Thousands Protest Blacks' Treatment

Six Students Who Were Prosecuted in Louisiana Town Garner Nationwide Support

Thousands of demonstrators march in Jena, La., in support of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white schoolmate.
Thousands of demonstrators march in Jena, La., in support of six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white schoolmate. (By Frank Franklin Ii -- Associated Press)
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.

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