- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

JENA, La. (AP) Traffic jammed the two-lane road leading into the tiny town of Jena early this morning as thousands of demonstrators gathered in support of six black teens initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said it could be the beginning of the 21st century’s civil rights movement, one that would challenge disparities in the justice system.

“You cannot have justice meted out based on who you are rather than what you did,” Mr. Sharpton told CBS’s “The Early Show” today.
VIDEO:Racial tension grips Jena with planned rally

The six were charged a few months after the local prosecutor declined to charge three white high school students who hung nooses in a tree on their high school grounds. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder, but that charge was reduced to battery for all but one, who has yet to be arraigned; the sixth teen was charged as a juvenile.

“This is the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we’ve seen,” Mr. Sharpton said today. “You can’t have two standards of justice. We didn’t bring race in it, those that hung the nooses brought the race into it.”

District Attorney Reed Walters, breaking a long public silence, denied yesterday that racism was involved.

He said he didn’t prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. “I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town,” Mr. Walters said.

In the beating case, he said, four of the defendants were of adult age under Louisiana law and the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.

“This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race,” he said. “And the fact that it takes place in a small Southern town lends itself to that portrayal. But it is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”

The white teen who was beaten, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function later that night.

Mychal Bell, 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the “Jena Six” to be tried so far. He was convicted on an aggravated second-degree battery count that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, but the conviction was overturned last week when a state appeals court said he should not have been tried as an adult.

Today’s protest had been planned to coincide with Mr. Bell’s sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead even after the conviction was thrown out. Mr. Bell remains in jail while prosecutors prepare an appeal. He has been unable to meet the $90,000 bond.

“We all have family members about the age of these guys. We said it could have been one of them. We wanted to try to do something,” said Angela Merrick, 36, of Atlanta, who drove with three friends from Atlanta to protest the treatment of the “Jena Six.”

The rally was heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications.

Students came from schools across the region, including historically black colleges like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Hampton University and Southern University.

Tina Cheatham missed the civil rights marches at Selma, Montgomery and Little Rock, but she had no intention of missing another brush with history. The 24-year-old Georgia Southern University graduate drove all night to reach tiny Jena in central Louisiana.

“It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn’t around for the civil rights movement. This is kind of the 21st-century version of it,” she said.

Others supported the effort but worried that it could erode race relations in Jena even further.

“I don’t think it will cause any major confrontations,” said Odessa Hickman, 72, “but there is probably going to be some friendships lost.”

In Jena, with only 3,500 residents, some residents worried about safety. Hotels were booked from as far away as Natchez, Miss., to Alexandria, La.

Red Cross officials manned first aid stations near the local courthouse and had water and snacks on hand. Portable toilets and flashing street signs to aid in traffic direction were in place. At the courthouse troopers chatted amiably with each other and with demonstrators who began showing up well before dawn.

Mr. Sharpton, who helped organize the protest, met Mr. Bell at the courthouse Wednesday morning. He said Mr. Bell is heartened by the show of support and wants to make sure it stays peaceful.

“He doesn’t want anything done that would disparage his name no violence, not even a negative word,” Mr. Sharpton said.

Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Alexandria, La., and Errin Haines in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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