(AFP) – Sep 21, 2007
JENA, United States (AFP) — In a scene reminiscent of the US civil rights movement of the 1950s, thousands marched through this small Louisiana town Thursday protesting what they say is widespread inequality and racism in the US criminal justice system.
"It's amazing," civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton told CNN as he marched with the crowd. "You see the beginning of a movement that will deal with the criminal justice system in this country."
Wearing black clothing as a sign of mourning, protestors bused in from across the country chanted "No Justice! No Peace!" and swarmed the grounds of the town's high school, many bending to touch the stump of a tree cut down after it sparked months of racial tensions.
Five decades after US schools were officially desegregated, that tree was known as the "white tree" because only white students at Jena High School sat in its shade.
A few black students tried to cross the schoolyard's invisible color line last September and sit under the "white tree." They arrived the next morning to find three nooses hanging from it, a stark symbol of the lynching which once terrorized southern blacks.
Interracial fights broke out both on and off campus and somebody lit a fire in the school after a school administrator overturned the principal's recommendation to expel the three white students responsible.
The day after classes resumed in December, six black students beat a white student to the point where he lost consciousness, but was well enough to go to a school event that night.
In most of the incidents, the white students escaped any criminal charges. But the students who became known as the Jena Six were charged with attempted murder, although the charges were eventually reduced.
Civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson told the crowd that there is something wrong with a country where there are more black youths in jail than in college, and where drugs favored by blacks carry significantly stiffer penalties than those favored by whites.
"The Department of Justice in Washington's gone silent," Jackson told the crowd. "We are intent to have hearings on the matter of criminal justice in Jena because there is a Jena in every town, a Jena in every state."
Critics here accuse the local district attorney of racism for failing to hand out equal punishment to the white students who started fights with their black peers.
"It's not equal," said Tina Jones, the mother of one of the Jena Six.
"The black people get the harsher extent of the law whereas white people get a slap on the wrist," she told CNN.
"I hope the DA (district attorney) will wake up and realize that he's doing the wrong thing and to release these kids and let them go."
But LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters said the case "is not and never has been about race."
He denounced the students who hung the nooses from a tree last September but said he was unable to prosecute them because it did not qualify as a hate-crime -- a conclusion also reached by the region's federal prosecutor.
"This was an awful act," Walters said. "It was not a prank but a vicious and crude statement ... The people who did it should be ashamed of themselves and mortified at the havoc they have unleashed on this community."
President George W. Bush said on Thursday: "The events in Louisiana have saddened me. And I understand the emotions.
"The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there. And all of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
Uneven sentencing for blacks and whites is common across the country, according to a report by the New York-based Urban League.
African-American men are three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested: 24.4 percent of blacks arrested in the United States in 2005 ended up in jail compared with 8.3 percent of white men.
They also receive jail sentences that are on average 15 percent longer than whites convicted of the same crime.
The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault: black men were sentenced to an average of 48 months in jail, which is 33 percent longer than the average sentence of 36 months received by white men, according to the League's annual State of Black America report.
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