By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007
JENA, La., Sept. 20 -- Thousands of people from around the nation converged early Thursday on this rural town to protest what they consider the overzealous prosecution of six black high school students charged with beating a white schoolmate.
The impetus for the rally in this small town and for smaller vigils across the country was anger over the charges, which at one point included attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, leveled against the "Jena 6." But many participants said they also wanted to draw attention to what they believe is unequal treatment black people receive from the criminal justice system everywhere.
"There's Jenas in Atlanta, there's Jenas in New York, there's Jenas in Florida, and there are Jenas all over Texas," the Rev. Al Sharpton told a raucous crowd Thursday morning.
As demonstrators poured into town in buses, in cars and on foot, they spoke of nostalgia for the huge civil rights marches of a generation ago and a hope that the response to the Jena demonstrations might rekindle the movement.
"It has been a long time since we had a march like this, and people knew it was making history," said the Rev. Kevin Domingue, 42, of Rockville, who was reared about 150 miles from Jena, and who flew to New Orleans and drove to the rally.
The outrage over the Jena 6 arose initially after the teenagers were charged with attempted murder. Moreover, critics complained, three white teenagers who had hung three hangman's nooses in a tree at the high school in August 2006 -- the incident that began a spiral of events that culminated in the December altercation -- were never prosecuted for committing a hate crime.
Since then, the charges against the black teenagers have been reduced to second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery, but many at the event Thursday said they believe that such charges are still too harsh for what they characterize as a schoolyard fight.
"A potential penalty of 15 to 20 years is excessive for a schoolyard fight," said Shannon Collins, 33, a petroleum engineer from Houston who grew up near Jena. "If it's not racism, why else would the district attorney do this?"
On Wednesday, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who prosecuted the case, said it is inaccurate to portray the beating of the white student as a schoolyard fight. The victim, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, though he was treated at a hospital and released. Later that night, he attended a class ring ceremony.
"The injury that was done to [Barker] and the serious threat to his survival has become less than a footnote," Walters said during a news conference outside the parish courthouse, with Barker standing alongside. "There was no schoolyard fight. To call it that creates sort of a boys-will-be boys image that is not correct."
Police declined to estimate the size of the throng at the rally, other than to say it numbered in the "tens of thousands."
Still, the demonstration had echoes beyond Jena. Rallies were held in cities across the country, including Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia, in a show of solidarity.
As was the case in other cities, much of the activity in Washington was at schools and universities.
In Northeast Washington, hundreds of high school students from Friendship Collegiate Academy marched for a mile through the neighborhood, holding signs, chanting and talking to passersby about the case. Senior Maya Foster, 17, said that when she heard the details of the Jena case and tried to talk to her classmates about it, they initially were clueless.
"They're my age. It really hit home, because I think about that it could have been one of my classmates," Foster said.
At the University of Maryland's Nyumburu Cultural Center, where a noose was found tied to a tree this month, members of the campus clergy and program for black ministers called a "Rally for Peace in Harmony" to support the Jena 6. The event was also in response to the noose hanging, said Ronald Zeigler, director of the cultural center.
"A lot of students are dressed all in black today," Zeigler said. "We also had some students who went to Jena. The students are very involved in trying to support those young men."
But the prime focus of the day was on the town of 3,500 people that suddenly found itself thrust into the national spotlight.
The buses began arriving in Jena hours before dawn, the travelers stepping out stiff, yawning and bleary-eyed. Most wore black T-shirts with the message "Stop the criminalization of our children" and "What is the color of justice?"
Through much of the morning, on Jena's narrow streets and in the green spaces around the courthouse, it was virtually impossible to take a step without jostling someone else. Demonstrators formed a vast procession, about eight people across stretching more than a half mile, and that was just part of one crowd. With the handful of downtown restaurants shuttered, many relied on the offerings of water and snacks from the Red Cross.
"There were people at the park, people at the courthouse and everywhere in between," said Julie Lewis, public information officer for the state police.
Many businesses, such as the Burger Barn and the Brisket House, were closed and had yellow police tape blocking people from parking there. Only a few white marchers were scattered among the vast assemblage. As the sun came up, the crowd grew and people roused themselves to call for all charges against the six teenagers to be dropped. Two of the six appeared on the podium, and though they did not speak, they were cheered.
Mike Williams, 31, who grew up in Jena and now lives in Alexandria, La., said there frequently were fights between white students and black students when he attended Jena High.
"No one ever went to jail for those," he said. "It's always been a racist town. It's just never been this blatant before."
But Jena's white residents say that although there has been trouble in the town, the protesters are overlooking the fact that there are troublemakers on both sides of the racial divide.
Two white men, Gerald Tullos, 44, who works in the oil fields, and Ricky Coleman, 46, owner of Rick's Pizza in town, turned out to watch the march. Both said they think their town has been misconstrued. They said the blame lies on both sides.
"In the beginning, the charges were too severe," Tullos said.
"I approve of their standing up and making a statement about what they think is righteous," Coleman said. "But they don't know us. We really ain't that way."
Staff writers Darryl Fears, Theola Labb¿ and Ian Shapira in Washington and Avis Thomas-Lester and Nelson Hernandez in Prince George's County contributed to this report.