BY DIANA BANKS
Four Harvard Law School students attended a rally in Jena, Louisiana to protest against the treatment of the “Jena 6,” six black students charged with the assault of a white teenager after a string of racially-charged events that have drawn national attention. The rally was one of the largest civil rights gatherings in recent history, with nearly 20,000 people in attendance. Students and other supporters came in from all over the country, including as far away as Alaska, California, Maine, and Michigan.
The charges against the six students stemmed from the December 2006 assault of Justin Barker, a Jena High School student. However, the problems in Jena leading up to the assault began with an August 2006 incident where black students sat under a “white tree” at the overwhelmingly white high school, and the next day, nooses were found hanging from the tree. In the ensuing months, there were interracial fights at the school, an alleged threat against a group of black students by the parish district attorney, and a confrontation between students that involved a shotgun.
The rally, which was held on September 20th, was planned to coincide with the sentencing hearing of Mychal Bell, the only one of the Jena 6 to face trial thus far. Bell was sixteen years old at the time of Barker’s assault, and was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy in a controversial trial where the prosecutor argued that tennis shoes used to kick the victim constituted a “deadly weapon,” and Bell’s public defender called no witnesses in his defense. After his conviction, he faced up to 22 years in prison.
On September 14th, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bell’s conviction on the grounds that he should have been tried as a juvenile, and the sentencing hearing did not go forward. However, the rally went on as scheduled as a show of support for the six young men involved.
“There was such a positive spirit of pride and determination in the crowd,” said Kelley Coleman, a rally attendee and the president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “People traveled from as far away as Alaska just to be there to show how important it is that these six young men be treated fairly. Everyone seemed interested in bringing to the light the issue of disparate treatment in the criminal justice system.”
Many at the rally were also interested in securing the release and dismissal of charges for the six students. But for the HLS students, who attended as representatives of the Black Law Students Association and on the generosity of the Dean of Students office, the objective was to be involved in making a larger statement than just the case at hand.
“As a student of the law, I felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against a situation in which I feel our legal system has been abused,” said Deanne Millison, a 3L. “My only hope was to make our presence felt in the community of Jena and the nation as a whole. We wanted to raise awareness of the injustices in the criminal system to those in power to change the system.”
“I do not know what will happen to Mychal Bell or the rest of the Jena 6,” continued Millison, “but I was proud that a large, diverse sample of our community in such a short time period, for a worthy cause, and in the midst of racist local citizens, was able to peacefully mobilize and make our presence felt.”
The President of the National Black Law Students Association, Eddie Koen, Jr., a third year student at Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, said “the Jena Rally is significant because it validates notions of rampant abuses in politically driven justice systems across the country. Each state has a Jena-like city or justice system. These cases represent human error and embody the inflexibility and illusion of prosecutorial discretion. It diminishes the principles of mercy and fairness, exposing the world to the subversive race-based ‘tough on crime’ campaigns that are commonplace in southern politics.”
The HLS students felt that the rally was peaceful, if slightly disorganized, and were pleasantly surprised by the overall friendliness of Jena’s residents. Residents were observed standing outside of their homes, watching the procession of cars and buses. Some were taking pictures, and many appeared to be in polite conversation with rally attendees.
However, there were signs of Jena’s underlying tension. On the way into Jena during daybreak, the students observed a beautifully landscaped home and admired its architecture. Leaving Jena that afternoon, they noticed that the homeowners had hung numerous Confederate flags all over the property.
Despite the minor grievances, all four students were happy to have attended.
“By going to Jena, I hoped to raise awareness of the issues presented by this case,” said 3L Cynthia Pullom, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. “The events that led to the march in Jena often go overlooked. as they often happen in small towns. Holding the rally sent a message what happens in small towns, especially in the South, will not go unnoticed. People still believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Andrea Saenz contributed to the reporting of this article.