JENA, La. - Thousands of people from around the nation converged yesterday on this rural town to protest what they consider the overzealous prosecution of six black high school students charged with beating a white schoolmate.
The impetus for the rally in this town of 3,500, and in smaller vigils across the country, was the anger demonstrators feel over the charges - which at one point included attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder - leveled against the "Jena Six." But many participants said they also wanted to make a statement about what they believe is unequal treatment black people receive from the criminal justice system everywhere.
"There's Jenas in Atlanta, there's Jenas in New York, there's Jenas in Florida and there are Jenas all over Texas," the Rev. Al Sharpton told a raucous crowd.
As demonstrators poured into town in buses, cars and on foot, there was also a sense of nostalgia for the huge civil rights marches of a generation ago, and a hope that the response to the Jena (pronounced jee-na) controversy might rekindle the movement.
"It has been a long time since we had a march like this, and people knew it was making history," said the Rev. Kevin Domingue, 42, of Rockville, Md., who was reared about 150 miles from Jena, and who flew to New Orleans and drove to the rally.
The outrage over the Jena Six arose initially after the black teenagers were charged with attempted murder. Moreover, critics complained, three white teenagers at the school who had hung three hangman's nooses in a tree at the high school last summer - the incident that began a spiral of events that culminated in the December altercation - were never prosecuted for committing a hate crime.
Since then, the charges against the black teenagers have been reduced to second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery, but many at the event yesterday said they believed such charges were still too harsh for what they characterize as a schoolyard fight.
"A potential penalty of 15 to 20 years is excessive for a schoolyard fight," said Shannon Collins, 33, a petroleum engineer from Houston who grew up near Jena. "If it's not racism, why else would the district attorney do this?"
On Wednesday, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who prosecuted the case, said it was inaccurate to portray the beating of the white student as a schoolyard fight. The victim, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, though he was treated at a hospital and released. Later that night, he attended a class-ring ceremony.
"The injury that was done to [Barker] and the serious threat to his survival has become less than a footnote," Walters said during a news conference outside the parish courthouse, Barker standing with him. "There was no schoolyard fight. To call it that creates sort of a boys-will-be-boys image that is not correct."
Police declined to estimate the size of the throng at the rally other than to say it numbered in the "tens of thousands."
The buses began arriving hours before dawn, the travelers stepping out of the vehicles stiff, yawning and bleary-eyed. Most wore black T-shirts with a message: "Stop the criminalization of our children" and "What is the color of justice?"
Many of the student protesters in attendance had been sharing information about the case through Facebook, MySpace, and other social-networking Web sites.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led a throng 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.
Through much of the morning, on Jena's narrow streets and green spaces around the courthouse, it was virtually impossible to take a step without jostling someone. Demonstrators formed a vast procession, about eight people across stretching more than a half-mile - and that was just part of one crowd. With the handful of downtown restaurants shuttered, many relied on the offerings of water and snacks from the Red Cross.
Only a few whites were scattered among the vast assembly. As the sun came up, the crowd grew and people roused themselves to call for all charges against the six teenagers to be dropped. Two of the six appeared on the podium and, though they did not speak, they were warmly cheered.
Whites in Jena say that although there has been trouble in the town, the protesters are overlooking that there are troublemakers on both sides of the racial divide.
Two white men, Gerald Tullos, 44, who works in the oil fields, and Ricky Coleman, 46, owner of Rick's Pizza in town, turned out to watch the march. Both said they thought their town had been misconstrued. They said the blame lay on both sides.
"In the beginning, the charges were too severe," Tullos said.
"I approve of their standing up and making a statement about what they think is righteous," Coleman said. "But they don't know us. We really ain't that way."
Start of the 'Jena Six' Case
What has become known as the "Jena Six" case began
in August 2006, when a black high school student sat under a "white tree," where white students would sit during breaks. The next day, Sept. 1, three nooses
were hanging from the tree.
Black parents wanted the white students who hung the nooses expelled. The school superintendent, who is white, suspended them for three days, calling their action a prank.
Racial disturbances followed, starting in November. White partygoers attacked a black student, according to police statements. The next day, that student and some friends spotted one of his attackers and, they said, chased him.
In December, six black teenagers beat up a white student outside the school gymnasium, knocking him out and blackening one of
his eyes. He was treated at a hospital and released after two hours. He attended
a class-ring ceremony that night.
Prosecutor Reed Walters, who is white, charged the black students with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and aggravated battery.
Eventually, those charges were reduced to aggravated battery and other offenses after civil rights activists protested. In June, one student, Mychal Bell, was found guilty of battery. Last Friday, a state appeals court threw out his conviction, saying he was improperly tried as an adult. Bell, now 17, remains in custody as prosecutors decide whether to file new charges in juvenile court.
Yesterday's rally was planned for the day Bell originally was to have been sentenced.
- Inquirer wire services
See video from the Louisiana protest via http://go.philly.