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And Justice For All

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Photos by Ariane Wiltse

In a scene reminiscent of marches from the Civil Rights era, an estimated 20,000 people from across the country gathered in the tiny town of Jena a week ago to protest the case of six black teenagers charged with attempted murder and conspiracy in a schoolyard brawl with a white schoolmate. The case of the so-called 'Jena Six" has sparked a nationwide debate on racial bias in the criminal justice system because previous confrontations had yielded only battery charges against white teenagers. It also has attracted the attention of veteran Civil Rights leaders and presidential candidates as well as social activists who use the Internet and the airways to organize.

An all-white jury convicted one of the teenagers, 17-year-old Mychal Bell, on the attempted murder charge, but an appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that he should not have been tried as an adult because he was only 16 at the time of the incident. Last week the prosecutor dropped adult charges against Bell, and the teenager was released on a $45,000 bail. He had spent nine months in jail. The other five black students now face felony battery charges.

There were no reports of violence or hate crimes during the recent protest in Jena. However, in Alexandria that night, two young white men were arrested for cruising past hundreds of the protesters with two nooses hanging from the bed of their pickup truck. In High Point, N.C., four nooses were found hanging at a high school the day after the march.

Bell's parents, Marcus Jones and Melissa Bell, appeared on Larry King Live last week along with the Rev. Al Sharpton to claim there has been an 'inequality of justice" in Jena. Sharpton has asked the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and John Conyers, a member of the Black Caucus, to meet with the Bells to discuss possible federal intervention and to ask that the district attorney in the case explain his patterns of prosecution.

Following are glimpses of one group of New Orleanians' experiences at the protest.

Nearly 50 poets, spoken-word artists, photographers and videographers from the group Art in Action left New Orleans at 3 a.m. to join thousands at a civil rights protest for racial equality in the judicial system in Jena.

 

A few miles outside of Jena, poet and singer/songwriter Sunni Patterson, awakens a busload of New Orleans artists and protesters with a song from the Civil Rights era. Many on the bus were nervous, not knowing what to expect. "As a people we exude a power of love," Patterson told her fellow passengers. "But we have to be aware that there's going to be a lot of hate out there." Patterson later told the crowd in Jena: "There is a Jena in every state in this country. And although we are here to support the Jena Six, we must not lose track of the fact that there's no doubt there is a Virginia seven and a Detroit eight and a New Orleans 100,000. Jena is not an isolated event."

 

Laying a hypnotic rhythm behind chants like "Free the Jena Six" and "No Justice, No Peace," a group of African drummers and a dancer perform behind thousands who had gathered in front of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse for the protest.

 

New Orleans' Rosalie Ashton-Washington, known as "Lady Tambourine," beats her instrument intently. "This is the 21st century, and white children are still being taught that hanging nooses is alright," she says. "The adults should have stepped forward and said this is a different age. But they didn't. And that shouldn't still be happening today."

Singing "Let my people go," hundreds of protesters follow a brass band as it attempts to overtake a stage set up in front of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse. Although the band was unsuccessful, blaring horns quickly drowned out speakers from the New Black Panther Party, a black separatist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers to be a hate group on par with the Ku Klux Klan. Some people in the crowd heckled the New Black Panther Party or left in protest because they said the group did not represent the attitudes of the majority, who came in peace to demand equality for all.

 

In a dusty patch of earth, protesters gather around an African flag planted on the site where a live oak tree used to stand. Once referred to as the "White Tree," because allegedly only white students could sit in its shade, the oak was chopped down last year after three nooses were found hanging from its branches.

 

Ray Hodges, a white, veteran automotive technology teacher at Jena High School, was the only local teacher who came to the school for the protest. "Do we have racism here?" he asks. "Yes. Do we need to work on our problems? Yes. Does every other school and town in America have problems too? Yes." While a freshman teacher, Hodges planted the tree that's been the scene of so much conflict. "I planted it as a Tree of Knowledge for everyone to enjoy," he says. "The reason I'm here today is for healing. We need it." After that statement, the crowd moved in, laid hands on his shoulders and took his hands in theirs while a man in the crowd prayed for peace.

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