The road to Jena

Carol Richardson of Charleston boards a bus headed to Jena, La., on Wednesday to join a protest over the treatment of a group of black students following the beating of a white student.

Charleston area residents joining Louisiana protest

The push toward Jena is under way, as hundreds of vans, cars and chartered buses are expected to converge on the small central Louisiana town, their passengers prepared to protest what many are calling a pivotal case of racial injustice.

A mass rally is planned for 10 a.m. today by the courthouse where Mychal Bell, 17, a black student at Jena High School, was convicted of second-degree aggravated battery after an initial attempted murder charge was reduced. A state appeals court overturned the conviction Friday, saying Bell should have been tried as a juvenile, not as an adult. Five other black students still face aggravated battery charges in the beating of a white student.

Fights between white and black students broke out when a black student wanted to sit in the shade of a tree used by whites. The next day, white students hung three nooses from one of the tree's branches.

The three white high school students were briefly suspended but not charged with any crimes.

The school superintendent called the incident an "adolescent prank."

District Attorney Reed Walters, breaking a long public silence Wednesday, denied racism was involved.

Walters said the suffering of the beating victim, Justin Barker, has been largely ignored. Barker was knocked unconscious and his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function that night.

"With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to him and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote," Walters said of Barker, who accompanied the prosecutor but declined to speak.

Walters also said the reason he did not prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses is because he could find no Louisiana law under which to charge them.

"I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town," Walters said.

Critics allege the cases show authorities in this predominantly white town are disproportionately harsh toward blacks.

Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, plan to address the crowd at the Jena rally in front of the courthouse today. Civil rights organizations are encouraging people to join the rally.

The Charleston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has chartered a bus to transport activists to Jena, and students at the College of Charleston have rented several minivans. The rally is expected to attract tens of thousands of people.

Abria Justice and Jamila Harper, both College of Charleston seniors, along with junior Jennifer Repede and senior Jermaine VanHannegeyn, organized a local caravan after fellow students expressed interest.

"We've been speaking with fellow classmates and they were really fired up about the rally," Harper said.

The contingent includes 25 students and a faculty chaperone.

Harper said she has been following the media coverage of the "Jena 6" for a class assignment and has been interested to see how something that began as a local story in a small town has become a national story that has captured the attention of observers with no direct stake in the outcome.

"People in Northern states don't necessarily know that this stuff still is going on in the South," she said.

The media attention and public outcry have appeared to influence town officials, Harper said.

Lisa Robinson is the faculty adviser accompanying the students. Robinson, who teaches women's studies, said she was planning to attend the rally anyway, but that, by joining the students, she could ensure that they experience firsthand what they've read in textbooks.

"It's so powerful to see undergraduates marching in unity, experiencing what they've learned in class," she said. "I know it will be a powerful experience for them."

On the Charleston NAACP-chartered bus Wednesday night, Ashley Drayton, a 19-year-old Charleston Southern University sophomore, said she has heard a lot about the era of segregation from her mother and grandparents.

"I would have never expected anything like this to happen in the 21st century," she said. She said was determined to represent her own generation in this current conflict. "Now that I have the opportunity to (go), I'm taking full advantage of it."

Dwayne Pearce, 41, runs a Charleston catering company called Juicy Steaks International. He said he's going to Jena to try to understand the larger lessons and then share those lessons with people back home.

It's not necessarily just about race, he said. It's about justice. "It's wonderful to talk about what's happening in Jena, but what are we going to do here in Charleston?" he said.

The rally is about what it means to be American, he said.

"You can't just wake up, go to work, pay the bills and call yourself an American." You have to understand the dynamics and values that help define national identity, he said.

The protest in Jena should not divide black and white, North and South. It should show people that justice is everyone's right, Pearce said.

"We must band together as Americans," he said.