All Eyes on Jena: Thousands Prepare for Protests
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're going to spend some time talking about the rally in Jena, Louisiana, today. NPR correspondent Audie Cornish is going to give us the latest from Jena.
But first, we're going to hear from one of the thousands of people heading to Jena to march there today in support of six black teens who are being prosecuted for beating up a white student - the so-called Jena Six. Of course, this all started last summer when some black students asked if they could share space under a tree that was known as a whites-only hangout. The next day, three nooses were found hanging from that tree, and that set off a series of racially charged confrontations in the town. Protesters say African-American students have been treated far more harshly for their conduct than any white students have been for their role in the events.
We're also going to hear from a local pastor who's joined us before to help us understand how the faith community is responding to all of these. Eddie Thompson is the pastor at the Sanctuary Family Worship Center. He's joining us from his church.
Welcome back, Pastor Thompson.
Pastor EDDIE THOMPSON (Sanctuary Family Worship Center): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: And we're also joined by Lindsay Dial. Right now, she is in a caravan of buses on their way to the Jena courthouse. About nine hours ago, she got on a bus in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.
Lindsay, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LINDSAY DIAL (Protester, Atlanta, Georgia): Thank you.
MARTIN: Lindsay, why don't we start with you since you're, kind of difficult circumstances there? What made you want to make this trip to Jena?
Ms. DIAL: I just thought it was a necessity, especially - I'm 30 years old. So especially for our generation, I think we just really need to get involved and not just sit down and say that we're outraged, that we're upset, and do nothing.
MARTIN: Have you ever done anything like this before? Have you ever gotten on a bus, been part of a big demonstration, anything like that?
Ms. DIAL: It wasn't of this magnitude. I mean, I'm looking around, and there's just thousands and thousands of people who were waiting in line right now, and everything is just bumper-to-bumper.
MARTIN: Okay. Lindsay, stay with us if you can, as long as you can, if you would. I'm going to turn to Pastor Thompson now.
Pastor, what's the mood like in your hometown?
Pastor THOMPSON: There's a lot of people afraid here in Jena. They're pretty much locked in for today's coming storm is how they see it. You know, this time it isn't a hurricane from the Gulf of Mexico or a tornado from the west, but it's a whirlwind of judgment from the four corners of America. We're realizing they have these buses heading towards us. And they're kind of afraid of the unknown. They don't know what to expect.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. What are people afraid of? Are they afraid that there's going to be some inappropriate behavior? Are they afraid of violence? What are they afraid of?
Pastor THOMPSON: Well, they hear so many rumors here of how the KKK may show up, and maybe some of the Black Panthers. They're really not used to the glare of a national spotlight in this small little town. And many of them are even unfamiliar with news and the media that they see with all the satellites here. They realize so many thousands and thousands of people are coming, and we're such a small town, just the logistics of that is a scary predicament for those that are coming and for those that live here.
MARTIN: And, pastor, you made a comment earlier about the sort of the storm of judgment that people in Jena, and I - by that I assume you mean mainly the white community in Jena feels just swirling around them. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Pastor THOMPSON: Yeah. We feel like we've been portrayed as something that we're not. We understand that there have been some issues here. We do have racial tension, but I guarantee you that those buses that are winding their way through America destined for Jena are going to pass through cities and boroughs and slums with far more - with far worse racial problems than what we face here in Jena.
MARTIN: Lindsay, what do you think about that?
Ms. DIAL: I can understand what he's saying. But when you hear the facts of the case and you hear that nothing pretty much was done until certain people got on board, it just makes you wonder, okay, if this is a town that really is what he is saying, then how do you just allow certain injustices to go on, and nothing is done?
MARTIN: Pastor Thompson, what do you say about that?
Pastor THOMPSON: There - the perception that nothing has been done or that we've allowed certain things to happen, even really - to be honest with you - what's considered and generally accepted as the facts of the case are really in dispute. And the people of Jena would tell you that there's a whole different story than the one that the people in America are hearing and…
MARTIN: Like what?
Pastor THOMPSON: …that they're responding to.
MARTIN: Like what?
Pastor THOMPSON: Just all the different images of people, for instance, saying that there was an all-white tree. There's never been an all-white tree. Certainly, there are places…
MARTIN: But then why did the young man feel he needed to ask the principal if he could sit there?
Pastor THOMPSON: Well, you know, I don't want to try to portray what was in this young man's heart. I've heard different characterizations. I'll tell you what some people in the white community suggest. Well, I'm not saying I agree or disagree, but they believe that it was - that he was pretty much just making a joke.
MARTIN: I do want to ask about the fact that this one student, Robert Bailey, was at a party. He was, you know, hit over the head with a beer bottle, and nobody's been prosecuted for that. The fact that this other young white man pointed a shotgun at these black students, he was not prosecuted for that. And then when these black students took the gun away from him and took the bullets out, they were prosecuted for stealing his property. And he was never held accountable for pointing a loaded shotgun at them. And when people hear that, they say, okay, well, wait a minute. You know, how was this equal?
Pastor THOMPSON: The boys that - the young men - who were not students, by they way, but just older people in our community - they were fined. I mean, they were - they did get some - what some consider a slap on the wrist, including me. A lot of people say whether it's unequal justice that white students who did the same thing as the Jena Six are accused of doing received a different treatment. We've never had anything like this ever happen in Jena in our high schools. But there's no comparison. There's nothing to compare it to.
MARTIN: Okay. And, Lindsay, finally, just a final word from you. What would you like to happen as a result of your taking this journey, you and all the other people who are with you taking this journey to Jena today? What would you like to happen?
Ms. DIAL: I would like for this, one, to be a peaceful rally, for statements to be made that, you know, black people can unite together with no issues. The second step I would like for an action plan to be executed after this to try to bring different races together so we don't have these issues later on. So we want peace and…
Ms. DIAL: But we want equality for all races.
MARTIN: Okay. Thanks, Lindsay.
And Pastor Thompson, I know that you're not welcoming this whole experience, but is there anything you would like to see come of it now that it's here?
Pastor THOMPSON: I agree 100 percent with Lindsay, that we need to come together. I want to see us use this as a stepping stone to be able to be a better city. We know - we love - listen, as much as the people in America believe they love those boys, those Jena Six and the victims and so forth of this situation, nobody loves them boys more than we do in our own town. And I believe if could use this kind of love, this golden rule of doing unto others as you would have done to you, if we could build upon that, I think we could make a difference here in Jena, maybe be known for something else other than America's poster child for racism.
MARTIN: Eddie Thompson is pastor at Sanctuary Family Worship Center in Jena, Louisiana. He was kind enough to join us from the church. We're also joined by Lindsay Dial, who is headed to Jena with a group of travelers from Atlanta, Georgia.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Pastor THOMPSON: Thank you.
Ms. DIAL: Thank you.