Protesters to Converge on Louisiana Town

Demonstrators in Atlanta prepare to board a bus to attend a protest over the prosecution of six black teenagers for a racially charged confrontation in Jena, La.
Demonstrators in Atlanta prepare to board a bus to attend a protest over the prosecution of six black teenagers for a racially charged confrontation in Jena, La. (By Pouya Dianat -- Associated Press)
By Darryl Fears and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Spurred by the Internet and a popular disc jockey's nationwide urban radio program, tens of thousands of people are expected to descend on a sleepy rural Louisiana town to protest what they say are excessive criminal charges against six black teenagers involved in a schoolyard brawl.

About 500 tour buses bearing thousands of riders were scheduled to depart from cities across the United States in the wee hours today for Jena, La., about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans. They will join others who will travel by airplane, automobile caravans and motorcycle convoys in what organizers say is a protest reminiscent of the Freedom Rides of the 1960s.

The demonstration was originally set to coincide with the sentencing of one of the defendants. But even though a state appeals court dismissed his battery conviction last week, organizers decided to go ahead with the rally. In addition, they asked people across the country to dress in black today to show solidarity with the demonstrators.

As of Wednesday, according to the local NAACP and news reports, organizers said they were hoping up to 40,000 people would converge on Jena, a two-lane-highway town of 3,500. Though no one is sure whether the crowd will be that large, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) has ordered the chief of the state police to work with the LaSalle Parish sheriff on crowd control.

Even if the numbers do not reach the organizers' hopes, the march is another example -- the immigration rights protests of last year being another -- of how radio, the Internet and word of mouth can create a buzz and a unity of purpose in one of the country's largest subcultures that takes hold beneath the radar of the mainstream news media.

The prosecutions in Jena, which at one point included charges of conspiracy to commit murder, and the racial clashes that preceded them received scant news coverage but roared through the Web. Google searches for "Jena 6" and "Jena Six" yield nearly 2 million hits.

The pending protest has drawn the attention of presidential candidates. The three leading Democratic contenders, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- all of whom need strong black support to gain their party's nomination -- issued statements supporting the marchers and condemning Jena authorities for their tough prosecution of the six teenagers.

Earlier this month at Howard University, more than 1,500 students rallied in support of the Jena 6, packing an auditorium, with hundreds outside. Yesterday morning, 50 students, all dressed entirely in black, left by bus for Louisiana. Two buses from Prince George's County, paid for in part by donations from volunteers, are also en route.

"This is a shocking abuse of justice in the 21st century and harkens to our sort of Neanderthal era of politics in America fashioned around legalized racism," said former county executive Wayne K. Curry. "For this to be happening now is such a jolt. The absence of dialogue on the subject from many of our elected officials is astounding. . . . Exultations of attempted murder for a fistfight in a school. What's going on?"

Michael Baisden, whose nationally syndicated afternoon drive-time show is credited with being a primary catalyst for the demonstration, has also appealed to people interested in the case to wear black today, regardless of where they are.

"They're fed up," he said. "Our slogan is 'enough is enough.' This could be their sons. People have personalized this in a way they haven't since the civil rights movement. It's the child thing that's taken this to some other level."

At first organizers saw the rally as a protest to the sentencing of Mychal Bell, 17, who was tried as an adult and convicted of aggravated second-degree battery by an all-white jury in June. But last week, a state appeals court threw out that conviction, saying Bell should have been tried in a juvenile court. He was 16 at the time of the altercation, had spent a year in jail and faced up to 15 more years in a state prison.

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