An estimated 20,000 people will head to Jena, Louisiana, this week to protest… what, exactly? The rally is planned for September 20, the date on which Mychal Bell had been scheduled to be sentenced for attempted second-degree battery. The 17-year-old high school football star, who a year ago was being eyed as a top prospect for Division I scholarships, has been in jail since December for answering a classmate’s racial taunts with a punch in the face. But on Friday, pre-empting a public outcry against the impending sentence of up to fifteen years, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals responded to an emergency writ filed by Bell’s counsel and vacated his conviction.
The rally is going ahead as planned, but it’s not immediately clear how its message has changed to reflect the court’s ruling. Although the occasion will now be a sort of victory rally, the case is far from resolved. Bell remains in jail, and the prosecutor, District Attorney Reed Walters, has stated his intention to press on with an endgame of appeals. Plus, the other five black students who were involved in the fight–Robert Bailey Jr., Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Jesse Beard–are still awaiting trial on similar charges. None of their cases will be directly affected by Friday’s ruling, which addressed the jurisdictional problem of trying Bell, a juvenile at the time of the fight, as an adult. (Beard is being prosecuted as a juvenile; the other four of the so-called Jena Six were 17, the age of majority in Louisiana.)
"This is a moment to show that people are in it for the long haul," says James Rucker, executive director of Color of Change. One of the first activists to enter the fray, Rucker is coordinating bus trips to Jena–a rural town of 3,000 mostly white residents–and encouraging members who can’t make it to organize locally. His web-savvy organization has collected more than $130,000 for the Jena Six Defense Fund and more than 212,000 signatures for a petition demanding that Walters drop all charges and asking Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to intervene. "If this kind of pressure weren’t there," he says, "the process would be going much slower, and it would be more of a crapshoot as far as the results are concerned."
Louisiana NAACP president Ernest Johnson, who is helping to organize Thursday’s march in conjunction with a coalition of civil rights groups–including Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference–says he has received more calls since Friday’s ruling than in the days leading up to it. As news about the case spreads, he explains, the scope of the campaign is broadening. "I think people are coming to show strength and unity against these types of injustices," he says. "They’re coming to send a message to other Jenas throughout the country. To the Jena in New York, the Jena in Washington, in California–there are a lot of Jenas out there."
Rich with symbolism and iconic images, the case of the Jena Six certainly makes for a compelling parable of racial injustice in America. And as more and more people identify with the story, its meaning becomes more and more personal. Given the number of Americans who feel they have a stake in this case, it’s no wonder that presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have issued statements expressing their concern.