Thousands rally to support 'Jena 6', Sept. 20, 2007

JENA, Louisiana (CNN) -- Thousands of protesters gathered in Jena, Louisiana, Thursday to show support for the "Jena 6," six black teens charged in the beating of a white classmate.

Thursday was the day Mychal Bell expected to find out his punishment for his alleged role in the school beating.

"This is a march for justice. This is not a march against whites or against Jena," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and one of the protest organizers.

Sharpton called Jena the beginning of the 21st century civil rights movement.

"[The Rev. Martin Luther] King went to Selma. That wasn't the only place you couldn't vote. That was the point of action," Sharpton said. "They went to Birmingham. That wasn't the only place we didn't have public accommodations. It was the point of action.

"Jena is a point of action for the Jenas everywhere," Sharpton said.

"There's a Jena in every state," the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the crowd in Jena on Thursday morning.

JoAnn Scales, who brought her three teenage children on a two-day bus journey from Los Angeles to Jena, made the same point.

"The reason I brought my children is because it could have been one of them" involved in an incident like the one in Jena.

"If this can happen to them [the Jena 6] , it can happen to anyone," Scales said.

Ondra Hathaway was on the bus with Scales.

"If this young man (Bell) was railroaded to do time as an adult, how many more people has that happened to?" she said.

At 8 a.m. ET, a Louisiana state patrol officer said five tour buses were being allowed into the town every 12 minutes. That resulted in buses lined up as far as the eye could see in both directions on Route 49.

As the crowd grew in Jena, they found most of the local population gone, reported CNN's Tony Harris. The town's businesses had shut down, he said.

Demonstrators are protesting what they say are excessive criminal charges and bond amounts for the teens.

Bell, 17, has been in prison since his arrest in December.

"It breaks our heart to see him handcuffed and in leg shackles," Sharpton said. "But his spirit is high. He has said that he is very encouraged to know that thousands are coming to this town to stand up for him and his five friends." Watch how town prepares for flood of protesters »

The teens were initially charged with attempted murder after they allegedly knocked out Justin Barker -- a white classmate -- while stomping and kicking him during a school fight on December 4, 2006.

Barker was taken to a hospital with injuries to both eyes and ears, as well as cuts. His right eye had blood clots, said his mother, Kelli Barker.

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters urged the world not to forget the victim in the case.

"The injury done to him and threats to his survival have become less than a footnote," Walters said Wednesday.

"This case has not, never has been about race. It's about finding justice for an innocent victim, holding people accountable for their actions. That is what it's about," he said.

Five of the black teens were charged as adults. Bell was the first to face felony charges.

Advocates of the Jena 6 said the story actually began three months earlier, when three white students hung nooses from a tree on campus. The white students were suspended from school but didn't face criminal charges. The protesters argue they should have been charged with a hate crime.

Thursday morning, demonstrators walked to the high school, asking to see the tree where nooses were hung. They couldn't; the tree has been chopped down.

Charges against Bell were reduced, as were charges against Carwin Jones and Theodore Shaw, who have not yet come to trial.

Robert Bailey, Bryant Purvis and an unidentified juvenile remain charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Bell, who was 16 at the time of the fight, was to have been sentenced on battery and conspiracy convictions Thursday. But a district judge earlier this month tossed out his conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree battery, saying the matter should have been handled in the juvenile court.

Last week, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles, Louisiana, did the same with Bell's battery conviction.

But a Louisiana appeals court ruled Tuesday it was too early to consider a motion to free Bell from prison.

Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney who reviewed investigations into the nooses and the beating said he believes the incidents -- though likely symptoms of racial tension -- were not related.

"A lot of things happened between the noose hanging and the fight occurring, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the fight itself had no connection," said Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

"There were three months of high school football in which they all played football together and got along fine, in which there was a homecoming court, in which there was the drill team, in which there were parades," Washington added.

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