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Rally in Jena, La., Protests Students' Treatment

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

CROWD: Enough is enough. Enough is enough. Enough is enough.

MONTAGNE: Enough is enough. That's the chant of thousands of protesters who are marching today in the small Louisiana town of Jena. They've gathered to show their support for a group of black teenagers who have come to be known as the Jena Six.

The teens were charged in the beating of a white classmate. And the case has become a rallying cry for civil rights activists who say that the initial charges against the teens showed racial bias.

NPR's Audie Cornish is in Jena and joins us on the line. And Audie, where exactly are you and what can you see?

AUDIE CORNISH: Right now I'm standing on the lawn of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, which is the main courthouse here in Jena, Louisiana. And the street, the entire city block around it, is packed with people, all wearing black T-shirts, and most of those shirts say, Free the Jena Six, or Support the Jena Six.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is something of a saga that began rather simply. It began in an assembly at Jena High School last year when a black student asked the principal if he could sit under an oak tree where it was shady, but where white students had traditionally gathered. Tell us what followed.

CORNISH: Well, what followed was the next day after black students sat under that three, there were three hangman's nooses dangling from one of the branches, and it sparked real tension and complaints from parents. The white students involved were given a small suspension instead of an expulsion as the school principal had originally recommended. And that set off a semester's worth of little fights on and off-campus, almost all racially charged. But to people here it seemed that when white students were in a position to be charged, they were not. When black students get into an altercation, they're charged with what seems like a large penalty.

MONTAGNE: And then, Audie, it escalated from there pretty dramatically.

CORNISH: It did. There were lots of little racial - racially charged little fights on and off-campus. And then in December, one of these fights ended with a white student going to the hospital. That student is okay, but the six boys who were named as his assailants were charged with attempted murder.

MONTAGNE: And where does that case stand now?

CORNISH: Well, only one of the so-called Jena Six has actually stood trial. During the trial, the local prosecutors ended up backing off of the attempted murder charge and bumping it down to battery. That is what Mychal Bell, the student who stood trial was convicted for. And then lastly week a state appeals court overturned that conviction, saying that he should never had been tried as an adult. So now the local prosecutor can try and appeal this decision again. He can try his case again in juvenile court, and that still leaves the question of what about the other battery charges that are still facing the other five students involved.

MONTAGNE: Although none of that - the reduction of some charges and a conviction overturned doesn't seem to have affected today's protest.

CORNISH: No, not at all. I think that the protesters here have very much made it clear that this case is supposed - is just one incident of something they believe happens all over America. And one quote I've seen on almost every T-shirt is a Dr. Martin Luther King quote: injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And that seems to be the motto of the demonstrators here, who are saying that what is happening in Jena, the fact that there's limelight on it may be what's affecting the case, may be what led to the charges being (unintelligible) they want keep that spotlight on this case while also drawing attention to the issue at large of young black youths in the (unintelligible) system.

MONTAGNE: Audie, thanks very much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Audie Cornish talking to us from Jena, Louisiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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