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2007-09-21

Rev. Al Sharpton: Jena Rally Marks "Beginning of a 21st Century Rights Movement"

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Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights leader, former presidential candidate, founder of the National Action Network.

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Civil rights leaders from across the country, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, traveled to Jena to take part in Thursday’s march. Rev. Sharpton joins us on the phone from Baton Rouge. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights leaders from across the country, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressmember Maxine Waters, traveled to Jena to take part in Thursday’s march. This is the Reverend Al Sharpton.

REV. AL SHARPTON: This is the beginning of the 21st century’s civil rights movement. In the 20th century, we had to fight for where we sat on the bus. Now, we’ve got a fight on how we sit in a courtroom. We’ve gone from plantations to penitentiaries, where they have tried to create a criminal justice system that particularly targets our young black men.

And now we sit and stand in a city that says it’s a prank to hang a hangman’s noose, but that it is attempted murder to have a fight. We cannot sit by silently. That’s why we came, and that’s why we intend to keep coming. We are going from here to Washington, D.C. We’re going to change the federal laws. You think we brought thousands to Jena. You wait 'til we go to D.C. and bring the whole country, because there's Jenas all over America. There’s Jenas in New York. There’s Jenas in Atlanta. There’s Jenas in Florida. There’s Jenas all over Texas.

We’re going to coordinate Detroit, Cleveland, everywhere there’s a Jena. We’re going right to the nation’s capital, just like Dr. King did a generation ago. We are going back a generation later. Martin Luther King Jr. and others faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow Jr., Esq. He’s a little more educated, a little more polished, but it’s the same courthouse steps used to beat down our people. And just like our daddies beat Jim Crow, we will win the victory over James Crow Jr.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton speaking yesterday at the massive rally in Jena, Louisiana. He joins us on the phone now from Baton Rouge. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reverend Sharpton.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the latest news you have? We understand there will be a bond hearing for Mychal Bell this morning at 10:00.

REV. AL SHARPTON: There will be a bond hearing in the context of a hearing to have the judge recuse himself. And I have talked throughout the night with the attorneys. We are hopeful and prayerful, Marcus Jones and Melissa Bell, the parents of Mychal Bell, and I might say the parents of the other five, because these families have stuck together since this began a year ago, and we are hopeful that maybe some sanity will come and it could lead to Mychal’s release.

Certainly, he should not have been in jail this long. Let us remember that a week ago, it was ruled — it was overturned, that he should never have been tried as an adult, which was the first point that was made in his particular case. I got involved in June. I’ve been to see Mychal three times, and I can tell you that that was a tremendous victory in the courtroom there, thanks to his lawyer. And now, he’s still, a week later, still in jail, even after the overturning of the original adult trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, I want to go back to this issue of the judge. What do you mean you want the judge to recuse himself?

REV. AL SHARPTON: The lawyer’s point is that the judge, himself, who tried the case as an adult and who ruled that he must be tried as an adult, has now been overturned. For this judge to sit on the further motions and all this thing — has shown bias, will not, in the judgment of the attorneys — and many of us certainly agree — will not give a fair and balanced judicial outcome for Mychal. So they want a new judge to handle this and go forward into the remaining juvenile charges. That is why there’s a hearing on the judge stepping aside, as well as a bond based on the new status of Mychal Bell, being that Mychal Bell is no longer being charged as an adult.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the DA? What about Reed Walters?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Well, Reed Walker sic_] — our organization, National Action Network, filed a formal complaint about 10 days ago against him in Baton Rouge. One of the reasons I’m in Baton Rouge today, aside from the fact that Mychal may be released, is that I want to follow up on when they’re going to schedule proceedings on our complaint. Reed Walker [_sic has been, in our judgment, guilty of —

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Walters.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Reed Walker sic has been guilty —

AMY GOODMAN: Walters.

REV. AL SHARPTON: I’m sorry, Walters has been guilty of prosecutorial — and now I’m having the complaint; you’re correct — Reed Walters has been guilty of prosecutorial misconduct, in the filing that National Action Network has done. He has been the DA that was there throughout all of these incidents.

And I think one of the mistakes the media is making is they’re saying that some in Jena are saying that there was no direct connection between the fight that the Jena Six were indicted for and the hangman’s noose. Our argument is that one does not have to prove that, one way or another.

The fact is that if you have a prosecutor that decided that he could not prosecute the students, the white students that hung the nooses, because a hate crime, you must be an adult, according to Louisiana law, and these were juveniles, yet he felt that the black kids in the fight who were the same age, going to the same school, were adults. How do you have white kids juveniles, black kids adults, same age, same school? The fact that he did not, in any firm way, prosecute the young white student that had a shotgun on school grounds, threatening the black students, that there was a black student that was beaten at a party that he was invited to by a white female, and that person, the white student, was given a hundred-dollar ticket, tantamount to a traffic ticket.

So when you have a pattern of prosecutorial behavior that he will go after blacks harsher, charge them initially with attempted murder as adults for a schoolyard brawl, and relatively nothing on the side of white students, then he must at least have to come before the authorities here in Baton Rouge, which is the state capital, and explain his prosecutorial misbehavior.

Secondly, we’re going to Washington, D.C., next week, and we’re bringing some of the parents, to meet with members of Congress, and we have been assured by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, that marched with us yesterday, that she will bring us to the Judiciary Committee to try to get hearings on this. So far, Mr. Walters has not answered any questions, but he will have to answer an ethics committee here in Baton Rouge, and he will have to answer if the Judiciary Committee in the United States Congress brings him to Washington. He has no choice but to answer questions. He ought to be removed. I do not believe he can answer the questions. I do not believe that he can support his arguments. So we must, as was done a generation or two ago, before my time, when they brought the federal government in to protect our people in the South, we must do likewise in 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, we went to Jena a few weeks ago, and one of the people we talked to was a school board member. His name was Billy Fowler. He is well known in the community, a white member of the school board. And when six of the 10 members of the school board were brand new last January, it was the time that the students were expelled, and they appealed their expulsion to the school board. The school did an investigation. Three people were appointed to do the investigation. The school board members wanted to look at the investigation and decide whether to uphold the expulsion. But the school attorney told them they couldn’t look at their own school investigation, because it would jeopardize the criminal investigation. The school attorney was none other than Reed Walters, both the school attorney and also the district attorney, the man who is going after, who is prosecuting the six young African-American students.

REV. AL SHARPTON: That is part of our complaint, because what makes that — you’re absolutely correct on the facts. What makes that even more egregious is that when he told them it would interfere with the criminal proceedings, he was over the criminal proceedings, which meant, at best, he had a conflict of interest, either as the district attorney or as the attorney to the school board. And it is clear that he is the one that was determined to prosecute these young men as adults. He was determined to, in many ways, allow those that had — the initial hate crime culprits to walk away with no penalty, in terms of overturning their being expelled from school. People must remember around the country that listen to your show that these white students suffered nothing for hanging those nooses. And this whole idea that it was a prank clearly is an outrageous cover-up of a racist act. What prank? They did it only after a black student sat under that tree. This meant clearly they were responding to the presence of a black body under that tree. There is nothing prankish about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, we want to ask you to stay for a few more minutes. We’re going to break for 60 seconds, come back, and then we want to play a clip from the radio show of David Duke, the Louisiana resident who got about 60 percent of the vote in La Salle Parish. This is where Jena is. We’re talking to the Reverend Al Sharpton. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: One vocal critic of Thursday’s protest was David Duke, a Louisiana resident, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1991, white residents of Jena overwhelmingly voted for David Duke when he ran for Louisiana governor.

DAVID DUKE: This is David Duke, and this is the David Duke Internet web radio broadcast, broadcasting to the entire world with news and information of vital importance to Europeans and people of European descent, no matter where they may live around the world. Today, I have an important program. Today, the city of Jena, Louisiana, is being besieged. It’s being invaded by thousands of thugs, demanding that a specific black criminal be let out of jail — he and his cohorts who committed a vicious hate crime against a white student in that city.

The people of Jena, the people of Louisiana, and I, are not racist. We simply want justice to be done. We understand that white people in America have lost our basic civil rights. Whites are now deprived of human rights by racial discrimination in jobs, promotions, scholarships, college admittance, and in many other programs. More importantly, whites are increasingly victims of black racial violence and hate crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been listening to an excerpt of a radio program by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Reverend Al Sharpton, your response?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Well, I think, clearly, anyone that was the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, to say that he is not a racist and that those that think his way are not racist, is so absurd it doesn’t even — is not even worthy of a reply from me or comment from me. Obviously, David Duke and that whole kind of person is the problem here. You have a Klan mentality that does not feel that the white students should be in any way penalized for the violence that happened, that they perpetrated on these black students, that anything should happen to those that hung the noose.

They clearly have no problem with having a tree in a public schoolyard that only whites could sit under. Let us not forget, race was brought into this when you had a tree only for white students. And when a black student sat under the tree after questioning that, that was responded to by hangman nooses. Race did not come into this from six black students two, three months later. Race did not come into this by those of us that came here for the last several months or the tens of thousands yesterday. It was brought in by the tree and the hangman noose.

And for them to try to in any way change the facts only shows the typical demagoguery the Klan has always played to try to whip up elements in the white community that are not already with them and may not understand the facts.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, I spoke with Kelly Barker, Justin Barker’s mother. Justin Barker is the young white man who was beaten up, the white student, in the Jena schoolyard. She is manager at the Super Wal-Mart in town in Jena. I then talked with her and her husband David Barker on the phone. They were very upset about people saying "Free the Jena Six." They were saying, "Should they get no punishment for beating up our son?" Your response to that?

REV. AL SHARPTON: The response is very simple. Mychal Bell has done 10 months in jail as an adult, that even the Louisiana courts are saying he should not have been tried with. I think that, one, no one ever said that we condone schoolyard fights, but that’s what it was. And the punishment should have been a schoolyard fight. Had these young men been dealt with in juvenile court in a regular proceeding for juveniles like any other juvenile, including the white student that pulled the gun, the shotgun at the school, and the white student that beat up, I believe it was young Mr. Bailey at the party, I don’t think there would have ever been an issue, local or national.

What I think she is not mindful of is that is not the case. It is the imbalance of justice, the imbalance of the charges, that raised the outcry. So I think that if she had said, "Yes, they should be punished, but he’s done 10 months in jail as an adult, and even the courts disagree," I think she would have more credibility. But to have a young man still sitting in jail 10 months later in adult jail and to act like there’s been no punishment, I think, takes a lot of credibility away from their kind of outrage that somebody is not paying for a fight in the schoolyard with their son. No one does not in any way condone her son or any other son being beaten up, but we don’t condone Bailey getting beaten up at a party. We don’t condone young black students being confronted with a shotgun. And we don’t condone black students told you can’t sit under a tree or we’re going to hang lynch signs or lynch symbols up on that tree.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Reverend Al Sharpton. What do you know of an FBI investigation and report?

REV. AL SHARPTON: I know that we talked — Martin Luther King III, who, along with Michael Baisden, really helped to organize and call yesterday’s rally, he and I had a long lengthy conversation with the U.S. attorney who is over in that area, Mr. Washington, who is black, by the way. And he told us there was some review. I don’t think it was a detailed investigation. And he said that the review, in part, was that the state law banned the prosecution of the juveniles, which is why we didn’t understand — in terms of the hate crime, that would be — which is why we didn’t understand why these young white students were being juveniles and the black students — same age, same school — being adults. He also told us there were some other findings in their review that barred federal intervention at that time. We argued against that, and that is why we’re going to Washington to members of Congress to press that for a full Justice Department involvement investigation, not just a surface review.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Al Sharpton, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Baton Rouge. Yesterday, he was in Jena, Louisiana, where one of the largest rallies in the South was held in decades. By estimates of the police and AP and different media reports, between 40,000 and 60,000 people marching in this small Louisiana town of just over 3,000 people. Thanks for joining us.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Thank you, Amy.

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