Jena Louisiana Protest: Sharpton, Jackson, King Lead Justice March

Twenty thousand protesters from across the United States converged on the small town of Jena, Louisiana on Thursday to march against what they call flagrant double standards for blacks and whites in the justice system, epitomized in the case of the ‘Jena Six’.

Despite the massive number of protesters, the emotionally charged issues and the threat of white supremacist counter-demonstrations, the event concluded peacefully. “There were no incidents and no arrests during the rally and march,” said Lieutenant Lawrence McLeary of State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge. “It was uneventful.”

Before dawn on Thursday, about 500 buses began bringing protesters into Jena, a town with a population of 3,000 – 85 percent of whom are white.

Communications technology played a major role in the ability of organizers to coordinate the national event, which had been promoted on black and civil rights web sites, blogs and radio programs. At the same time, student protesters had shared information through social-networking web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

News releases from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday also warned that white supremacist web sites had indicated that some counter-demonstrations might be staged to confront the protesters – information it had passed onto State Police.

“I think the crowd is a peaceful crowd, in spite of the number,” Dr Doris Small of Natchitoches told the Town Talk of Alexandria. “I feel a spirit of unity.”

The demonstration was addressed by prominent black civil rights leaders including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Rev. Sharpton, leader of the New York-based National Action Network, told the crowd at the local courthouse that the protest was not a rebuke against the town or its inhabitants. “This is a march for justice,” he said. “This is not a march against whites or against Jena.” He also emphasized the need for a peaceful protest. “No violence,” he stressed. “Not even an angry word. They will try to provoke you. You have to stand strong.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, also attended the rally. He said that while some punishment might be in order for the Jena Six, “the justice system isn’t applied the same to all crimes and all people”.

Wayne Curry, a former executive of Prince George’s County in Maryland, was more emphatic in his criticism. “This is a shocking abuse of justice in the 21st century and harkens to our sort of Neanderthal era of politics in America fashioned around legalized racism,” he told the Washington Post. “For this to be happening now is such a jolt. The absence of dialogue on the subject from many of our elected officials is astounding … Exultations of attempted murder for a fistfight in a school. What’s going on?”

Although most of the protesters in Jena were black, there was also a sizeable contingent of young white people.

Mallory Flippo, a white university student from Shreveport, told the Associated Press, “I think what happened here was disgusting and repulsive to the whole state. I think it reflected badly on our state and how it makes it seem we view black people. I don’t feel that way, so I thought I should be here.”

As the protesters made their way from the courthouse to Jena High School and back they shouted, “No Justice! No Peace!” and carried banners which read “Enough is Enough” and “Get to the Root of the Problem”. They also chanted, “Hey hey ho ho! DA Reed has got to go!”

In anticipation of the march, and due to fears of violence, the town’s schools and most businesses were closed for the day. Most residents also remained indoors, but many who watched the march felt that the entire town had been accused of racism.

While most of the protesters confined their criticism to the justice system, as requested by the organizers, local resident Pam Sharp heard one woman shout “Shame on Jena!” A furious Ms Sharp told the Los Angeles Times she wasted no time responding to this outburst. “I shouted back, ‘No, shame on you!’ How can they include the whole town? That’s the shame.”

Ms Sharp also noted that the Jena Six case centered on a white student who had been beaten unconscious. “Protesters don’t want to talk about him,” she said.

One black family who sat in lawn chairs at the front of their property sold jambalaya and barbecue to the protesters as they marched past. The Town Talk reported that family member Hazel Epps, who now lives in Shreveport, also felt the need to defend her home town as she talked to some of the protesters.

When one woman from California asked why a local barber doesn’t cut the hair of African Americans, Ms Epps replied, “because they don’t know how”. Ms Epps also corrected the protester’s impression that Jena restaurants don’t serve black people, and said that everyone is welcome in the town’s restaurants.

In one local Jena restaurant, WBRZ television news of Baton Rouge interviewed two men who decided to mark the day with a quiet lunch together. Joe Clement (who is black) and George Ristick (who is white) appeared to be in their 60s and seemed oblivious to the excitement outside.

Mr Clement said he was not surprised by the controversy, while Mr Ristick hoped that the protest would help the country to better deal with the issue of racial equality. “Well, I’m sure other parts of the country have these problems,” he said. “I think it’s a real good eye opener. I really do – that it is being put under the spotlight for everybody.”

Elizabeth Redding, a 63 year-old resident of Willingboro, New Jersey said she was marching on behalf of her great-grandchildren and recalled how she had participated in the civil rights movement when she was in her twenties. “This is worse, because we didn’t get the job done,” she told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “I never believed that this would be going on in 2007.”

As the procession marched on, some remnants of the Old South were still visible: two white Jena residents watching the march from their pickup truck were flying the confederate flag from their vehicle’s antenna. “It means Southern pride – tradition,” the passenger of the truck (who did not wish to be named) explained to the Town Talk. “The marchers are carrying their flags, so I’m going to have mine.”

Meanwhile, 17 year-old April Jones, who had travelled from Atlanta with her parents, Diana and Derrick, said she could not understand why the hanging of a noose had not been punished severely. “I just feel like every time the white people did something, they dropped it, and every time the black people did something, they blew it out of proportion,” she told the New York Times.

Latese Brown, 40, of Alexandria, also challenged the perceived disparity in the justice system. “If you can figure out how to make a school yard fight into an attempted murder charge,” she said, “I’m sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime.”


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