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.
In December, Bell and five other black teenagers -- Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theodore Shaw and Jesse Beard -- beat up a white student at Jena High School, knocking him out and blackening one of his eyes.
The victim, Justin Barker, was treated at a hospital and released after two hours. He attended a class-ring ceremony later that night. His attackers were charged by prosecutor Reed Walters, who is white, with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and aggravated battery. The charges were reduced to conspiracy and battery after civil rights activists protested.
The fight at the school followed highly charged racial incidents that started last September when white students placed three hangman's nooses in what was known as "the white tree" at Jena High School. Black parents wanted the white students expelled, but Superintendent Roy Breithaupt, who also is white, suspended them for three days, calling the nooses a prank.
Racial disturbances followed, starting in late November. White partygoers attacked a black student in one clash but were not charged, according to police statements. The next day, the same black student and some friends spotted one of his attackers and, they said, chased him. The students told police that the white student pulled an unloaded shotgun but they wrested it away. The student who pulled the weapon was not charged. But police arrested the students who took it on theft charges.
"I saw it in an e-mail," said Baisden, who said he did not hear about Jena until August, about a month after Bell's trial. "I didn't believe it. I thought one of my listeners was being overzealous." But day after day e-mails filled his inbox. Soon, Baisden was talking about the Jena 6 daily for the length of his show.
Baisden created a Web site to coordinate a campaign. It filled up with ideas and suggestions until someone suggested reserving buses for a campaign against Jena and other prosecutors who levy what they consider to be overly harsh punishments on black youngsters.
Word spread fast.
In Memphis, Lashandra Brooks was sitting in the New Direction Christian Church when one of the members stood and talked about Jena. She said there was a YouTube video, and the pastor invited her to show it.
"It got a phenomenal response," Brooks said. "People are talking about it in barbershops and hair salons, asking, 'Why didn't I know about this earlier?' "
Kevin Williams of Durham, N.C., said he heard about the Jena case in August, when he overheard the Rev. Al Sharpton talking about it on the telephone. Williams, who was in Atlanta, rushed back to Durham and started organizing.
"As of today," Williams said Friday, "we have seven buses. We may have nine by Monday." Williams said buses are also filling up in Greensboro at North Carolina A&T University and in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina. North Carolina Central University's law school filled one bus and its undergraduates filled another, all sponsored by the chancellor.
On one of the buses from Prince George's, Sharon Waugh of Severn spent the afternoon reading with her sons Etienne, 13, and Ethan, 10, about civil rights martyrs including Emmett Till, the 14-year-old killed for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, and Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who was shot to death in his driveway in Jackson, Miss., in 1963.
"I wanted them to come because I knew it would be an invaluable educational experience," Waugh said. "I wanted them to see how things are sometimes in the real world, where parents can't always protect their children."
The passengers included a Southern Christian Leadership Conference minister who had initially planned to drive by himself and George Mitchell, a candidate for Congress, who made a large banner for the marchers to carry emblazoned with "Concerned Citizens from Prince George's County" in huge letters.
Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.