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Sproul Rally Attacks Racism In Louisiana Beating Cases

By Angela Rowen, Special to the Planet
Friday September 21, 2007

About 200 people congregated at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza Thursday to show support for six black teenagers who they say were unfairly charged in the beating of a white student in a small, mostly white town in Louisiana. 

The rally and march on campus coincided with a demonstration in Jena, La., where 50,000 people gathered to protest the treatment of the so-called “Jena Six” and to call attention to racial inequality within the criminal justice system. 

“I’m angry,” said Patrick Chris-topher, a member of the Cal Basketball Team and one of the speakers at the Berkeley rally. “As a black male, I am mad that we are still classified as savage beasts.” 

Christopher’s statement re-flects the belief held by many that the black students were treated more harshly than their white classmates, who were also involved in racially charged incidents over the course of four months. 

The strife between white and black students at Jena High School began intensifying last August, when several black high school students sat under a tree on campus that was deemed “whites only.” The next day, nooses were hung from the tree, sparking black students to stage sit-ins at the site.  

Racial tensions in the town mounted, with a black student being beaten by a white classmate in late November, and a white adult brandishing a shotgun during a verbal dispute with two black teens, who wrestled the gun away from the man and ran away. None of the whites were charged in the incidents.  

The two black youths in the shotgun case, however, were charged with theft. 

The feud climaxed in December, when a schoolyard fight between blacks and whites left one white student, Justin Barker, unconscious for about a minute and badly bruised. He was released from the hospital the same day, and was well enough to attend the junior ring ceremony that night. 

The white students involved in the brawl were suspended. The six black students—Robert Baily, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Mychal Bell—were charged with second-degree attempted murder, and were slapped with bonds of $70,000 to $138,000. Most of the teens spent time in jail, and all but one of the students was able to post bail. 

The charges have since been dropped to aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, felonies that carry up to 15 years in prison. Mychal Bell, whose case is the first and only one to go to trial so far, was not able to make bail before his conviction in June and has been incarcerated for nine months. His conviction has since been overturned by a Third Circuit judge who ruled that he should not have been charged as an adult.  

But the District Attorney has refused to set a bond or to release him, saying he plans to bring him up on the same charges in juvenile court.  

On Thursday, Bell’s attorney, Louis Scott, filed a writ of habeus corpus on the grounds that he is being held illegally because his conviction has been overturned. Scott says the court should set bond or, at the very least, send Bell to juvenile hall. Meanwhile, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who spoke at Thursday’s demonstration, urged federal intervention on Bell’s behalf. 

Maya Shallcross, a Berkeley High School student who traveled to Jena in a bus ride organized by Revolution Books, spoke to us while sitting at the site of the “whites only” tree, which has since been cut down.  

“It wasn’t enough for me to walk out of class and attend the Berkeley rally,” she said “That the black kids would not get suspended but instead be brought up on criminal charges is completely wrong. We should still be safe from things like this in the year 2007.” 

Shallcross’s sister, Sanghia, who also took the trip down, said she was struck by the number of people showing support for the cause.  

“The town is just flooded with people, mostly wearing black,” she said, adding that she didn’t witness much animosity from the locals in the town, which has a population of 3,500 and is 85 percent white. “When we were driving in, we saw (white) girls holding signs saying ‘We are not Racist.’” 

At the Berkeley rally, students wore green and black to show their solidarity: green to represent the growth of the black community, and black to represent mourning and strength. Many at the rally echoed national leaders like Jackson and Al Sharpton, who say the Jena Six cause will re-ignite the civil rights movement. 

Derrick Smith, a youth program director at Oakland Technical High School and one of speakers at the rally, said “For those who say the noose is just a symbol are coming from a place of passivity. It is not just a symbol. It is a declaration of war.”