Protesters Call for Justice for Jena 6 Civil rights protesters argue Jena, La., school and law enforcement officials are dealing out harsh justice to the African-American teens for a schoolyard fight while overlooking their white counterparts who hung nooses to intimidate the black teens.

Protesters Call for Justice for Jena 6

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President Bush said he was saddened by the events in Jena, Louisiana, that led up to yesterday's demonstrations. Thousands of people from across the country protested to show support for the so-called Jena Six. The name refers to a group of black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate. The boys were initially facing charges of attempted murder for the brawl. Prosecutors say they are fighting for a forgotten victim, but civil rights protesters argue Jena school and law enforcement officials are dealing out harsher charges to the African-American teenagers than their white counterparts.

At the rally was NPR's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: At the time, one school official referred to it as a harmless prank. A year ago, three white high school students hung nooses from an oak tree the day after a black freshman inquired about sitting under that shade tree where whites normally hang out. To Terrence Nickels(ph) of Little Rock, Arkansas, the community of Jena could have avoided these protests if it had dealt with the news incident more seriously.

Mr. TERRENCE NICKELS (Resident, Little Rock, Arkansas): I believe it was the noose who did - if the judicial system or the school administration would have nipped it in the bud in the beginning by expelling the people who hung the nooses, I think, it could - none of these probably would have happened.

CORNISH: The noose incident was followed by scuffles between blacks and whites both on and off campus throughout last fall and ended with the December brawl that left an 18-year-old white student named Justin Barker badly bruised and unconscious. Barker was released from the hospital and attended a school function the same night, but his alleged assailants initially found themselves facing attempted murder charges and bail in excess of $90,000.

(Soundbite of demonstrations)

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Pentecostal Minister; Activist): Free the Jena Six.

Unidentified Group: Free the Jena Six.

Reverend SHARPTON: Louder.

Unidentified Group: Free the Jena Six.

CORNISH: Civil rights leaders say the district attorney's actions reflect the trend towards uneven justice with blacks facing harsher sentencing than whites. Among those at the rally was the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Reverend SHARPTON: What they have tried is to create a criminal justice system that particularly targets our young black men. And now, we sit in a city that says it's a prank to hang a hangman's noose…

(Soundbite of noise)

Rev. SHARPTON: …but that it is attempted murder to have a fight.

(Soundbite of noise)

Reverend SHARPTON: We cannot sit by silently.

CORNISH: Mychal Bell, the first black student to face charges, was tried as an adult. His court-appointed attorney offered no defense, and an all-white jury quickly convicted him. The story was picked up by black media, especially radio blogs and social networking sites where people swapped videos and even songs about the issue.

(Soundbite of song, "Free the Jena 6")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) You know what their mission is: We gonna free the Jena 6. Jena, Louisiana, they call it the Deep South, in other words, black folks keep out.

CORNISH: Some whites in the community like Rev. Eddie Thompson feared Jena's reputation will never recover.

Rev. EDDIE THOMPSON (Sanctuary Family Worship Center): We do have issues just like America does, and as far as that part of it, I think, this is as good a place as any to discuss that issue. But to paint us as extra racial hurt as thrown back to the '60s "Mississippi Burning," it's just inaccurate.

CORNISH: Thompson says he hopes the demonstration actually helps people to discuss the issue of race more seriously in Jena and beyond. Meanwhile, a state appeals court overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell saying he never should have been tried as an adult and has even ordered that he'd be released by Monday.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For months, the story of the Jena Six unfolded largely out of sight of the mainstream media. You can read about how African-American bloggers help generate interest in the case at

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