Thousands of chanting demonstrators filled the streets of this little Louisiana town Thursday in support of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate.
The crowd broke into chants of “Free the Jena Six” as the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived at the local courthouse with family members of the jailed teens.
Sharpton told the Associated Press that he and Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and William Jefferson, D-La., will press the House Judiciary Committee next week to summon the district attorney to explain his actions before Congress.
This could be the beginning of a 21st century’s civil rights movement to challenge disparities in the justice system, Sharpton said, adding that he planned a November march in Washington.
“What we need is federal intervention to protect people from Southern injustice,” Sharpton told the AP. “Our fathers in the 1960’s had to penetrate the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. We have to do the same thing.”
The six black teens were charged a few months after three white teens were accused of hanging nooses in a tree at their high school. The white teens were suspended from school but weren’t prosecuted. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder. That charge was reduced to battery for all but one, who has yet to be arraigned; the sixth was charged as a juvenile.
The beating victim, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function later that night.
Thousands march through streets
Thursday morning, thousands of demonstrators clad in black converged on the local courthouse and a nearby park to protest the disparity in the charged teenagers’ treatment. Thousands more marched along city streets in what at times took on the atmosphere of a giant festival — with people setting up tables of food and some dancing to the beat of a drum.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to one crowd. Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, was also there.
“People are saying, ‘That’s enough, and we’re not taking it any more,”’ Hayes said.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, described the scene as reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles. He said 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.”
DA: Race has nothing to do with charges
District Attorney Reed Walters, who is prosecuting the case, said Wednesday that race had nothing to do with the charges.
He said he didn’t charge the white students accused of hanging the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. In the beating case, he said, four of the defendants were of adult age under Louisiana law and the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.
“It is not and never has been about race,” Walters said. “It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”
Bell, 16 at the time of the December attack, is the only one of the “Jena Six” to be tried so far. He was convicted on an aggravated second-degree battery count that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, but the conviction was overturned last week when a state appeals court said he should not have been tried as an adult.
Blogs draw attention to rally
Thursday’s rally, heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications, had been planned to coincide with Bell’s sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead even after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains jailed while prosecutors prepare an appeal. He has been unable to meet the $90,000 bond.
“We all have family members about the age of these guys. We said it could have been one of them. We wanted to try to do something,” said Angela Merrick, 36, who drove with three friends from Atlanta to protest the treatment of the teens.
Sharpton admonished the demonstrators to remain peaceful, and there were no reports of trouble as of midmorning. White residents in the predominantly white town of 3,000 have largely been reluctant to comment, saying privately that the town was being unfairly portrayed.
“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.”
A group of about a dozen white residents and black demonstrators engaged in an animated but not angry exchange during the march. Whites asked blacks if they were aware of Bell’s criminal record, blacks replied that Jena High School administrators mishandled the incidents.
Another white resident, Bill Williamson, 59, said he tried to convince visitors that the town was being treated unfairly and that Mychal Bell belonged in jail.
“I think we changed one man’s mind,” he said. “But most of these people don’t want to hear.”
The demonstrators included large numbers of civil rights movement veterans and college students from across the region who weren’t alive in the 1960s.
Elizabeth Redding, 63, of Willinboro, N.J., said she marched at Selma when she was in her 20s.
“This is worse, because we didn’t get the job done,” she said as she walked up a hill leading to the park rally. “I never believed that this would be going on in 2007.”
Sharpton said Bell, whom he spoke with Wednesday, was heartened by the show of support.
“He doesn’t want anything done that would disparage his name — no violence, not even a negative word,” Sharpton said.