'Jena Six' Brings Youth, Elders Together in Protest

Protesters from around the country rallied in Jena, Louisiana to support the "Jena Six," six African American teens charged with beating a white classmate. NPR correspondent Audie Cornish reports from Jena on the rally's aftermath.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our regular Friday features - Faith Matters, the Barbershop and Politics. We have a lot to talk about, including the fallout from the upcoming PBS debate focusing on minority issues that most of the leading Republicans are skipping.

But first, the rally in Jena, Louisiana. I want to bring you an update on that protest, which was sparked, of course, by the planned prosecutions of six black teens - the so-called Jena Six - in connection with the beating of a white student.

With us is NPR correspondent Audie Cornish. She is in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Hi, Audie, thanks for joining us.

AUDIE CORNISH: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When we caught up with you yesterday, demonstrators were just starting to arrive. By the end of the day, how many people do you think made it into town recognizing, of course, that crowd counts on notoriously touchy issues and inevitably makes somebody mad, but what do you think?

CORNISH: Well, there were certainly, probably reached into maybe the 10 or 20,000 mark. That's around what the state police were saying and there was a lot of aerial shots of the community. And from where I was standing at the courthouse, you could see a wall of people, marchers from the courthouse all the way back to a recreation park on the edge of town two miles away where people were parking.

MARTIN: Where - the local people we spoke to yesterday, Pastor Eddie Thompson mentioned that some locals were apprehensive about the event fearing that the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps a black militant group might try to instigate some violence. Was there any sign of that yesterday?

CORNISH: There wasn't any sign of that. It was clear that the community had boarded up in a way. All the businesses were closed - the banks, the courthouse itself, a lot of cars in driveways, but no one looking like they were home. And I think people were just concerned that the sheer numbers would be something that would be very difficult to handle.

But in the end, all of the protest organizers made conscious efforts and repeated comments about maintaining peace. And that this was supposed to be an event that wouldn't in any way harm the case of the Jena Six and that they really wanted this to be something that reflected positively.

It certainly wasn't a situation like - people likened to maybe the '60s where protesters might have been met with some kind of violence from a neighboring white community. That didn't happen here.

MARTIN: Who came to this event? What kinds of people came? Young, old - was it multi-racial?

CORNISH: It was definitely inter-generational. There was a real mix and there was definitely a huge contingent of college students. This really resonated on the Internet, this particular case. And you saw a lot of YouTube videos, a lot of blogging about it.

And, as a result, there were a great many students from historically black colleges from around the country - Howard, Hampton, Spelman Atlanta had a large contingent of students.

And you did not see as many white people. It was not as racially mixed, I think, as people might be wondering, considering that the volume and numbers of people that were there. It was a predominantly African-American demonstration and movement for that day.

But the real, I think, insight or surprise for people were seeing the number of youth that were there - teenagers and college students who really said that this case, maybe because of the age of the people involved, resonated with them.

MARTIN: And that raises a question for me because I was reading some of the comment boards yesterday. Some of these sort of e-mail traffic that was going around, some of the debate about what this event means. And some people were saying, gee, this is a young person's event and yet the people we're seeing, sort of the visible face, are the long-standing civil rights leaders that we, you know, we've all come to know - Reverend Jackson, you know, Reverend Al Sharpton, people of that sort.

Did you get a sense of any up-and-coming youthful leadership? Because, as we know, you know, in the earlier sort of civil rights era, you know, Reverend Jackson, Martin Luther King, were very young men when they were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the '60s? Did you get any sense of young people at the forefront of this event or were they mainly in a role of sort of participating through their presence?

CORNISH: Well, I think, one thing to understand is that some of those sort of old guard names that we know were very involved at the top level organizing. And that maybe that kind of organizing isn't exactly what the next generation is using.

The fact is, Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and even to some extent, Michael Baisden, a radio host who helped organize this as well, were surfing on a wave of discontent, that they were able to capture a feeling that was brewing very steadily on its own.

And maybe they have the organizational structure and prowess to kind of organize it quickly. But you didn't actually see right a lot of maybe very young people or a new generation of political leadership on the stage.

MARTIN: And finally, Audie, I wanted to ask. Did - as the protesters were leaving, did they have a sense of having accomplished anything?

CORNISH: They certainly had the sense of - personally, many said they were happy to be a part of some kind of demonstration. There's been a lot of people talked about a legacy of civil rights movement and how they didn't have anything like that for their generation. And so this was significant to them for that reason.

And also, the sense of accomplishment in terms of where the case is concerned, in that, a state appeals court has already overturned the conviction of one of the students involved maybe because he was tried as an adult. But now, the state appeals court has ordered that he'd be released.

So people basically feel like, by putting a spotlight on this situation, that they've affected some kind of change. And just by sheer numbers, they brought awareness to a national audience that racial injustice or perceived racial injustice in the justice system is an issue that black community is very concerned about. This was a show, of course, on that issue.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Audie Cornish joined us from Natchitoches, Louisiana, just outside Jena. She reported on the events in Jena yesterday.

Audie, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CORNISH: Thank you.

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