Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tens of Thousands Demonstrate to Free the Jena 6 in Louisiana

Thousands 'march for justice' in Jena, court orders hearing on teen

Third Circuit Court of Appeal orders hearing within 72 hours on teen's fate

The order has "got to be good," Mychal Bell's attorney says

Crowds touch ground where oak tree from which nooses were hung once stood

Jena 6 is a group of teens charged with beating a white classmate

JENA, Louisiana (CNN) -- Thousands of protesters clogged the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, Thursday to show their indignation over what they consider unjust, unequal punishments meted out in two racially charged incidents.

They swarmed over the grounds of Jena High School, where nooses were hung from a tree in early August 2006, about three months before six black teens known as the "Jena 6" were accused of beating a white classmate.

While the tension was palpable, news broke Thursday afternoon that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ordered a hearing within 72 hours to determine if the only one of the six still behind bars can be released.

The order has "got to be good," Mychal Bell's attorney, Bob Noel, told CNN. "It means we have a day in court. Any day in court is going to be a good day."

Earlier, there was an aura of a pilgrimage at the site where the controversial tree once stood before school administrators had it removed.

Many people touched the ground and some retrieved a lump of dirt, said CNN's Eric Marrapodi. He said the part of the town he was in was ill-prepared for the crowds -- no water or toilets were available.

In the background, groups shouted "Black power" and "No justice, no peace."

The demonstrations shut down the town of 3,000 in central Louisiana. Many residents left for the day, and government agencies, businesses and schools were closed.

Sgt. Tim Ledet of the Louisiana State Police said protesters in buses were still bringing people to town at midday because of the gridlock, but many protesters got off and walked into town on foot.

"There is just no room to maneuver in this small town," he said.

Jena resident Terry Adams disagreed with any accusations that there might be a black-white divide in the area.

Jena's racial tensions were aggravated in August 2006, when three white teens hung the nooses the day after a group of black students received permission from school administrators to sit under the tree -- a place where white students normally congregated.

The guilty students were briefly suspended from classes, despite the principal's recommendation they be expelled, according to Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

A member of the LaSalle Parish School Board -- which had a role in supporting suspension instead of expulsion -- insisted the board is not prejudiced.

The panel felt it took the appropriate action, Jonny Fryar said.

"I talked to one of the parents, who called me and said their son thought it was a prank and naive to the fact of what it meant and he was sorry," he said.

"I hate to see people label us as something we are not. Because we have black students and white students playing football together. They shake hands, get along. This is an unfortunate incident. We hope that the community can heal."

Although Washington acknowledged the FBI and other investigators thought the noose incident bore the markings of a hate crime, a decision was made not to press federal charges because the case didn't meet federal criteria. The students were under 18 and had no prior records, and no group such as a Ku Klux Klan was found to be behind their actions.

On December 4, about three months after the nooses were discovered, six teens, dubbed the Jena 6, were accused of beating classmate Justin Barker. The six -- Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw and Jesse Ray Beard -- were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy, according to LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters.

Bell, the only one of the six who remains in jail, was to be sentenced Thursday after convictions for aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to do the same, but both charges have been vacated, awaiting further action by the district attorney.

Charges for Bailey, Jones and Shaw also were reduced to battery and conspiracy when they were arraigned, while Purvis still awaits arraignment. The charges for Beard, who was 14 at the time of the alleged crime, are unavailable because he's a juvenile.

Tina Jones, Purvis' mother, condemned Walters.

"I hope that the D.A. will wake up and realize that he's doing the wrong thing, and to release these kids," she said. "It's not equal. The black people get the harsher extent of the law, whereas white people get a slap on the wrist per se. So it is not equal here."

Jones maintained that her son was not involved in the beating, but watched from a railing, and was not arrested that same day.

"We have a long fight ahead of us, and we'll keep fighting until justice prevails in Jena," the mother said.

Purvis, who accompanied her, was asked how he's faring.

President Bush, who was asked about the rally at a news conference, said, "The events in Louisiana have saddened me. I understand the emotions. The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there.

"All of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice."

He advised whoever is elected next year to "reach out to the African-American community."

Hundreds of college students from historically black schools such as Howard University in Washington traveled to Jena, along with civil rights activists such as Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped organize the event. Martin Luther King III also attended, saying, "This is about justice for the six young men."

Sharpton called Jena the beginning of the 21st century civil rights movement.

"There's a Jena in every state," Jackson told the crowd in Jena on Thursday morning.

JoAnn Scales, who brought her three teenage children on a two-day bus journey from Los Angeles, California, to Jena, made the same point.

"The reason I brought my children is because it could have been one of them" involved in an incident like the one in Jena.

"If this can happen to them [the Jena 6] , it can happen to anyone," Scales said.

Ondra Hathaway was on the bus with Scales.

"If this young man [Bell] was railroaded to do time as an adult, how many more people has that happened to?" she said.

Jackson said on CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday that the charges against the black youths, their possible jail terms if convicted and their bail amounts are "excessive."

Punishing the teens with probation would have been sufficient, Jackson said.

Bails for the Jena 6 were between $70,000 and $138,000, and all but Bell have posted bond. Bell, 17, has been in prison since his arrest. The judge has refused to lower his $90,000 bail, citing Bell's record, which includes four juvenile offenses -- two simple battery charges among them.

Bell was 16 at the time of the attack; 17 is the legal adult age in Louisiana. E-mail to a friend

CNN's Susan Roesgen, Tony Harris, Kyra Philips, Eric Marrapodi and Eliott McLaughlin contributed to this report.

September 20, 2007, 11:48 am

Race and the Spotlight in Small-Town Louisiana

By Maria Newman
New York Times

Thousands of people are gathering in Jena, La., this morning to protest the jailing of six black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate, in an incident that some see as the culmination of racial strife that started on the first day of school a year ago.

Today’s crowd, led by several local and national civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, plans to march past Jena High School, and past the tree that is now just a stump, cut down by townspeople after it proved to be the trigger for the explosion of tension and violence that has landed this little town in the national spotlight.

The town of 3,000 people has never seen a crowd like this, and law enforcement officials have tried to accommodate the marchers by setting up traffic signals to direct people to the gathering spots, and temporary bathrooms at various points. The Town Talk, a newspaper in nearby Alexandria, details some of the arrangements.

The marchers say they are gathering because the six youths were treated too harshly, while the events that touched off the incident, which they contend were racist, went virtually unpunished. District Attorney Reed Walters denies that any racism was involved in the handling of the case.

The local newspaper, The Jena Times, has put together a chronology of this very complicated case. The account begins in August 2006, during a back-to-school assembly at Jena High School, when a student asked the assistant principal if black students would be allowed to sit under what had been known as the white tree in the school’s courtyard.

“You know you can sit anywhere you want,’’ answered Gawen Burgess, the assistant principal. The next morning, according to the account, two nooses were found hanging from the tree.

Most students did not even see the nooses before they were cut down, Still, school officials suspended three white students for their part in hanging the nooses. After some parents complained about the matter, the United States Attorney’s office and the F.B.I. investigated, but decided not to bring hate-crime charges against anyone.

Over the next few weeks and months, parents and some students continued to complain to officials about the nooses hung on the trees, which they said was an unambiguous gesture of racial intimidation. The news media picked up on the matter. Some white people in the town were quoted saying that the noose business was little more than a youthful prank. Fights erupted in the school, but officials said they were not necessarily related to the tree and nooses. In November, a fire broke out at the high school, which is being investigated as arson.

The high school was closed down for several days, and when classes resumed, in December, another fight broke out during the lunch hour. A white student, Justin Barker, was beaten and taken to the hospital. That is when the six black students were arrested.

Richard G. Jones wrote about the series of events in The New York Times on Wednesday. His first few paragraphs encapsulate what has become a nuanced tale:
“They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade here at Jena High School.

And when a black student tried to defy that tradition by sitting under the tree last September, it set off a series of events that have turned this town of 3,000 in central Louisiana’s timber country into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The white student was treated at a local hospital and released; the black students were charged, not with assault, but with attempted murder.”

As Mr. Jones writes, local civil rights groups have objected to the course the case has taken, calling it a “throwback to the worst kind of Deep South justice.”

Five of the black youths were charged as adults, after they allegedly knocked out classmate Justin Barker and stomped him during the school fight. One of the five, Mycahl Bell, has already been tried. He was 16 when the beating took place last December, and in June he was found guilty on second-degree battery charges by a six-member, all-white jury. (More about Mr. Bell in a minute.)

The LaSalle Parish District Attorney, Reed Walters, said in a statement Wednesday, published in the Town Talk, that he wanted to remind those coming into town that they should not forget the boy who was beaten.

“With all the focus on the defendants, many people seem to have forgotten that there was a victim,” he said with Mr. Barker and his parents, David and Kelli Barker, standing close behind him. “The injury that was done to him and the serious threat to his survival has become less than a footnote. But when you’re talking about justice and a criminal proceeding, you cannot forget the victim, and I will not.”

The case has drawn accusations far and wide that the prosecutors are biased.

The rock star David Bowie has gotten into the act, too, by saying he would donate $10,000 to a legal defense fund for the accused black teenagers, who have inevitably come to be called the Jena Six.

‘’There is clearly a separate and unequal judicial process going on in the town of Jena,'’ Mr. Bowie wrote Tuesday in an e-mail statement to The Associated Press. ‘’A donation to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund is my small gesture indicating my belief that a wrongful charge and sentence should be prevented.'’

Last Friday, the state’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mr. Bell’s conviction.

Mr. Bell’s lawyers have argued that their client was not old enough to be tried as an adult and that the maximum penalty that he faced –­ 22 years in prison –­ was excessive. In the wake of the growing public furor, prosecutors have reduced the charges against some of the other defendants who are awaiting trial as well.

Had his conviction stood, Mr. Bell was to have been sentenced on today, which is why rally organizers chose this date for their protest. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is also involved, as is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Schools and many businesses in Jena are closed for the day. And of course, the city is full of television cameras.

An earlier version of this post gave two conflicting estimates for Jena’s population

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