It felt like a throwback to the heyday of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In the early hours of yesterday morning, hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying students, black activists and outraged citizens from halfway across the United States converged on the tiny town of Jena, deep in the Louisiana backwoods, to demand justice for six black teenagers put through the legal wringer over a racially tinged schoolyard fight.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the town, whose population numbers just over 3,000, to demand the immediate release of one of the boys, who has been in prison for almost a year, and exoneration for the other five, who face charges of attempted murder after they punched a white kid in the face and knocked him out. The kid was up and about again in a couple of hours.
The case of the "Jena Six" has cast a spotlight on the latent racism of the Deep South and sparked indignation like nothing since a black man was picked up at random, tied to the back of a car and dragged to death by three white men in Jasper, Texas, nine years ago.
To the protesters who converged on Jena yesterday from as far afield as Detroit and Los Angeles, it felt like a re-enactment of the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s in which civil rights campaigners, both black and white, descended on Washington to demand an end to segregation. Headline speakers at the rally included two former presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
The local authorities declared a state of emergency and asked hundreds of armed police to come to Jena to maintain order. When the police slowed down the incoming traffic, hundreds of protesters – all of them dressed in black – simply left their vehicles and walked to the town.
A popular syndicated black radio host, Michael Baisden, has been instrumental in rallying support for the cause with his broadcasts and an energetic Internet campaign. He said: "The protest in Jena is not an attack on white people but is against a system that has failed us all. It is not about black and white, but about what is wrong and what is right."
The trouble began a year ago, when a group of black students complained about a so-called "white tree" on the yard of Jena High School and chose to sit under it in protest. The next day, three nooses appeared on the tree – a clear reference to the lynch-mob anti-black hostility of the Ku Klux Klan during the segregation era.
School authorities dismissed the noose episode as a "childish prank", prompting the boys who would later become known as the Jena Six to stage a much bigger protest under the tree.
The Jena district attorney, Reed Walters, then addressed an emergency school assembly and warned the protesters that he could "take away your lives with a stroke of my pen".
The atmosphere at Jena High then turned to pure poison. When one of the Jena Six turned up at a mostly white party in December, he was punched in the face, kicked and hit with beer bottles. Nobody was arrested or disciplined for that attack. The next day, the six were confronted outside a convenience store by a white assailant with a shotgun. The assailant was not charged, but the boys. who successfully wrested the gun out of his hands. were later charged with theft.
Two days after that the six turned on Justin Barker in the school yard. The district attorney, used the full weight of the law charging them with second-degree murder as an excuse to prosecute them as adults.
So far, just one of the six, Mychal Bell, has been prosecuted. Jailed since last December – he could not afford bail set at $90,000 (£45,000) – Bell was convicted of aggravated assault in June and was due to be sentenced yesterday – hence the choice of date for the protest.
Last week, a federal appeals court threw out his conviction, saying he should never have been tried as an adult, but the authorities in Jena have not released him. The district attorney has not yet indicated if he intends to take the appeal court ruling to a higher court.
Rev Sharpton, speaking from Jena yesterday, described the case as a "raw disparity of justice".Reuse content