Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson speaks at a Free the Jena 6 rally outside the McNamara Federal Building downtown on Thurs., Sept. 20, 2007. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
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September 20, 2007
BY NAOMI R. PATTON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
ABOARD A BUS EN ROUTE TO JENA, La. -- It all feels too familiar for Harvey Roberts, Don Johnson, Geraldine McConnell and Gwen Felder.
There used to be lunch counters they could not eat at and floors at Hudson's where they could not shop. Now, "history is repeating itself," said McConnell, 67, of Southfield.
"In the early 1960s, we couldn't eat at a lunch counter. Now ... our kids are going through the same thing," said Roberts, 68, of Detroit.
They were among several hundred people traveling Wednesday by charter bus from Detroit to Jena, La., for a national protest today against what some believe is the disparate and excessive punishment of six African-American Jena High School students.
The group left Detroit at 10 a.m. Wednesday for the nearly 20-hour ride that will get supporters to town in time for a 9 a.m. rally. The group will head back at 2 p.m. today.
Known as the Jena Six, the students are facing possible prison sentences of 15-22 years in the beating of a white student in connection with a racially motivated school fight. Their case has become a national cause célèbre in the past two weeks. Pop star David Bowie has contributed $10,000 to their legal defense fund with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Thousands are expected to descend on the small Louisiana town of about 3,500.
Roberts, traveling with a contingent of more than 100 on two buses from Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, called the trip "a reality check to let us know we haven't come as far as we thought we had."
The two buses, also carrying members of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), a group of student activists from Detroit and Ann Arbor, left Detroit about 10 a.m. Wednesday and picked up 16 riders from Toledo and Cleveland in the parking lot of a Meijer store in Toledo.
Similarities and differences
There was a bit of a generational divide on the buses to Jena. The riders on the lead bus skewed older, while the second bus contained more riders in middle school, high school and college.
On the lead bus, many of the riders had experienced firsthand the Jim Crow-segregated South and the civil rights era, while most in the group on the second vehicle had only read about it, or seen a documentary or two.
"What we're seeing today in Jena is no different than what we or our parents saw," said Johnson, 60, of Detroit.
"We're separate, but not equal," he added, invoking the language of the Plessy v. Ferguson case the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1896 that declared "separate, but equal" facilities for black people and white people legal.
"I'm not condoning the Jena Six if they've done something wrong," Johnson emphasized, adding that the law should be applied "fairly and honestly."
"I couldn't fathom going to jail for 15 years for a fight I didn't start," said Tony Walker, 20, a junior studying finance at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
The argument about fair punishment is at the crux of those supporting the Jena Six. They see a disparity between the punishment three white students got for hanging a noose on a tree, and the expulsion and felony charges the six black students got for a subsequent fight.
"We dropped the ball for Nathaniel Abraham," Felder said. "I would like to think that the world would rally when there's an injustice."
Student jailed, but in good spirits
The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke with Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, in a Wednesday meeting arranged at the courthouse in the Louisiana community.
"It breaks our hearts to see him in handcuffs and leg shackles, but his spirit is high," Sharpton said afterward.
Bell and four others originally faced trial as adults on attempted second-degree murder charges in connection with a December attack that left their white schoolmate Justin Barker bloodied and unconscious. Another teen was booked as a juvenile.
Racial tensions have been high in Jena since three nooses were found in a tree on the high school campus a few months before Barker was beaten. Three white students were briefly suspended over the incident, but no charges were filed.
Bell, the only one of the Jena Six tried so far, was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery.
Today's rally and march were to have coincided with his sentencing, but a state appeals court threw out his conviction last week, saying Bell, 16 at the time of the beating, should have been tried as a juvenile.
He remains jailed while prosecutors prepare an appeal.
Supporters rally in Detroit
About 75 people attended a rally Wednesday night at the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice on Second Street north of Wayne State University. The event was organized in connection with ColorofChange.org, a national advocacy organization that is coordinating the National Day of Action in support of the Jena Six.
"I came here because I think it's really important for people to understand that even though it's 2007, there is still a lot of institutional racism in our region and throughout the country," said 26-year-old Sarah Mercury of Detroit.
Contact NAOMI R. PATTON at email@example.com or 313-223-4485. Staff writer Ben Schmitt and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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