All Eyes on Jena: Thousands Prepare for Protests

Thousands from across the nation are expected to march the streets of Jena, Louisiana, to rally in support of the "Jena Six," six African American teens facing charges for assaulting a white classmate. The Rev. Eddie Thompson, who leads a majority white Jena congregation, and Lindsay Dial, who's traveling from Atlanta to Jena to protest, explain what they expect to come from the demonstrations.

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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…

MARTIN: Sure.

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.

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Protesters March in Support of Jena Six

A man holds a newspaper before the start of a civil rights march in Jena, La., Thursday.

hide captionA man holds a newspaper with a front-page story about the Jena Six before the start of a civil rights march in Jena, La., Thursday.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Protesters gather on the spot where a tree once stood on the Jena High School campus.

hide captionProtesters gather on the spot where a tree once stood on the Jena High School campus. Several nooses were hung from the tree, once a hangout for white students, after a black student sought to sit under it.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Thousands of demonstrators have gathered for a march on the Louisiana town of Jena

hide captionThousands of demonstrators march in the Louisiana town of Jena in protest of the criminal trial of six black teens charged in an alleged attack on a white classmate.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Demonstrators filled the streets of Jena, La., Thursday in support of six black teenagers charged in the beating of a white classmate.

The crowd chanted "free the Jena six," as the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived at the courthouse with family members of the jailed teens.

Sharpton said he and Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and William Jefferson (D-LA) will press the House Judiciary Committee next week to summon the Jena district attorney to explain his actions before Congress.

He said it could mark the beginning of 21st century challenge of disparities in the justice system. He also said he planned a November march in Washington.

Meanwhile, a state appeals court on Thursday ordered a hearing on why one of the defendants is still in jail, even though his conviction has been overtured.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal last week reversed the second-degree battery conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell, saying he should not have been tried as an adult.

Bell has remained in jail following the district attorney's decision to appeal.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed the demonstrators, harkening back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

He then led the crowd in a prayer to "solve this crisis without the madness of confrontation."

"Here we are today looking back on Selma," he said referring to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., marches that became a touchstone of the civil rights movement.

In Washington, President Bush said he is concerned about the racial tensions in Jena, adding that federal law enforcement agencies are monitoring the situation.

"The events in Louisiana have saddened me, and I understand the emotions," he said. "The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there. And all of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."

The tensions began a few months ago after three white teens were accused of hanging nooses in a tree on their high school grounds. They were suspended from school, but they were not criminally prosecuted.

Later, the six black teens were accused of beating a white classmate. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder. That charge was reduced to battery for all but one, who has yet to be arraigned; the sixth teen was charged as a juvenile.

Acknowledging the Attack Vicitm

District Attorney Reed Walters has denied that racism was involved in the decision to prosecute the teenagers. He said the suffering of Barker has been largely ignored. The teen was knocked unconscious and his face was badly swollen and bloodied, although he was able to attend a school function that night.

"With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to him and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote," Walters said of Barker.

Also on hand at Thursday's rally was Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader. Like many of the participants, King said the scene was reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles.

King at times sounded conciliatory, saying punishment of some sort may be in order for the defendants, but adding "the justice system isn't applied the same to all crimes and all people."

It was a similar scene a few blocks away where the NAACP staged a similar gathering at a local park. Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP's national headquarters, compared the outcry over the Jena teens to the controversy that followed racial remarks by radio shock-jock Don Imus.

'We're Not Taking it Any More'

"People are saying, 'That's enough and we're not taking it any more,"' Hayes said.

Tina Cheatham, 24, was among those expected to turn out in support of the six teens. The event was heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications. Cheatham missed the civil rights marches at Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark., but she had no intention of missing another brush with history.

"It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn't around for the civil rights movement," she said. "This is kind of the 21st century version of it."

Critics allege the teens' cases show authorities in the predominantly white town are disproportionately harsh toward blacks.

"This is not about race," Sharpton said Wednesday. "This is not about politics. It's not about black and white. It's about equal justice for all."

Walters denied racism was involved.

"This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race," Walters said. "And the fact that it takes place in a small southern town lends itself to that portrayal. But it is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions."

"I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town," Walters said.

Teen Remains in Jail

He also noted that four defendants in the beating case were of adult age under Louisiana law, and that the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.

Bell, who was 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the teens 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 after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains in jail while prosecutors prepare an appeal.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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