Jena 6 Rally sparks new spirit of protesting

“If they were Jewish students who sat under the tree and the following day had swastikas or offensive racial imagery hung from those trees, and they decided to respond to that imagery with their fists, they wouldn’t have charges placed against them in this country or any other country, for that matter,” rapper Mos Def retorted to CNN reporters during a live broadcast from Jena, Louisiana last Thursday.

Jena, with a population of 3,000, was flooded with a reported 50,000 people from across the country, primarily African American, demanding justice for six Black high school students known as the “Jena 6.”

Since last fall, racial tensions between Black and White students at Jena High School have been brewing with a series of events in the small town whose population is 85 percent White.

Among them was a Black student sitting under what was considered the “White tree.” The next day, some White students responded by hanging nooses from it. Black students protested and District Attorney Reed Walters, along with police officers, ended the protest and told the Black students, “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

Soon after, White students at a party beat a Black student and, the next day, a group of Black students were arrested for theft of a gun when they wrestled and obtained a shotgun from a White man after he pulled it out and threatened them with it at a local store. No charges were filed against the White man.

Everything climaxed when an outspoken White student who supported the noose prank called a group of Black students “nigger.” The Black students retaliated by attacking him. The White student suffered minor injuries and later attended a party that evening.

Six Black students were arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the school fight. An all-White jury convicted 17-year-old Mychal Bell of aggravated battery. He has been in jail since December.(Story continued below image)

The case has drawn national attention and sparked a heated debate about race relations in the U.S. Some believe that because of the outcry of injustice heard throughout the country, Bell’s conviction for second-degree battery was thrown out earlier this month, with a judge saying it should’ve been handled in juvenile court. Charges for four other students were reduced to battery and conspiracy. One student, Bryant Purvis, who claims he was a spectator of the fight, and an unidentified student, are charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and their constituents, along with busloads of college students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), concerned families and high-profiled personalities like Martin Luther King III, filmmaker Tyler Perry, rapper/actor Mos Def, author Michael Baisden, Hip-Hop writer and activist Kevin Powell and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, responded to what many deem inhumane treatment of children by swarming in on the autonomous town donned in Black and carrying picket signs while shouting, “No justice, no peace!”

It was a scene out of the civil rights demonstrations. Red-faced sheriffs aligned the outskirts of the massive crowd with their hands resting lightly on the holsters awaiting trouble. It never came.

Jackson led a passionately peaceful three-block march to the LaSalle Parish Courthouse where he told participants that injustice like the Jena 6 case is taking place in every state. With Blacks accounting for 80 percent of children in juvenile detention, the civil rights leader alluded to the business of imprisonment.

“They use inmates as prison workers. They are cutting grass along the highway. They rent prisoners out to friends in private business… It’s called pillage or slave labor.”

D.A. Walters, who held a press conference Wednesday, and some local residents, mainly White, believe the attention on the case is blown out of proportion and that their town is being misrepresented.

“This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race,” said Walters. “The fact that it takes place in a small Southern town lends itself to that portrayal, but this is not, and never has been, about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim, and holding people accountable for their actions.”

“This is a very close community. I feel safe here. I think this is a good community,” said one woman, convinced that “outsiders” should stay out of it.

But Sharpton believes silence is a catalyst to injustice.

“The silence shows us that this was fine as long as it was under the carpet. We came to pull the carpet up. If there are roaches [when] we turn the light on, don’t blame us for being those that get rid of roaches. Blame those that let the roaches crawl around.”

Melissa Bell, the mother of Mychal Bell, marched alongside Sharpton wearing a “Jena 6” T-shirt. She said her son was watching the rally on the news and was overwhelmed by the support from strangers across the nation.

Unfortunately, their excitement was cut short the next day when a judge denied a motion for Bell’s release from jail even though his charges have been voided. As of yet, D.A. Walters hasn’t re-filed charges in juvenile court, so according to Bell’s attorneys, there is no reason to hold him. Protestors from the rally who were present at the court hearing vowed to come back.

Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, concluded that the nooses and the school beating of the White student were not related incidents and dismissed any notion that the events are hate crimes.

ColorofChange.org, an Internet-based grassroots organization, lists several steps Jena 6 supporters can take to help the high school students.

“The prosecutor and district attorney should be made to know that the responsible thing to do is the right thing to do,” said Mos Def. “These are young men. There’s no justification in ruining their lives over something that’s so ridiculous.”

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A White supremacist website posted the phone numbers and addresses of five of the six Black students, calling for their community to “deliver justice,” the FBI reported Saturday.

Some of the families have received constant threats 24/7 and the governor has called for an investigation by local police.

“These people need more than an investigation. They need protection,” Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday. He is now calling for President Bush to intervene.

Yaminah Ahmad is an editor and freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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