Traffic came to a halt Wednesday at Broad and Spring Garden streets as more than 200 Temple students made their way to City Hall rallying in support of the “Jena Six.”
The so-called Jena Six case sparked a hail of controversy. Six black students were initially charged with second-degree attempted murder after a school yard fight, where Justin Barker, a white student, was allegedly beaten by the young men in December in the small town of Jena, La.
Barker was knocked unconscious in the fight. He was released from the hospital after a few hours and attended a school function that evening.
Mychal Bell, 17, was the first of the six to be tried. He was subsequently convicted of second-degree aggravated battery by an all-white jury.
“I think the real question is the appropriateness of the charges, and the objectivity of the district attorney, Reed Walters, in bringing them,” said Joanne Epps, associate dean for academic affairs and law professor for the Beasley School of Law.
Walters said the young men’s sneakers were used as deadly weapons. However, he lessened the murder charge for Bell and the remaining five students – Bryant Purvis, Jesse Beard, Carwin Jones, Theodore Shaw and Robert Bailey, Jr. – who still await trial.
“What happened to the black students is outrageous and wrong because I think the district attorney exhibited an aggressive bent in prosecuting these charges,” Epps said. “I use the district attorney’s appearance earlier at the school assembly as evidence of that.”
Walters attended a Jena High School assembly after students held a “sit-in” under what they referred to as a “white tree,” a spot where only white students typically sat.
Trouble began a week earlier, when a black student and his friends sat under the “white tree” last August. The next morning, three nooses were hanged from the tree.
At the assembly, Walters told students that “with one of stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.” Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based criminal justice reform group, said Walters’ comments were directed at the black students who protested the punishment levied upon the white students who were responsible for the noose incident. School superintendent Roy Breithaupt suspended the students, calling the incident a “prank,” after the principal originally pushed for expulsion.
“If public officials had responded correctly it could’ve prevented subsequent issues,” Bean said.
Friends of Justice investigated the incidents leading up to the Jena Six case after being contacted by the parents of the six students.
Temple Gets Organized
“What’s happening in Jena could happen in Philadelphia,” said Weldon McWilliams, an African-American Studies doctoral candidate, addressing the crowd at the Bell Tower before the mile-and-a-half walk to Center City Wednesday.
Led by two police cruisers and one undercover car, the diverse group of protesters marched toward City Hall with their book bags, neon signs and flyers in tow.
“Free Jena Six,” one girl shouted, pumping her right fist while clenching her biology goggles wearing two-and-a-half-inch stiletto shoes.
“I agree with the cause,” said Stacy Dowling, owner of Dowling’s Palace, a banquet hall on 1310 N. Broad St.
Dowling held up a “Free Jena Six” T-shirt as the students marched by.
Five hundred protestors met at the Bell Tower in a second day of rallying organized by the Black Student Union Thursday. The city and university chapters of the NAACP also joined the group.
“We made a tactical decision not to go to Louisiana,” said Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
Where the case stands
Bell remains in jail on $90,000 bail.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his adult conviction on Sept. 14, saying he should have been tried as a juvenile.
Walters said he was going to appeal the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Louisiana Supreme Court can reinstate the conviction or affirm the appellate court’s decision.
Epps said if the court affirms the appellate court’s decision, Bell will be back to where he was in December.
“He would have a bunch of charges pending that would have to be tried in a juvenile court,” she said.
Bell would still face trial as a minor unless Walters decides to dismiss the charges.
Finally able to raise money, the other members of the Jena Six were released on bail and await their fate.
“We want to ensure none of the Jena Six defendants come out without a felony conviction on their record,” Bean said, “so that they can fulfill dreams unencumbered by the case.”
“We want people to stand back and move beyond this story to ask the bigger question: What does this say about America?” he said.
“[Friends of Justice was] approached by the family of the Jena Six on December of 2006,” Bean said.
Formed in 2000, Friends of Justice first visited with the families of the Jena Six in January of this year.
Other groups began to follow.
“At the end of June, we got a few e-mails from our members about the case,” said Mervyn Marcano, communications director for colorofchange.org.
“What we brought to the table were hundreds of thousands of members [who] wanted to help in some way,” he said. This included helping to raise money for the Jena 6 Defense Committee, organized by families of the young men.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union also began contributing to the case, helping the families form a defense committee.
Color of Change also initiated a petition to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, which is said to have over 200,000 signatures nationwide.
Bean also said the legal defense fund raised about $200,000.
Black media outlets also helped raise awareness about the issue.
Michael Baisden, known to his fans as “the bad boy of radio,” covered the case daily on his 98.7 KISS FM New York City-based syndicated radio show. He even held several phone conversations with Bell’s father on the radio.
Baisden helped to organize several busses to Jena during a demonstration on the steps of the La Salle Parish courthouse on Sept. 20.
Dressed in black, thousands of people descended upon the courthouse in support of the Jena Six.
Renita Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.