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Student walkouts show anger over Jena 6

By Nicole Colson | October 5, 2007 | Page 1

STUDENTS ON dozens of campuses across the country walked out of classes October 1 in support of the Jena 6--six Black high school students in Jena, La., who have been targeted for prosecution after a series of racist provocations and attacks that began when nooses were hung on a tree at Jena High School.

People across the country, outraged by this overt case of Jim Crow racism, have come together to show solidarity with the Jena 6--most spectacularly with a protest September 20 in Jena that drew 50,000 people, with many traveling halfway across the country.

In the wake of that demonstration, hip-hop artists Mos Def, M1 and Talib Kweli, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Change the Game, the National Hip Hop Political Convention and activists from 25 college campuses called for the National Student Walk-Out on October 1.

"The prosecution of these young men symbolizes a terrible miscarriage of justice, by punishing students who opposed segregation in their schools and disregarding the threatening acts of others who advocate it," read the call to action.

What you can do

For information on the case and ways to show your support, go to the Free the Jena 6 Web site. You can sign a petition for the Jena 6 and find other activist resources at the Color of Change Web site.

Alan Bean of Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization that has worked on cases of injustice in the South, gave an interview to the International Socialist Review on "Racism in Jena: The new Jim Crow."


DeShawn Davis, a senior at NYU and member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, explained to Democracy Now, "In the high schools, we are asking for students, as well as those who are not in academic institutions at the time, to dress in all black, to show solidarity and show support for the trials of the Jena Six. In colleges, we are asking students to walk out...After that, we are asking them to mobilize."

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THE CASE of the Jena 6 has become a lightning rod for simmering bitterness at racism in the U.S. The six were expelled from school following a fight with a white student--and initially slapped with a charge of attempted murder. Mychal Bell, the first of the six to come to trial, was convicted by an all-white jury.

But exposure of the case over the Internet and in the media and the beginnings of protest put pressure on local and state officials. Just before the September 20 demonstration, a state appeals court overturned the only remaining conviction against Bell.

And one week after the demonstration, Bell was finally released from jail after being granted bail. "He goes home because a lot of people left their home and stood up for him," Rev. Al Sharpton told reporters as Bell walked out of jail.

When Bell's battery conviction was overturned--on the grounds that he had been improperly charged as an adult--District Attorney Reed Walters nevertheless vowed to retry him as an adult.

In an article in the New York Times, Walters defended his actions, including failing to prosecute or contact the Justice Department about the hanging of nooses at school. But with pressure increasing--including from lawmakers like Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco--Walters gave in and said he would file juvenile charges.

The fight for the Jena 6 has taken on renewed urgency in the face of a racist backlash directed at the families of the six. After the September 20 protest, a neo-Nazi group published the addresses and phone numbers of some of the families on its Web site, inviting its sympathizers to find them and "drag them out of the house."

When Richard Barrett, leader of the white supremacist "Nationalist Movement" in Mississippi, asked Jena Mayor Murphy McMillan to "set aside some place for those opposing the colored folks," McMillan responded, "I do appreciate what you are trying to do. Your moral support means a lot."

The anger at the plight of the six--and more generally at racism in communities across the U.S.--could be seen in the walkouts.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a multiracial crowd of 250 students, faculty and community members rallied on the student union steps October 1, and then marched through the streets, handing out Jena 6 fliers to stopped cars and chanting "No justice, no peace" and "Free the Jena 6."

The rally ended at the Amherst Center green, where the crowd swelled to more than 300. An open mic featured students and community members speaking about the importance of continuing both the fight for the Jena 6 and the struggle against racism throughout the U.S.

In New York, more than 150 people rallied at Columbia University at a protest called by the Black Student Organization (BSO) and other groups. The students connected the racism against the Jena 6 to recent anti-Muslim racist graffiti that appeared in a campus bathroom stall following a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"The events that took place in Jena came out of a larger climate of racism and intolerance, a climate that exists at this university as well," said the BSO in a statement. "Whether it is nooses on a tree in Jena or graffiti on a bathroom stall at Columbia, the pillars of systemic oppression--bigotry, exploitation and complacency--are not acceptable."

In Austin, Texas, more than 100 students marched and rallied. Students walked out of classes at the University of Texas and marched to the State Capitol building, where they were joined by students from Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college. In addition to calling for justice for the Jena 6, speakers presented a list of local demands, including abolition of the death penalty in Texas and an end to abusive practices by Austin police.

In San Francisco, more than 40 people turned out for a walkout and silent march called by the Black Student Union at San Francisco State University. "It's bigger than the Jena 6, Sean Bell, Hurricane Katrina," said one participant. "It's not only African Americans, it's Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, poor whites."

Other walkouts were reported at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Louisville in Kentucky, DePaul University in Chicago and other campuses.

Dustin Ashley Cote, Mike Corwin, Eric Heim, Amanda Maystead and Jennifer Roesch contributed to this report.

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