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.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said the scene was 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.”
The six teens were charged not long after the local prosecutor declined to charge three white high school students who hung nooses in a tree on their high school grounds. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder, but that charge was reduced to battery for all but one, who has yet to be arraigned; the sixth teen was charged as a juvenile.
“This is the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we’ve seen,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told CBS’s “The Early Show” before arriving in Jena. “You can’t have two standards of justice.”
“We didn’t bring race in it,” he said. “Those that hung the nooses brought the race into it.”
Sharpton, who helped organized the rally, said this could be the beginning of the 21st century’s civil rights movement, one that would challenge disparities in the justice system.
The district attorney who is prosecution the teens, Reed Walters, denied on Wednesday that racism was involved in 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,” he said. “It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”
The white teen who was beaten, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function later that night.
Bell, 16 at the time of the 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.
Thursday’s protest had been planned to coincide with Bell’s sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead even after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains in jail while prosecutors prepare an appeal. He has been unable to meet the $90,000 bond.
Sharpton admonished the crowd 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 on the rallies, saying privately the town was being unfairly portrayed as racist in overblown media coverage.
A group of about a dozen white town residents and black demonstrators engaged in an animated but not angry exchange during the march. Whites asked blacks if they were award of Bell’s criminal record, blacks replying that Jena High School administrators had mishandled the incidents at the school.
The rally in Jena, with a population of about 3,000, was heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications. State police declined to give crowd estimates, but participants at the park and the courthouse appeared to number in the thousands.
“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, of Atlanta, who drove with three friends from Atlanta to protest the treatment of the teens.
Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, compared the outcry to the controversy that followed racial remarks by radio personality Don Imus.
“People are saying, `That’s enough, and we’re not taking it any more,'” Hayes said.
The rally was heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications. State police declined to give crowd estimates, but participants at the park and the courthouse appeared to number in the thousands.
Students came from universities across the region, including historically black colleges like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Hampton University and Southern University.
Tina Cheatham missed the civil rights marches at Selma, Montgomery and Little Rock, but she had no intention of missing another brush with history. The 24-year-old Georgia Southern University graduate drove all night to reach tiny Jena in central Louisiana.
“It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn’t around for the civil rights movement. This is kind of the 21st century version of it,” she said.
Some Jena residents worried about safety. Hotels were booked from as far away as Natchez, Miss., to Alexandria, La.
Red Cross officials manned first aid stations near the local courthouse and had water and snacks on hand. Portable toilets and flashing street signs to aid in traffic direction were in place. At the courthouse troopers chatted amiably with each other and with demonstrators who began showing up well before dawn.
Sharpton, who helped organize the protest, met Bell at the courthouse Wednesday morning. He said Bell is heartened by the show of support and wants to make sure it stays peaceful.
“He doesn’t want anything done that would disparage his name no violence, not even a negative word,” Sharpton said.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Jena, La., and Errin Haines in Atlanta contributed to this story.
– Associated Press
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