Washington Spurred by the Internet and a nationwide urban radio program by a popular disc jockey, tens of thousands of people are expected to descend on a sleepy rural Louisiana town to protest what they say are excessive criminal charges against six black teenagers involved in a schoolyard brawl.
About 500 tour buses bearing thousands of riders were scheduled to depart from cities across the United States in the wee hours today for Jena, La., about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans. They will join others who will travel by airplane, automobile caravans and motorcycle convoys in what organizers say is a protest reminiscent of the Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
The demonstration was originally to coincide with the sentencing of one of the defendants. But, even though a state appeals court dismissed his battery conviction last week, organizers decided to go ahead with the rally. In addition, they asked people across the country to dress in black today to show solidarity with the demonstrators.
At first, organizers saw the rally as a protest to the sentencing of Mychal Bell, 17, who was tried as an adult and convicted of aggravated second-degree battery by an all-white jury in June. But last week, a state appeals court threw out that conviction, saying Bell should have been tried in a juvenile court. He was 16 at the time of the altercation, had spent a year in jail and faced up to 15 more years in a state prison.
In December, Bell and five other black teenagers - Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theodore Shaw and Jesse Beard - beat up a white student at Jena High School, knocking him out and blackening one of his eyes.
The victim, Justin Barker, was treated at a hospital and released after two hours. He attended a class-ring ceremony later that night. His attackers were charged by prosecutor Reed Walters, who is white, with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and aggravated battery. The charges were reduced to conspiracy and battery after civil rights activists protested.