Thousands drawn to racial protest in Southern US
Well before dawn it was already clear that Jena was waking up to a day unlike any other in its normally quiet Southern existence. Even in the dark, its narrow roads were gridlocked with a line of coaches and cars tailing back out of town.
The number plates in themselves told a story, of overnight rides made from all over the South—Alabama, Georgia, Texas—as well as New York, Illinois, Ohio, California. One man celebrated his long, sleepless journey with a wry message across his T-shirt: “Have no fear, Birmingham is here.”
Though they came from such far-flung places, the thousands of protesters who assembled in Jena, Louisiana, on Friday had this in common: they all wore black, and most were black. They had descended on this tiny Southern town to show their anger for the injustice they believed had taken place here.
Another man’s T-shirt told that part of the story: “I came to Jena to cut down the white tree of white supremacy.”
The white tree in question—which was cut down recently—used to stand in the yard of Jena High School, its beautiful arched foliage offering respite from the Louisiana sun to the school’s pupils. Or rather its white pupils, as black pupils never enjoyed its shade.
The events that culminated in Friday’s pre-dawn gridlock began under that tree in August last year when a black pupil, having first gained permission from the headmaster, dared to stand under it. The next day three nooses were found hanging from its branches.
The incident brought to the surface tensions long present in Jena, a town with an 86% white population and a history of segregation. In Louisiana, a state where 335 black people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, even the number three bares the inevitable grim echo of the KKK. Yet the largely white school board chose merely to suspend the perpetrators from school for three days.
Emotions ran high. Fighting broke out sporadically among white and black pupils. In one incident, a gun was pulled by a white teenager; in another, bottles were cracked over the head of a black teenager, Robert Bailey.
Then, on December 4 last year, six black teenagers—Bailey among them—retaliated by kicking a white pupil unconscious. No charges were brought against the white pupils involved in the earlier violence; the six black youths, the Jena Six as they have come to be known, were accused of attempted second-degree murder with an upper sentence of 80 years in jail, even though their victim was back on his feet and at a school function on the same night of the fight.
The contrast in legal treatment of the pupils provoked a sense of raw injustice that began as a hushed murmur among the town’s black residents. But it swelled with the amplifying affect of black radio stations and websites exhorting people to “get on the bus ... again” until it became a roar.
On Friday, Jena looked as though it didn’t know what had hit it. Its population of just 3Â 000 stood host to a crowd more than six times that size. Stood host, but reluctantly. Shops and public buildings were closed. The school board was shuttered up. One white shop owner taped up the front of his premises, telling a local paper that he feared “it’s all going to be gone”.
But he was wrong. By 8am the square in front of the local courthouse where the Jena Six were first charged was full to overflowing with peaceful protesters, many wearing “Enough is enough” T-shirts and chanting “We shall overcome”. By the time the Reverend Al Sharpton, the Harlem-based black leader, stood up to speak, the crowd was ecstatic. “This is the start of the 21st-century civil rights movement,” he said to a huge cry of “Yes!”.
“In the 20th century we had to fight for where we sat on the bus; now we have to fight not to sit in court. We have gone from the plantation to the penitentiary,” he said.
History doesn’t seem all that academic in a town like Jena, where houses still stand on wooden stilts and whose white town council unanimously voted against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation in 1965. Sharpton invoked those days when he alluded to Martin Luther King, who that year led the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march and whose eldest son of the same name was standing also on stage. “Martin Luther King faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow Jnr.”
Sharpton had previously visited Mychal Bell, the only one of the Jena Six to have been tried. Bell was found guilty on reduced charges of second-degree battery and was due on Friday to be sentenced to up to 15 years in jail—hence the demonstration.
But last Friday his verdict was overturned on appeal on the grounds that he was 16 when the fight happened and he should have been tried in juvenile court. He remains in jail until the legal authorities decide whether he should be tried in such a court.
“Mr Bell was in handcuffs and leg irons,” Sharpton said. “That can’t be right for a schoolyard fight.”
As the sound of the preacher’s voice boomed off the walls of the courthouse, you could only guess the thoughts of Jena’s white residents. Few were visible on the streets; many had placed no-trespassing tape right around their homes. One group sat in rocking chairs on their porch watching the march pass by, but declined to say anything to reporters.
Frank Hennigan, a white man who lives about 80km from Jena, was less reticent. “This is all being overblown. We are being made out to be rednecked racists and that’s not true. The Klan has been dissolved for years.”
Hennigan said the nooses from the tree was “just a prank” that happened every year.
Asked about the apparently harsh legal treatment, he replied: “They are just trying to get these kinds of people off the streets so everybody who minds their own business can go on their happy little ways.”
Reed Walters, the district attorney at the centre of the furore, avoided the demonstration, but before it took place accused the media of hyping the story. “This case is and never has been about race. It is about justice for the victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”
But this was not Walters’s day. His words were drowned out by tens of thousands of black men and women who felt they had started, together, to find their voice once again.
“Our jails are overflowing with brothers and sons who shouldn’t be there,” said Michael Vaisden, a black radio star who has been seminal in spreading the story of the Jena Six across the United States. “We will defend our children by any means necessary.”
Vince Taylor, who had driven through the night from Durham, Georgia, gave a whoop of approval. He knew what the talk-show host meant. “I saw a burning cross on my yard when I was 10 years old,” he said. “That image is right here in my mind—it never goes away. It’s become a part of my life, and I’m here today to stop it becoming a part of any other child’s.”—Guardian Unlimited Â