‘Racism is violence — free the Jena Six’

Keith Page, a criminology major, listens intently to a speech at the Jena Six rally held in the Free Speech Area yesterday afternoon. The Fresno State rally was just one of many held across the United States, including in Jena, La., where six black high school students were originally charged with attemped second-degree murder. They allegedly assaulted a white student after nooses were hung from a tree on campus.
Shaun Ho / The Collegian

Picketing students lined the Free Speech Area yesterday carrying signs and repeating “free the Jena Six.”

The Fresno State protest, coordinated by Black Students United, was held in conjunction with another in Jena, La. to support six African American high school students originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.

While there were only about 30 students participating at the Fresno State event, the Jena protest in Louisiana brought together tens of thousands of marchers who walked from the LaSalle Parish Courthouse to Jena High School.

“A lot of people are saying that they didn’t know what happened,” Krystle Davis said as she handed out informational flyers to students walking by the Free Speech Area. “A lot of people don’t realize a lot of that is still going on in the South.”

Davis’ flyer detailed the events that started in September 2006 when three nooses were found hanging from the White Tree on Jena High School’s campus. It was named the White Tree because of the type of people who for years had sat under the tree. Days before, black students had asked the school administration if they could sit under the tree.

The punishment for the three white students accused of hanging the nooses was changed from expulsion to only a few days of suspension from school.

On Dec. 4, Justin Barker, a white student, was attacked by several black students for supposedly taunting them with racial slurs and supporting the hanging of the nooses. Barker was rushed to the hospital after being knocked unconscious, while six black students were arrested.

Juvenile Jesse Ray Beard, 16-year-old Mychal Bell, 17-year-old Robert Bailey, Jr., 18-year-old Carwin Jones, 17-year-old Bryant Purvis and 17-year-old Theo Shaw were all charged by LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters with second-degree murder and conspiracy. They were named the Jena Six.

“This is immoral as far as the judicial system goes how the DA pressed charges on the black students but not on the white students,” said Cherella Nicholson, treasurer of Black Students United and coordinator of Fresno State’s protest.

While all but one of the Jena Six were to be tried as an adult, so far only Bell has been before the court. A completely white jury convicted Bell of second-degree battery and conspiracy in June, meaning he could face over 20 years in prison. However, just weeks ago the conspiracy charge was dropped, and on Sept. 14 the appeals court overturned the original conviction.

Since June, all of the black students’ charges have either been reduced or sent on to juvenile court. Yet it was because Bell was to be sentenced on Sept. 20 that protests around the nation broke out to raise awareness of the Jena Six incident – including Fresno State some 2,000 miles away.

“We thought that it was important because no matter the distance, this is someone’s family member, this is someone’s next door neighbor,” Nicholson said. “I’m flabbergasted because I would’ve never thought that we’d be rallying for injustice in 2007 so far after the Civil Rights Movement.”

The main goal of the student-run, student-coordinated and student-centered event, advertised through mass e-mails, text messages and phone calls, was to get signatures on a petition to free the Jena Six and raise awareness among the Fresno State community.

“I’m not quite sure what it’s about,” junior Jessica Flippen said because she hadn’t heard anything in the news.

In fact, a majority of the students passing by the protest had no idea what the students were praying for and speaking about. Many stood listening to poems, songs and speeches in order to get more information.

“It’s good to see our students search their own value system and express what’s important to them,” Dean of Student Affairs Paul Oliaro, Ph. D., said at the event. “I hope to learn something here too.”

Cherella Nicholson, left, shares a moment with Zinzi Evans at the Jena Six rally on Thursday. Nicholson, the treasurer of Black Students United, coordinated the rally. "People need to know; they need to be educated of this situation," Nicholson said.
Shaun Ho / The Collegian

The protests and alleged discrimination is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

“It lets us revisit our history,” said Tanya Crabb, the faculty advisor for Black Students United, since some at the event even asked her what the significance of hanging a noose meant. “It’s the equivalent of burning a cross or drawing a swastika.”

While the initial event happened over a year ago and the White Tree has since been chopped down, the trials of the Jena Six are still to be heard, perhaps making this a modern-day case of inequality.

“Injustice can happen anywhere,” Crabb said, “it can happen in Fresno.”

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