a miscarriage of justice, said the Rev. Chipps Taylor, executive director of the NAACP Louisiana State Conference Gulf Coast Advocacy Center. “This isn’t about trying to get around a law, but about making sure justice happens,” Taylor told BET.com in an earlier interview.

The students, Mychal Bell 17, Carwin Jones, 18; Theo Shaw, 17; Robert Bailey Jr., 17; and Bryant Purvis, 17 were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder in the beating of a White classmate who reportedly had used racial slurs to describe them. Another student's name and charges were never publicized because he is a juvenile.

The Sept. 20 date was picked for the rally because it was the day that Bell was supposed to be sentenced. But an appeals court chucked out Bell's conviction, saying that the case should have been tried in a juvenile court because the accused was only 16 at the time of the fight. Organizers opted to keep the rally and march scheduled to highlight longstanding and widespread injustice nationwide. Also, many participants said, a rally would also keep a spotlight on the fact that Bell remained in jail despite the appeals court ruling.

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How It All Started

Jena is Klan country, as Jackson pointed out in the lead-up to the rally. But many of the latent feelings of racial hatred were dormant until a Black student at Jena High requested to sit under a shade tree where only White students had previously sat. A vice principal told him that anybody had the right to sit under the tree. But the following day, two White students let the local Blacks know exactly how they felt about them sitting there: They hung three nooses from a limb.

When the principal found out, he recommended expelling the two Whites. But the all-White school board overruled that decision, dismissing the incident as a harmless prank and imposing a three-day in-school suspension. What many Whites saw as harmless, many Blacks – understanding Louisiana's long history of lynching Black males – saw as a life-threatening hate crime.

Within days, feeling that justice had not been served in the noose incident, several Black students staged a sit-in under the tree. The school called an assembly to quell tensions between Black and White students.

Attending the assembly was Lasalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, with armed police officers by his side. Many Blacks in Jena point to the polarizing comments Walters made to Black students as proof that this case is really about race:  "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy … with a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear."

The episode at school tightened racial tension in Jena over the next three months, leading up to the encounter between Barker and the Jena Six. Witnesses say that Barker taunted the Black students, calling them racial slurs. Bell allegedly hit Barker in the head, and the White student fell to the ground unconscious. It is unclear whether the punch knocked him out or if he hit his head on the ground. Barker was treated in the emergency room and released two hours later. That same evening, he attended the school's ring ceremony.

The prosecutor says the noose incident and the subsequent fight were totally unrelated, but others are adamant that it was the heated feelings over the nooses that finally boiled over.

Apparently sticking to his promise to make their lives disappear, Walters filed attempted murder charges against Bell, and four other teens, charges that could earn them up to 80 years in prison if convicted. Amid growing pressure from around the country, Walters reduced the charges to second-degree battery, which could still draw 20-year sentences. The sixth teen faces undisclosed juvenile charges.

Bell remained in jail Thursday as Walters was deciding whether to file new charges against him in juvenile court.

Do you think this rally will actually affect the Jena 6 case? Click “Discuss Now,” to the right, and talk about it!

Written by BET-Staff

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