Young people were the majority last week in Jena, La. Amid the vast numbers of media crews and veteran civil-rights activists, the thousands of fists raised to the sky and chants of "no justice, no peace," and the sounds of bongo drums and handclaps of excitement, the youth of America were heard.
College students—particularly black college students—entered Jena by the busload to protest what many are calling a social injustice toward six black high school students charged with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy in a racially tinged case. It was a charge that LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters reduced from attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy after national figures like Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III brought a national spotlight to the small town of fewer than 3,000 residents. The alleged attempted murder weapon: tennis shoes.
And all of this hype over a school fight.
On Dec. 4, 2006, six black high school students beat a white student, Justin Barker, giving him a mild concussion. Police arrested Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Mychal Bell and Jesse Beard for the assault. Barker attended a school function later that night. The fight occurred following a series of disturbing events around Jena, including a group of white students hanging nooses from a "whites only" tree, under which black students had congregated the day before. Several white residents in Jena assert the noose hanging was nothing more than a prank.
A white Jena resident, reported by Robert Bailey Jr.'s mother Caseptla Bailey to be Matt Windham, pulled a sawed-off shotgun on Bailey and two friends two nights prior to the school fight, and was not charged. In fact Bailey was charged with theft over $500 after he wrestled the gun away and fled home.
Almost one year later, Mychal Bell, who was tried and convicted as an adult for second-degree assault and faced up to 22 years in prison, remains in jail. A Louisiana appeals court overturned Bell's conviction last week, citing that he should not have been tried as an adult, but the judge still denies him bail.
College students from across the nation took an interest in the Jena Six case, and decided to make their voices young. George Patterson, a recent Tougaloo graduate and current coordinator for student activities, accompanied about 35 Tougaloo students to Jena to participate in the protest, as did Jackson State instructor Charles Chiplin.
Chris Burton, student body president of Davidson College in North Carolina, said that he found out about the Jena Six through Facebook groups, which sparked a campus-wide dialogue on the case. "This is wrong, and we can't tolerate this as Americans," Burton said. "We have to stand up and say 'this is not right.' This isn't a black issue or a white issue; it's an American problem—a human problem, and it's disgusting on that level."
On the West Coast, High Hopes, a young motivational speaker, said that raising awareness and money to get young people from Los Angeles to Jena was an almost overnight success. "There were no buses leaving from my city, and I said, 'that is unacceptable,'" he said. "So I contacted radio stations and also the newspaper … and also Ice Cube came through." The veteran hip-hop icon sponsored a bus and meals in addition to three other buses paid for with outside donations.
In just four days, High Hopes had helped take four busloads of his peers to Jena to demonstrate their support for the Jena Six.
"To see young people step up for other young people, It makes me think about what change can be made if youth ... stuck together on certain issues," he said.
Blogs and YouTube helped the speedy travel of information regarding the Jena Six. Fred Hammond, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Church in Jackson and one of the handful of whites present in Jena for the protest, says that the Internet played a powerful role in getting the Jena Six story out.
"Young people have always been the ones that have been on the forefront of social change," he said. "To have those individuals ... engaged in this topic, and them being able to mobilize, I think it's a sign of a new wave of being able to use the technology that's available to do justice work."
While the streets of downtown Jena were lively with the sounds of drums and chants, the protest, which drew in tens of thousands of people, from students to neo black panthers to veteran civil-rights activists, seemed to induce a sleeping spell on the town. All businesses were closed except for Mac's Supermarket. All major fast-food chains, banks and restaurants closed their doors in fear and paranoia. In addition to the six full-time Jena police officers, more than 200 state officers were on duty during the protest.
But Jena residents defend their home, saying it is not the racist southern town that the media has portrayed. Katrina evacuee Marsha Thompson and her fiancé, who are white, relocated to Jena after the storm hit their New Orleans home. She said that the town opened their arms to evacuees—blacks and whites alike—and gave them food and shelter. "When we were kids, we would beat each other up and then go home," Thompson said. "Whatever happened here, it's a sad thing, and I'm just sorry that it happened."
Bell is scheduled to reappear in court in October, and Bryant Purvis will appear before the LaSalle Parish Courthouse Nov. 7. Purvis currently lives with his uncle in Dallas, and is attending school.
Jena is a song playing in the mind of a corrupt America. The Nation has avoided the deeper issues of race, but it appears this generation unknowingly, will force the society to address the ills of intermingling. It is hard not to deal with one another on a personal basis, after all of this has occurred.
A state wide civil rights forum has been called in Alexandria, Louisiana.