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'Jena Six' Case Prompts Mass Demonstrations

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.

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