Jena 6 case sparks student organizing in Twin Cities


When tens of thousands marched for racial justice in Jena, Louisiana on September 20, Reverend Al Sharpton called it “the beginning of a new civil rights movement.” On November 2, more than fifty Twin Cities residents gathered in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis to call for an end to racism in the nation’s legal system and other institutions.

Organized by the ad hoc Twin Cities Jena 6 Solidarity Action Group, the demonstration drew a diverse group of participants and celebrated the talents of some passionate young activists. Tottiana Adams and Pierre Fulford, both students at St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), performed a poem that asked the crowd to repeat “Let Freedom Ring” and “Let Justice Reign” in call and response style. Chantel Winn, another HSRA student sang a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Local hip-hop artist, Alex Leonard then gave a detailed description of the events that recently thrust six African-American teenagers and the small town of Jena into the national spotlight. The now-famous “Jena 6” were arrested for a fight that sent a white student to the hospital last December. The student was treated and attended a school dance later that evening. The beating followed a number of racially charged incidents set off by an act usually considered a hate crime. In early September, three nooses were found hanging from a tree on school grounds the morning after a group of black students chose to sit beneath it. Traditionally, the area had been a gathering place for whites only.

“Those students sat under that tree as an act of protest,” said Leonard. “It was no accident. They chose to be there to protest the racism that is alive and well in 2007.”

The response of school officials and the local district attorney outraged many Americans who view the Jena 6 case as an example of institutionalized racism. The white students who hung the nooses were suspended from school and not charged with any crime. The district attorney referred to the incident as “a prank” and warned black students that he could “end their lives with the stroke of a pen” for during a school assembly following the incident. The six black students involved in the fight were expelled from school and initially charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

According to Leonard, the Jena 6 case is just one example of racism that exists all over the country. “Recently, a noose was found hanging on an African-American professor’s door at Columbia University,” said Leonard. “Just this week, four racist threats were found by black students at the University of St. Thomas in a period of 36 hours. These incidents show that racists are feeling emboldened enough to come out of hiding. It’s up to us to push them back into hiding.”

Flyers passed out by rally organizers included some startling statistics about race and the criminal justice system in Minnesota. According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy group, Minnesota is the fourth worst state in the country for racial disparity in incarceration rates. People of color account for 11% of the state’s population but make up 45% of the prison population. According to the Council on Crime and Justice, blacks are 15 times more likely to be arrested than whites in Minnesota. Results of a 2002 study on racial profiling in traffic stops showed that Minnesota law enforcement stopped and searched people of color at a greater rate than whites, yet found contraband on people of color at lower rates than in searches of whites.

Cheryl Morgan-Spencer of the Minneapolis Urban League encouraged rally participants to take action against injustice everywhere. “As along as we don’t stand up, the bullies on the playground will keep having their way,” she said. “We had a lot of people at our first meeting. We need folks to stay committed so we can plan our next steps.”

The Twin Cities Jena 6 Solidarity Action Group is having their next meeting on November 13 at 7:00 in the Minneapolis Urban League building.

On Saturday, November 10, the Triple Rock Nightclub in Minneapolis will host a hip hop benefit show featuring local performers. Organized by Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Minnesota and the Black Liberation Affairs Committee at Macalester college, all proceeds will benefit the Jena 6 Legal Defense Fund. The show begins at 9:30 pm. Cost is $6 at the door.