It might seem unlikely that New Haven residents would care about the local politics of small-town Louisiana.
But at a rally yesterday for the “Jena Six” in front of the New Haven Federal Courthouse, city residents joined what is now a nationwide movement to reverse the legal fate of six black teens charged with a Dec. 4, 2006 attempted murder in Jena, La..
The protest — spearheaded by the Connecticut chapter of the Answer Coalition and endorsed by the Yale National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Connecticut affiliate of the National Lawyers Guild, Efficacy and Unidad Latina en Accion — was designed to bring awareness to the case as pre-trial hearings get under way, organizers said.
In addition to attempted murder, the six high school students are being accused of conspiracy to commit murder and other lesser charges for beating up a white student. Jena has faced other racially charged incidents, such as white students hanging nooses from a schoolyard tree in the past.
The protestors in the case were attempting to bring attention to what they deemed excessive charges tainted by racial prejudice, event organizers said.
“What the boys did was wrong,” said Barbara Fair, a member of People Against Injustice who spoke at the protest. “But you have to look past that. [The Jena Six] made their own justice when they couldn’t find it elsewhere.”
Khalil Iskarous, a member of immigrants-rights group Unidad Latina en Accion, said he thinks many people do not realize the extent to which racism is still prevalent in American society.
“I am here in solidarity with the boys who are being unfairly treated,” he said. “They defended themselves against a racist attack.”
But other Yale students were not as supportive of the protestors’ cause.
“I think it’s a tragedy that the Jena Six are viewed as the good guys in this protest,” Michael Boyce ’11 said. “I think in the ’60s the heroes of this story would have been the other students who we know handled the situation more peacefully.”
Mychal Bell, one of the Jena Six, was tried and convicted in June of aggravated battery and conspiracy. In September, over 10,000 demonstrators rallied in Jena, filling the streets and bringing the town to a halt. On Sept. 27, Bell was released on bail.
Some protestors interviewed said such events can help affect social and political change.
“Getting on the street can make a real difference,” said Deborah Malatesta, an organizer for the Answer Coalition, as she stood in front of a sign reading “Stop the Legal Lynching.”
The public demonstrations seem to be influencing people, said Liz Gionfriddo, a student at Connecticut’s Middlesex Community College. Gionfriddo circulated a petition at her school to bring justice to the Jena Six, she said.
“The response [to the petition] was great for two reasons: first, most people knew about the situation,” she said. “And second, most people were willing to sign.”
Many protestors interviewed said they think it is important to speak out on issues like the Jena 6, given that New Haven has its own set of race-centered issues.
One protestor at the event held a sign that read, “We all live in Jena.”
Several Yale students who joined the protest said they think it was particularly meaningful to be discussing the situation in Jena considering the racist graffiti that Davenport College dining hall employees found at the York Street entrance to Pierson College on Tuesday morning.
They said that earlier this October, posters put up on Old Campus to bring attention to the “Jena 6” were quickly removed.
But as of now, it is unclear whether the national attention will affect the course of the trials, Fair said.
“I just want people to stay in the movement to continue to fight for justice and a better justice system,” she said.
In addition to New Haven, demonstrations took place in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Chicago, Ill.; Boston, Mass.; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Reno, Nev.; Seattle, Wash.; Los Angeles, Calif.; and San Francisco, Calif.