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Thousands protest racism in small US southern town

By dpa news     Sep 20, 2007 in World
After a year of escalating racial tension in a small southern town, thousands of civil rights activists from around the country crowded the streets of Jena, Louisiana, Thursday in protest of the prosecution of six young, black men.
Top civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led the marches through the streets, where shopowners told broadcast media they had shut down for the day to prevent trouble.
The outpouring of support for six black students charged in the beating of a white student was being compared to the massive marches of the 1960s lead by Martin Luther King Jr.
The protests focussed on a series of racial events at Jena High School that began in September 2006 when a black student sat under a tree outside the school known as the "white tree," where white students gathered, according to broadcast and print media reports and activists' postings on the internet.
Events climaxed in December 2006 with the beating of a white student by the Jena 6, as the black students are known. They were arrested as adults for conspiracy to commit second degree murder.
Many reports point out that the white victim's injuries were not serious, as he attended a school event that evening, but the local prosecutor disputes that line of reasoning.
In between September and May, white students hung three nooses on the tree, symbolic of the US South's sordid racist past when vigilante groups lynched innocent blacks in a campaign of racist terror.
Although the students were initially expelled from school, the superintendent revoked the suspension, dismissing the noose-hanging as a teenage prank.
But tensions simmered during the fall of 2006. Someone set the high school on fire. White students beat up a black student at a party and a white man pulled a gun on three black students who disarmed him and were later arrested for stealing the gun, reports said.
Popular African-American disc jockey Michael Baisden has been credited with rallying nationwide support to the cause using his programme and the internet.
In comments to the Washington Post he explained the interest in the demonstration saying, "This could be their sons. People have personalized this in a way they haven't since the civil rights movement."
In June 2006, one of the Jena 6, Mychal Bell, who was 17 at the time, was convicted of second degree battery by an all-white jury and faced 15 or more years in prison, the newspaper reported.
Last week, the conviction was thrown out by a state appeals court that said he should have been tried as a juvenile. The other five students are still awaiting trial.
District Attorney Reed Walters told reporters this week that the white victim of the beating, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious in December and his face was badly swollen, even if he did attend the school function.
"With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to (Barker) and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote," Walters was quoted as saying by the New Orleans newspaper, the Times Picayune.
But Walters also condemned the hanging of the nooses at the school as an incendiary act, and regretted he could not find a Louisiana law to charge them.
"I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town," Walters was quoted as saying.
Officials at Jena Town Hall did not answer the phones on Thursday during the protests. dpa pr aw