Locals join ‘Jena six’ cry

Published 12:05 am Friday, September 21, 2007

JENA, La. — Tens of thousands of protestors drove, bussed and walked into the small LaSalle Parish town of Jena Thursday in what some protestors called a rekindling of the civil rights movement.

The protestors were rallying behind six black Jena youths — dubbed “the Jena six” — who they feel were unfairly prosecuted after allegedly beating a white student at their high school.

As the thousands of protestors marched from the LaSalle Parish Courthouse to the Jena High School, chanting “We want justice now,” “Free the Jena six” and “No peace, no justice,” Pattison resident Sarah Dave stood on the side of the road holding out a sign reading, “Educate, don’t incarcerate.”

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“I think this is injustice being perpetuated,” Dave said. “It was just a schoolyard fight.”

Dave came to the rally with a caravan from Natchez that met at the Natchez Reception Center.

The Natchez caravan had approximately 20 cars and carried approximately 40 people to the protest, Natchez resident Edward Killelea said.

Natchez resident Mary Jane Gaudet marched with the protestors, and said she was reminded of when she participated in civil rights marches in the 1960s.

“But here we are 40 years down the road, and we’re still seeing situations like this” she said. “There were lots of alternatives to this. This could have been de-escalated from the beginning.”

When the protestors reached the high school, they began to fill the schoolyard and its outside hallways. Several found the spot where the tree on which the nooses were hung — which has since been cut down — and took pictures or raised a clenched fist.

Representatives from the New Black Panther’s Party preached from a mound in the schoolyard, and small rallies spontaneously broke out around the site.

Rhonda Stoner, a social worker from Toledo, Ohio, said she had come down to show support for the cause.

“We want to see all people be treated equally, whether they’re black or white, rich or poor,” she said. “This is not a black and white issue.”

Atlanta high school student Sean Tooley, 15, said he skipped school to make the nine-hour drive because the situation made him angry.

“History repeats itself, and when this kind of injustice happens anywhere, it happens everywhere,” he said.

Tooley’s brother Christian Tooley, 16, agreed.

“You would think that after all these years, things would be different,” Christian Tooley said. “Hate breeds hate, and if you hurt somebody — whether they deserve it or not — you’re going to get hurt back.”

Back at the courthouse, civil rights leaders spoke from the steps of the building.

“Mychal Bell has done no more than you or I at his age, and he has a bright future ahead,” said Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr.

“They haven’t seen anything here in Jena,” he said. “This is the new Selma, Ala., this is the new Birmingham, Ala.”

The civil rights movement still has a long way to go yet, Steele said.

“A lot of us think we have arrived, but if you think you have arrived, get back on that train and head to another station,” he said.

After returning to Natchez from the rally, Gaudet said she was impressed with how courteous the people had been and how peaceful the demonstration was.

“I asked myself, ‘what was it that galvanized these people so much that they would come from all over the country,’” she said. “Then I realized it was the fact that it all started with the nooses.

“Those symbolized perfectly the horror, the inequity, of what happened in the south (before the civil rights era).”

The alleged beating happened in December 2006 after what was reportedly a racially charged semester that began when students were greeted by the sight of three nooses hanging from a tree in the Jena High School courtyard in September of that year.

The white students responsible for hanging the nooses were given several days suspension.

The fight reportedly started after a heated verbal exchange between the white student and another black student. The black student allegedly punched the white student, and when he fell several other black students reportedly jumped on him and started beating him.

Six black students were eventually arrested for the beating, and one of the students, Mychal Bell, remains in custody on a $90,000 bond.

Bell — who was 16 at the time of the incident — was tried as an adult, and an appeals court has since overturned that conviction because of his age.

Thursday’s march was set to coincide with what would have been Bell’s sentencing if his conviction had not been vacated.