Thousands take outrage to La.

Marylanders are joining people nationwide to show support for the Jena 6

September 20, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

For many, the Jena 6 have become a symbol of persistent racism and uneven justice in the Deep South.

But for Clinton homemaker Kim Carrington, the case of six black teens charged with attempted murder of a white student because of a schoolyard brawl feels very personal.

The accused, she thought, could have been one of her five sons. That's how vulnerable young African-American men are to racial bias in the criminal justice system - even today, even in Maryland, she said.

"This movement is something that they can relate to," Carrington, 42, said of her sons, ages 14 through 21. "They know, just because it's down there in Louisiana doesn't mean that it could not happen here. In fact, I'm sure it does."

The case of six black students has resonated with parents, college students and civil rights leaders well beyond the sawmill hamlet of Jena, La. The fight and subsequent national outrage were sparked by a jarring display - three nooses hanging from the so-called white tree at Jena High School.

Today, thousands, including Carrington and her sons, will descend on Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh) to protest the treatment of the young men in a case that has exposed racial wounds in Louisiana and beyond. Organizers say about 30,000 people could show up in the town of 3,000.

In a show of solidarity, smaller demonstrations are planned today in Baltimore and around the nation. Others are making personal statements, attending school or work clad in black.

It's the result of a national campaign that took hold with the help of networking Web sites, blogs, mass e-mail and YouTube. And it's not just the NAACP and the Rev. Jesse Jackson who are making noise about the return of Jim Crow justice.

An estimated 200,000 people have signed petitions criticizing the treatment of the defendants and asking Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to intervene. Others have donated tens of thousands of dollars for the legal costs of the accused. Pop icon David Bowie gave $10,000 to the cause.

Frustration sparked in June when an all-white jury convicted Mychal Bell, 17, of aggravated second-degree battery after an incident last December in which he and five other black teens allegedly jumped a white student, beating him unconscious.

Bell, who was tried as an adult, was initially charged with attempted second-degree murder. The white student was treated at a hospital and released hours after the brawl.

The fight was one of many clashes between white and black students at Jena High School after nooses were found dangling from the campus' "white tree," a day after two black student sat beneath it. While school administrators described the noose incident as a prank, students and others were furious. In the ensuing fights, no white students faced serious charges.

Last week, an appeals court reversed Bell's conviction - which could have carried a sentence of 15 years in prison - but it's unclear whether juvenile charges will be brought. Unable to post a $90,000 bond, he has been in jail since December.

"To charge the young kids with attempted second-degree murder for what is tantamount to a schoolyard fight shows a tremendous disregard for the welfare of these young men," said Dennis C. Hayes, interim president and CEO of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "A conviction like this can destroy a whole life."

Hayes, speaking from Jena yesterday, said at least 50 NAACP-chartered buses from around the nation will arrive in Louisiana for today's rally, march and town hall meeting.

It's the kind of outrage that doesn't take hold often, Hayes said. But the case struck a nerve.

"The overrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in the criminal justice system is coming to a boiling point," he said.

For many African-Americans, the case has all the ingredients to produce grass-roots anger: young black men facing a criminal justice system in the South and the ugly reminder of lynchings, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University.

"What this case has is many of the elements, or tropes, that are familiar within black politics," she said. "They are immediately tapped into long historical memories about the question of racial inequalities."

That thousands plan to demonstrate, despite Bell's overturned conviction, shows how deep concerns linger and how much people want them to be addressed, she said.

Bob Ross, 63, was struck by TV images of Howard University students rallying for the Jena 6 several weeks ago.

"I said, we're going. We're going to get some buses together and we're going down there," said Ross, president of the parent teacher association at Surrattsville High School in Clinton, Prince George's County. "I didn't know where we were going to get the money from, but I knew we had to go."

A week later, he had amassed a group of nearly 100 people, two buses and thousands of dollars in donations to cover the 18-hour bus trip and lodging.

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