Driving northeast on Hwy. 28, just outside of Pineville, it’s still dark, but the sun’s starting to rise and the horizon is a hue of deep purple. The headlights of 18-wheelers and chartered tour buses cut through the last remains of the night. Just past Catahoula Lake, a still blanket of fog clings to the ground and sometimes creeps over onto the raised roadway. There’s an occasional police cruiser sitting on the shoulder of the road, just as there has been all the way from Lafayette. A line of cars is headed for the dead end at Hwy. 84, where many will turn west and head to the small town of Jena. The license plates are from Texas, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Tennessee, and some of the cars have slogans like “Traveling to Jena,” “Journey to Jena,” and “Meet me in Jena” painted on their back windshields.
Twelve miles west on Hwy. 84, the sun’s already on the rise, and the sign to the entrance of the town reads: “Welcome to Jena. A Nice Place to Call Home.” On this Thursday morning, aside from the occasional group of men standing around outside the gas stations that dot the highway, Jena is closed for business. Not even McDonald’s is open. The small town is clean and well-kept, but it looks as if no one lives here. The cars lined up to find parking spaces and the police officers from Jena, Alexandria, and Monroe, along with deputies from LaSalle and Rapides parishes, are the only signs of life.
As the vehicles park, the riders emerge from the cars, mostly black men, women and children, dressed in black shorts and pants and T-shirts with slogans like “Enough is Enough” and “Free The Jena Six.” They start walking west along the highway, also called East Oak Street, toward the LaSalle Parish Courthouse.
On Sept. 20, predominantly black men and women gathered in Jena, La., a small town of 3,500 residents, 85 percent of whom are white. On the day of the rally, CNN estimated anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people were in attendance. The next day, The Town Talk, the daily newspaper in Alexandria, 40 miles south of Jena, stated that Louisiana State Police initially estimated 60,000 people came to Jena. Lt. Lawrence Mcleary now says that after studying aerial photos of the rally, Louisiana State Police estimate the number of people between 15,000 to 20,000. With either scenario, it’s likely the most people the small town of Jena has ever seen in one day.
They traveled from as far away as New York and Los Angeles, and as close as Alexandria and Lafayette, to rally in protest of what they say is the unjust prosecution of six black teenagers, students from Jena High School. They came by the carloads and in chartered buses. Ten buses traveled from Lafayette alone, with at least 550 residents.
The initial story of the Jena Six went largely unnoticed by the national media but ran rampant on the Internet, fueled primarily by bloggers. It was later brought to the forefront of the nation’s attention by visits to the town by Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and later the radio shows of Michael Baisden and Tom Joyner. In response, Jena’s white residents have appeared in the news in defense of their community, stating that the portrayal of Jena as a Deep South town of racists is inaccurate and unfair. And although America and the world knew little to nothing about Jena before Sept. 20, 2007, the small town won’t soon be forgotten. On the day of the rally, even President Bush told reporters during a White House Press conference in Washington, “The events in Louisiana have saddened me. The FBI and Justice Department have been monitoring the situation. All of us want fairness when it comes to justice.”
Two helicopters circle the town overhead. At the intersection of Oak and 1st streets, in front of the Bank of Jena, a black S.W.A.T. Hummer waits in traffic with the lines of buses. A large man walks to the intersection as the crowd makes its way to the courthouse. Looking around, he says, “Oh, Jesus. Black people everywhere. Everywhere!” Another man in a suit passes by him and responds, “Yes, sir. Ain’t it beautiful, brother?” Another man stands at the corner with a dozen people crowded around him. He carries a pile of black T-shirts that say “Free The Jena Six.” Rodrick Crockett, Kenneth Brisco and Carl Young each buy a T-shirt from the man. All of the men are in their mid-30s and arrived in Jena the previous day. Crockett and Brisco are from Baton Rouge, but Young flew from Baltimore.
“Any time you see injustice,” Crockett says, “I think as people we’ve got to stand up and believe in each other and be able to stand for each other. Because if we don’t, who will?”
“We all bleed the same color,” Brisco adds. “We’re here for the movement, for justice. We’ve got kids growing up, and we’re just trying to make it better. It just wasn’t right. Black, white, it doesn’t matter. [The Jena Six] could have been white, I would have still came. It’s about the right thing. It’s a beautiful day. Everybody’s coming together instead of violence, and it’s nice to see people do something, to come together for a good cause.”
What Brisco says isn’t right is a string of events leading up to the protest in Jena. There are still ongoing debates about the precise nature of what took place — and even the tone and the timbre of those events.
At a school assembly, on Aug. 30, 2006, a black student asked if he could sit under the “white tree” on the campus of Jena High. The principal responded that he was free to sit wherever he liked. The next day three nooses were found hanging from that tree. Despite the principal’s recommendation of expulsion for the white students who hung the nooses, the school board and superintendent overruled the decision and suspended the students found responsible.
Then in November, a still unknown arsonist set fire to the school’s main building. At a private party in December, attended mostly by whites, a black youth was beaten up by a white male. At a local convenience store, a white student pulled a gun on three black students. On Dec. 6, six black Jena High School students beat up 17-year-old white student Justin Baker, knocking him unconscious. He was treated at a local hospital and released that day, attending a school function later that night. All six of the students involved in the beating were expelled from school, and five of them were charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second degree murder. The five charged as adults were 16-year-old Mychal Bell, 17-year-old Robert Bailey Jr., 17-year-old Theo Shaw, 18-year-old Carwin Jones, and 17-year-old Bryant Purvis. Jesse Beard, a 14-year-old, was charged as a juvenile. Collectively, the group of students has become known as The Jena Six.
On June 26, before going to trial, Bell’s charges were reduced from attempted murder to aggravated battery and conspiracy. During the trial, Bell’s court-appointed defense attorney, Blane Williams, presented no evidence and called no witnesses to the stand. Bell was convicted by an all-white jury and faced up to 22 years in prison.
In July, the LaSalle Parish School Board superintendent authorized cutting down the tree where the nooses had hung. School Board member Billy Fowler told The Town Talk, “There’s nothing positive about that old tree. It’s all negative. … We don’t want the blacks coming back up there looking at the tree knowing what happened, or the whites. We just want to start fresh.”
On Sept. 4, a Louisiana District Court judge dismissed the charge of conspiracy against Bell. On Sept. 14, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Bell’s battery conviction on the grounds that he should not have been tried as an adult, and LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said he intended to appeal that decision.
The day before the rally was to take place, Walters held a press conference in front of the courthouse with Barker and his parents. He stated: “The injury that was done to [Barker] and the serious threat to his survival has become less than a footnote. But when you’re talking about justice and a criminal proceeding, you cannot forget the victim, and I will not.”
Over the loud drone of the buses’ idling diesel engines, a kid dressed in a striped polo shirt and khaki pants stands on the corner of N. 1st and Elm streets and hawks newspapers, holding an issue up at arm’s length. “Final Call!” he yells. “One dollar! Final Call!” The headline reads: “WE WANT FULL JUSTICE!” A smaller headline above it reads: “Thousands to rally for The Jena 6.”
Across the street, a group of people takes pictures of a piece of white paper taped to an office window. In capital letters the notice reads in part:
WILL BE CLOSED
OVERCROWDING & CONGESTION
A passing protester stops behind the crowd and tries to read the small sign. “What does it say?” she asks.
A man says, “It says their office is closed today because of possible downtown overcrowding.”
“Huh,” the woman says. “I guess they thought we were kidding.”
She snaps a picture over the crowd and continues on her way.
At the edge of the courthouse lawn, an RV is parked on the side of the road with its canopy rolled out for shade. Beneath it, a man with a microphone and a PA system speaks to the passersby. He points to a man walking by. “You shut your business down today too, huh? A doctor all the way from Monroe, La., shut his whole business down today to come up here to be with us. There’s some sacrifices made today, ladies and gentlemen. I’m sure you’ve all made some. That’s what it takes this time. At least we can do this. You see, our parents made that possible.”
A woman walking by says: “Amen!”
The man with the microphone points to another group, “Y’all came all the way from St. Louis? Y’all didn’t walk it? OK.” Pointing to another group he shouts, “South Carolina, y’all. We got people from all over the world.”
Louisiana State Troopers stand at ease behind the barricades that line the front of the courthouse. On the lawn, thousands are already gathered, dressed in black from head to toe. People camp out on the lawn in lawn chairs with small ice chests and handmade signs in support of the Jena Six. A middle-aged man focuses his camcorder on a woman who sits in a chair and asks her if she has any children. “One boy, 22,” she says. “And the two girls are here, 16 and 12. I wanted them to have this experience.” She wears a T-shirt that says “Enough is Enough.”
In front of the courthouse, a sea of people dressed in black stands in the street; some wave signs while others wave flags. They listen to the speakers that will take the podium throughout the day, including Sharpton and Jackson. The crowd chants at different times, “Free The Jena Six!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho! DA Reed has got to go!” In the crowd, smaller rallies pass in and out. One man walks through the crowd, yelling the chorus of James Brown’s 1968 civil rights anthem. “Say it loud!” he shouts. Those nearby him respond enthusiastically: “I’m black and I’m proud!” Another group with signs leads a chant of “No justice! No peace!”
Richard Jones stands at the edge of it all. He traveled to Jena in one of two buses that came from Decatur, Ga., taking three days off from his job to make the trip. He first heard about the Jena Six on the radio about a month ago and decided two weeks ago to attend the rally.
“There’s injustice right here,” he says. “Racism is still alive, and I don’t really like it. I think we have a right to exist like everybody else, and it looks like we don’t have that right, the way I see it. So this is my way of showing my disapproval. We as a people need to come together. We’ve got some serious problems that we need to come together to straighten out, and the only way we’re going to straighten them out is through unity.”
Although he’s traveled to Jena, Jones believes the problem extends far beyond the edges of this small town. “I believe America as a whole has a problem,” he says. “To me, America’s very violent, and we need to come together to stop the violence.”
On Oak Street, Rev. Stanford Hunt stands with more than 200 people who rode through the night on five buses from Memphis. His black T-shirt, like those standing around him, reads in white letters: “Memphis supports the Jena Six.” The pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Orange Mound, Tenn., Hunt says he first heard about the Jena Six on Michael Baisden’s radio show. “I just felt compelled to come down and try to make a statement,” he says. “It really seems to be a shame, that in 2007, that we would have this kind of thing still going on. It seems like a little spat that got out of hand. It doesn’t seem like it calls for the kind of action that’s taken place. Guys just get in fights, you know. It seems like it would have been chalked up as a misdemeanor and the young man would have gotten a couple of days suspension like the other guys got, maybe a week or whatever, and it should have been over with.
“It’s really my hope that this will be resolved,” he continues. “If you do something unlawful, then yes, you should be punished. But to this extreme that it’s gone, to tarnish these young men’s lives for the rest of their lives, it will go on their record and they won’t be able to get decent employment and go onto college and be productive citizens. We don’t want that. It’s just a shame.”
At the end of the block, on the corner of Oak and Second streets, protesters stop in front of the Jena Town Hall to have their pictures taken by other protesters. On the other corner of 2nd Street, Mel Stevenson, a white Jena resident, stands alone and watches the protesters streaming into town. He wears a pair of gold-rimmed shades and is dressed in slacks and a freshly pressed red shirt, with two Cross pens in the breast pocket. “I don’t know where we’re going to put all these people,” he says. He seems interested but not the least bit concerned with the protesters. The 80-year-old retiree worked for Boeing before retiring to Jena 14 years ago, but he was born and raised down the road in Alexandria.
“I was wondering,” he adds, “ever since I was about 7 or 8 years old, why in the hell people can’t get along. It’s hard for me to believe that people can’t get along. I have no grudge with nobody, with no nationality. God put us all here, but this little old thing has blown up in this little old town here, and I never thought there was any discrimination at all here, to tell you the truth about it. And I still don’t think so.”
One block down on Third and Oak, Hargie Faye Jacobs-Savoy sits in the passenger seat of an SUV. The Monroe police officer on the corner won’t let her and her daughter, Jacquelyn Savoy, back onto Oak until the stream of protesters walking to the courthouse and the bus congestion eases. So there’s nothing else to do but wait and have a few snacks.
Jacobs-Savoy won’t tell her age. She smiles and says, “No, I never do that.” A Port Arthur, Texas, resident, she worked as the president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Support Group of Southeast Texas with Coretta Scott King for 22 years until her death.
“I’m a believer in Dr. King’s movement and in the love that I received and the guidance and understanding and discipline that my mother and father gave to me, that all people are equal. I’m also a Christian. I believe in Christ Jesus, the trinity, the father, the son, and the holy ghost. But I see that there are people who don’t seem to understand that we’re all just one person, because what affects you automatically affects me.
“And there’s so much violence in the world today,” she adds, “just so much violence. You see so many people being corrupted by so many different things. But when I heard about this tree thing, that’s what hurt me a plenty. When I read that the tree was there for the white kids’ enjoyment, I thought, ‘What about all the other kids? Why can’t they enjoy it? Why did it have to come to this point?’ So I saw so much injustice in that. But then the thing that bothers me the most is when people say our children are our future. I beg to differ with that. We are the future of the children. We give them nothing; they have nothing. So when I saw all of that, and I saw that some children may be being deprived of just some of the small pleasures of the shade of a tree, it vexed me so much.”
The rally outside the courthouse went on all day, as did the marches through the streets of Jena from the Ward 10 Recreation Park to Jena High School. By day’s end, they were all gone. State Police Lt. Mcleary says there were no arrests and no incidents, “nothing of significance.” The biggest problem, he says, were about 25 people in front of the courthouse who passed out from the heat.
The same day as the rally, The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that a bond hearing for Bell be set. Nearly a week after his battery conviction was overturned, he was still in jail. The day after the rally, on Friday, Sept. 21, in a closed court bond hearing, Bell was denied
Three of the Jena Six — Bailey, Jones, and Shaw — have had their charges reduced to battery and conspiracy and are awaiting trial. Purvis still awaits arraignment, and Beard is being charged as a juvenile.
For Andre Briggs, the protest in Jena is still fresh in his mind. The 23-year-old UL Lafayette business management senior is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, as well as the secretary of UL’s chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a national organization of black fraternities and sororities. He rode to the rally with a busload of UL students.
“It was hot and crowded,” Briggs says of the protest, “but it was enlightening to see that many people who showed up for one cause. You had people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, but there were mainly other people from across the nation. It was really empowering to see. This is something my children and grandchildren will be able to read about, the action we took in 2007. This wasn’t just for the African-American community. This was for injustice for everybody. This isn’t a black or white thing.”
Bishop Taara Williams, of the African-American Catholic Congregation Imani Temple #49, the Cathedral of the Lafayette province, is also the national general secretary of the African-American Catholic Congregation. “I think yesterday was an example and an expression of where we need to be in America, not where we are,” she says. “It was a pilgrimage to demonstrate that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Any place that there is injustice shows that there’s no justice. Justice must work and be accessible, equally. ‘One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ I think the crime [of the Jena Six] doesn’t line up with the punishment, and I think the African-American community demonstrated that they can come together and be a unified voice. That’s what I got from yesterday. We had young people who were articulate — the best and the brightest — demonstrating in a peaceful manner, and what I saw was a sea of love between African-American, Latino and European brothers and sisters. When we begin to understand that we’re one nation under God, when we come together and work for a common cause, that’s when we do our best, that’s when we work for the red, white, and blue and the stars and stripes in our flag. That’s what I saw, a true demonstration of America.”