A group of Atlanta University Center students are enlisting college students from across the country to help push for the ouster of the district attorney in Jena, La.
The students, who attend Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, are circulating among colleges and universities nationwide a petition that seeks a federal investigation of Louisiana’s criminal justice system and to have LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walter disbarred.
Walter is the prosecutor in the “Jena Six” cases where six Black high school students were initially charged with attempted murder after they beat up a White classmate in December 2006. Some charges have been reduced.
“It shamefully represents a consistent theme of historic injustice in the South,” says the petition, which the students plan to forward to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “Authorities who feel comfortable abusing their power should have a consequence for their misconduct and violation of the United States justice system.”
The petition demands a reduction in charges for the Jena Six (“to the proper consequences for a fight that only resulted in a minor injury,” the students wrote); a public apology from Jena and Louisiana officials, along with the local school board, to the students and families of the Jena Six; an apology to the American people for “exploiting the justice system and wrongfully abusing their position for personal power.”
“To prevent more injustice, we the people need to voice the adjustments that are necessary within the justice system of Jena, Louisiana,” says the petition.
The situation in Jena stemmed from a Black Jena High School student’s request to sit under a tree that has traditionally only been used by White students. A day later three nooses were found hanging from the tree. That began a series of racially based fights that culminated in the December 2006 altercation. A White student suffered minor injuries.
Black residents in Jena believe Black students were unfairly and harshly punished while White students were not punished or charged in other fights surrounding the issue, including one who threatened a Black student with a shotgun.
For example, the students guilty of hanging the nooses were suspended for a few days and were never prosecuted.
One of the “Jena Six,” Mychal Bell, was tried as an adult and found guilty, though an appellate court threw out his conviction. Bell is back in jail for violating parole. The other five defendants have not been tried.
The petition is the latest example of college students nationally getting their voices heard in this and other situations. Florida A&M University students protested the not-guilty verdicts an all-White jury handed down to guards and a nurse in the death of a Black youth at boot camp.
Earlier this month, a national student walk-out to protest the Jena Six situation was coordinated among nearly 100 colleges across the country.
Reginald McKinley, a senior at Morehouse who put together a bus trip that took 100 AUC students from Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta to protest in Jena, says students across the country are ready to take the lead in making sure injustice does not persist in Jena.
“We have contacts at schools like Dillard, Howard, Boston University, state schools like Arizona State University,” says McKinley. “We’re hoping that if we can get select groups on campuses across the country that the comprehensive numbers (of students nationwide) will be enough to keep things going.”
In addition to sharing the petition with students on other campuses, the group is utilizing the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, so it is available electronically to thousands of students.
In fact, their goal is to get between half a million to one million signatures before the petition is sent to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We need to prevent justice from reoccurring in the case and also seek consequences for the injustice that was committed by District Attorney Reed Walters,” Clark Atlanta senior Vanessa Spiva read from the petition Thursday evening during a townhall meeting at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College.
Veteran civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery said he is happy to see the younger generation stepping up their efforts against injustice, calling their involvement in the civil rights movement “a fresh breeze in a stale situation.”
“You have tasted the flavor of the American criminal justice system,” he told students Thursday. “And it made you sick. That’s good.”
–Add Seymour Jr.
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