Civil rights organizations have gathered an estimated 200,000 signatures on petitions demanding freedom for six African American youth in Jena, La., facing decades in prison for taking a stand against Klan-like hate.
The NAACP is also sponsoring a march in Jena Sept. 20, the day Mychal Bell, 16, first of the youths to be tried and convicted, will be sentenced. Bell faces up to 22 years on a conviction of aggravated assault for striking a white student with a “deadly weapon,” identified as a tennis shoe.
The other defendants are Robert Bailey, 17, Theo Shaw, 17, Carwin Jones, 18, Bryant Purvis, 17, and an unidentified youth.
Faced by growing worldwide outrage, the prosecution has lowered charges against three of the defendants from attempted second degree murder and conspiracy, carrying sentences of 80 years, to aggravated second degree battery, carrying sentences as high as 22 years. That retreat has only fueled the demand that all charges be dropped.
The case was triggered a year ago when Black high school students asked the principal if they could sit in the shade of a tree on the school lawn referred to as “the white tree.” The principal told them they could and they did.
The next morning nooses were hanging from the tree, a terrifying reminder to the students of the days when “disobedient” Blacks were lynched in the South.
It escalated from there into a fistfight, during which a white student was slightly injured. After the school superintendent described the noose-hanging as only a “youthful prank,” the white student received only a slap on the wrist while the Black youths face decades in jail.
District Attorney Reed Walters, accompanied by Jena police, had visited the school and ordered the Black students to end their protest, saying, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. … I can take away your lives with the stroke of my pen.”
A membership-based web site, www.colorofchange.org, has posted a petition demanding
“Justice for the Jena 6.” At this writing, the petition has been signed by 163,584 people. An additional 43,000 petition signatures have already been delivered to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
The web site, based in Oakland, Calif., has 100,000 members, the largest of its kind devoted to issues of racial justice and equality.
An NAACP petition addressed to Gov. Blanco and Attorney General Charles C. Foti, states, “We register our outrage and object to the wrongful conviction of Mychal Bell … convicted by an all-white jury in a racially charged case.” It points out that Bell’s public defender did not present any evidence and did not call any witnesses.
“The response to our petition has been overwhelming,” said Anson Asaka of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in an interview with the PWW. Asaka said NAACP headquarters in Baltimore has received many phone calls from people wanting to attend the Jena march.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said in a statement that the Jena 6 case “is an American outrage that demonstrates the continuing shame of racial division in our country. Join us in making it one of the last.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to a crowd of 300 at Goodpine Middle School in Jena on Sept. 9. “American justice is on trial in Jena. The world is watching,” Jackson said, urging the community to join in the Sept. 20 march and rally. “The more outside pressure is applied, the greater the impact.”