JENA, La. – The Rev. Al Sharpton met with a jailed black teenager whose arrest in the beating of a white classmate has sparked racial protests expected to culminate Thursday with thousands of protesters converging on this little central Louisiana town.
"It breaks our hearts to see him in handcuffs and leg shackles, but his spirit is high," Sharpton said after his courthouse meeting with Mychal Bell, one of the group of teenagers dubbed the "Jena Six" by their supporter.
Bell and four others originally faced trial as adults on attempted second-degree murder charges in connection with a December attack that left white classmate Justin Barker bloodied and unconscious. (Another teen was booked as a juvenile and charges have not been make public.)
As the teens have come up for arraignment, charges have been reduced but critics of the local prosecutor are still crying foul. Bell, the only one of the six tried so far, was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery and faced a possible prison sentence of 15 years.
Thursday's rally and march was to have coincided with his sentencing, however a state appeal court threw out his conviction last week, saying Bell, 16 at the time of the beating, should have been tried as a juvenile. The rally is to continue, however. And Bell remains jailed while the District Attorney prepares an appeal of the latest court ruling.
Sharpton, an organizer of the march that could draw tens of thousands from around the country to a town with a population of about 3,500, said Bell wants to make sure the rally is peaceful. "He doesn't want anything done that would disparage his name — no violence, not even a negative word," Sharpton said.
Thursday's march is to begin at 7 a.m. and will pass the stump of a tree that became the focal point of the current racial tensions.
The tree on the campus of Jena High School had been a gathering spot for white students. After a black student asked school officials if blacks could sit there too, three nooses were found hanging from the tree.
Three white students were suspended for hanging the nooses. Interracial fights reportedly followed, leading to the December school yard attack on Barker. During the resulting uproar, local authorities had the tree cut down.
Sharpton said there also will be an 11 a.m. rally in nearby Alexandria, about an hour's drive from Jena.
Schools in Jena will close Thursday and many businesses in the town of 2,900 also say they will shut down, concerned about whether the march will remain peaceful.
Shirley Martin, whose daughter, Tina Norms, decided to close Cafe Martin, said she doubts it will open Thursday, even though the rally is expected to end by midmorning.
"That sounds fine. Maybe we can get our town back in order for us to work the next day," she said.
Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also are expected to attend the march.