JENA, La. – The streets around this tiny town’s courthouse began filling with protesters Wednesday, a day ahead of a planned march in support of six black teenagers jailed in the December beating of a white classmate.
Today’s march was expected to draw thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, dwarfing Jena’s population of about 3,500. Participants said they hoped to rekindle the spirit of the civil rights movement.
“This is the first time I’ve done anything like this, on this magnitude at least,” said Nathaniel Ford, 47, a computer technician who traveled from Richmond, Va.
At the center of the protests is a group of black teenagers who have come to be called the Jena Six.
Months after declining to charge three white high school students who were briefly suspended for hanging nooses in a tree, local prosecutors charged five of the six with attempted second-degree murder in the beating of a white student. The sixth defendant’s case is sealed because he is charged as a juvenile.
Critics allege the cases show authorities in this predominantly white town are disproportionately harsh toward blacks. District Attorney Reed Walters, breaking a long public silence Wednesday at a news conference, denied racism was involved.
Walters said the suffering of the beating victim, Justin Barker, has been largely ignored. Barker was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function that night.
“With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to him and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote,” Walters said of Barker, who accompanied the prosecutor but declined to speak.
Walters also said the reason he did not prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses is because he could find no Louisiana law they could be charged with.
“I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town,” Walters said.
He also noted that four defendants in the beating case were of adult age under Louisiana law, and that the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.
Bell, 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the Jena Six to be tried so far. He was convicted on an aggravated second-degree battery count that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, but the conviction was overturned last week when a state appeals court said he should not have been tried as an adult.
Today’s protest had been planned to coincide with Bell’s sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains in jail while prosecutors prepare an appeal.
For many Jena residents, today’s march is a bitter pill – the result, they said, of overblown and unfair media coverage. Most wouldn’t comment and those who did were visibly irritated or angry.
“This isn’t a racist town. It never has been. We didn’t even have fistfights when the schools were integrated,” said a white man who refused to give his name or comment further.