Originally, Angelique Louis of Oakton just wanted to “get on the bus” like a member of the ensemble cast in a Spike Lee movie.
When she heard about yesterday’s rally supporting six students in Jena, La., “I said ‘I’m going,’ and I immediately started looking for rides. But there weren’t any available at the time,” she said.
Ms. Louis did one better. “I woke up one morning and told my husband he had to get up to take me downtown to get permits” for a protest rally, said the retired Army staff sergeant whose idea was yesterday’s companion “A Call to Action” rally on Capitol Hill.
“I didn’t know where to start. I thought we would march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol and chant something simple like ‘What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” Ms. Louis said.
Such naivete, she admits, has long since dissipated. “It’s been a whirlwind ever since,” she said. When we talked Wednesday, the passionate woman repeatedly stressed the need for people to step out of complacency.
“My main message…will be that you can make a difference,” she said. “Change begins within. It’s time to take a stand. Imagine where [the Jena 6] would be today if you hadn’t taken a stand?” she said. Indeed, all eyes were on the tiny town of Jena, La., yesterday as thousands descended to protest the charges against six black teenagers involved in a schoolyard scuffle that has awoken the sleeping giant of civil rights activism.
At the heart of the Jena 6 case are the intractable trials of inequality and imbalance in the American criminal justice system. The case also sheds light on access to quality legal representations, double standards and excessive prosecutorial power, particularly in small rural areas.
No doubt the Jena 6 case, which is not an isolated incident, raises uncomfortable questions again about the state of race relations in the U.S.
“People across the country, black and white, conservative and liberal, should stand together against inequity and racism,” Ms. Louis said. “This rally is not about black and white, but about what is wrong and what is right. It’s time history stops repeating itself.” Ms. Louis, a 44-year-old federal employee, first heard of the Jena 6 case on the syndicated urban radio show hosted by Michael Baisden. “I couldn’t believe it; I was in shock,” she said. After hearing an interview with the mother of one of the defendants, she cried.
“All they wanted to do was sit under a tree and have a peaceful protest. I served in the military for 20 years, and I feel strongly that we have a right to freedom of speech. It’s a protected right,” she said.
Ms. Louis’ sadness turned to anger, and then she got busy. She assumed that others along the East Coast wanted to demonstrate their support but also could not make the trip to Jena.
She was right. More than 1,000 people attended the barely publicized six-hour protest in Upper Senate Park on the Capitol grounds yesterday.
Ms. Louis pursued her neophyte project by going online and searching “how to stage a rally in Washington,” which led her to the National Park Service.
Surprisingly, it was harder to get help from longstanding civil rights organizations, she said. One “well-established” group, which she would not name, even told Ms. Louis that she would never pull off her grassroots rally in time, especially on a weekday. They did not offer any assistance until it became clear that the Jena 6 cause was picking up steam.
“Had I listened to them, we wouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “There was a feeling in the belly to get this done. I thought it would be impossible, but I tried.”
While the rally did not include the usual lineup of civil rights activists and politicians nor support from some of the larger black churches, it did include officials from the D.C. Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and got a push from a mention on Mr. Baisden’s Web site.
A Call to Action’s core group of 20 members, who worked tireless hours in the past three weeks, includes the Boys II Men’s MotorCycle Club of Richmond, which provided funds for a sound system. A local events planner donated funds for a platform in honor of her birthday yesterday. Several elementary school students made posters.
Ms. Louis fought back the tears, saying “my heart and soul is overwhelmed,” by the people who rallied to help her.
“The next time someone tells you that ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, things won’t change,’” she said. “You tell them remember Jena, La., when we answered the call to action and changed a nation.”
Along with her new compatriots, Ms. Louis intends to take the experience and “tackle other issues that affect our community.”
Thus, this first-time organizer, who “had no clue what I was doing,” received her baptism by fire into the world of Washington protests. Still, weary but wiser, Ms. Louis joked, “next time, I’m going to get on that bus.”