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'Jena Six' Case Prompts Mass Demonstrations
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'Jena Six' Case Prompts Mass Demonstrations

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'Jena Six' Case Prompts Mass Demonstrations

'Jena Six' Case Prompts Mass Demonstrations
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The streets of Jena, La., overflow with demonstrators rallying around the "Jena Six." Six black teens in the town face criminal charges for their role in the beating of a white student at the local high school last December.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Census Bureau lists the population of Jena, Louisiana at just over twenty- eight hundred. Today, there were thousands more in the town. The streets overflowed with mostly African-American demonstrators, marching against racism and the treatment of the Jena Six.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

Unidentified Man: No justice.

Unidentified Group: No peace.

Man: No justice.

Group: No peace.

Man: Free the Jena Six.

Group: Free the Jena Six.

Man: Louder.

BLOCK: The Jena Six are the black teenagers facing criminal charges for the beating of a white teen last December. Parents and civil rights leaders say the students were provoked by several racially charged incidents. They also say the charges are extreme for a schoolyard fight in which the victim was only bruised.

Coming up, we'll talk with the pastor of a church in Jena.

First, NPR's Audie Cornish reports on today's protest.

AUDIE CORNISH: The case of the Jena Six has been brewing for more than a year, but its notoriety exploded on black blogs and radio programs, where the initial charges of attempted murder against the young men involved evoked outrage.

One of the teens, Mychal Bell, has been held since December, accused along with five others of beating a white classmate in a schoolyard fight.

Radio personality Michael Baisden was one of the rally organizers.

MICHAEL BAISDEN: If you're poor and white in this country, you get involved in the legal system, you're in trouble. But if you're poor and black, you're in hell.

Group: Yeah.

BAISDEN: You're in a living hell.

CORNISH: The Reverend Al Sharpton was on hand, as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and several state legislators. The town was virtually shut down for the day with businesses and residents fearing the onslaught of people. The seeds of this demonstration were planted last year. Black students, at that time, sought permission to sit under a tree that was a known hangout of whites. The next day, nooses were dangling from its branches.

It's this image that resonated strongest with protesters like Bill Calloway(ph) from Atlanta, Georgia.

BILL CALLOWAY: It's like sending the message. It's a message to us like, well, so blatant. We really don't - we don't respect you guys. We don't care anything about you guys. We can do what we like to you all. No. Those days are over. It's a brand new day. I'm glad this is a revolution today. And it will be televised so...

CORNISH: The white teens involved with the noose incident got a few days suspension over the protests of black parents. Black students at the school staged a silent protest under the tree, but that was met shortly after with a visit from the local prosecutor, Reed Walters, who said, quote, I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen. That comment came back to haunt him at the courthouse steps where one sign read, because of a stroke of your pen, we are here.

Revered Al Sharpton has been calling for an investigation into Walters' conduct.

AL SHARPTON: Martin Luther King Jr. and others faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow Jr. esquire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

CORNISH: So far, just one the teens, Mychal Bell, has stood trial. Over the summer, prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charges. But an all-white jury still ended up convicting him on lesser charges of battery. Last week, that conviction was overturned after a state appeals court ruled that Bell, 16 at the time of the incident, should not have been tried as an adult. The district attorney can appeal that decision or file new charges in juvenile court. There is no word yet on whether the appeals court decision will have any effect on the others who are awaiting trial.

Erika Alexander(ph) of Nashville says she supports the effort to help the Jena Six, but she hopes the march will bring attention to discrimination in the justice system at large.

ERIKA ALEXANDER: The march will accomplish a sense of awareness and purpose and that we need to get these young men out of jail. And we need to get into the judicial system and face some of the issues. We need to look at other cases. There're people in prison right now - falsely accused, extra time, they weren't judged by their peers. We - I hope to get awareness out.

CORNISH: Protesters took over the community, filling the streets, spilling across the courthouse lawn, and posing for photos with their posters by the school board offices. Many went to the high school as well, but those seeking out the infamous oak tree found barely a stump. It's been cut down.

Audie Cornish. NPR News, Jena, Louisiana.

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Protesters March in Support of Jena Six

Hear Christopher Harvey, a political science student at Texas Southern University talking about the case.
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A man holds a newspaper before the start of a civil rights march in Jena, La., Thursday.

A 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 hide caption

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

Protesters 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 hide caption

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

Thousands 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 hide caption

toggle caption 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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