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As Civil Rights Activists Converge from Across the Nation, Louisiana Prosecutor Breaks Public Silence to Defend Case Against Jena Six

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Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to gather today in the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, for a rally to support six African-American students — known as the Jena Six — who were initially charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating a white student in a schoolyard fight. On Wednesday, the Reverend Al Sharpton spoke after meeting with the jailed Jena Six member Mychal Bell. District Attorney Reed Walters also broke his public silence to defend his prosecution of the Jena Six. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to gather today in the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, for a rally to support six African-American students known as the Jena Six, who were initially charged with attempted murder for beating a white student in a schoolyard fight. Dozens of solidarity protests are also taking place today on college campuses and towns across the country.

The story of the Jena Six began at the start of the school year last year, when an African-American student asked at a school assembly if he could sit down under a schoolyard tree unofficially reserved for white students. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree’s broad, leafy branches. African-American students protested, gathering under the tree. Soon after, the district attorney, Reed Walters, came to the school with the police, threatening, “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”

No white students were ever charged with hanging the nooses. But when the six African-American students beat up a white student, the district attorney initially charged them with attempted murder.

On Wednesday, civil rights activists from across the nation began gathering in Jena. The Reverend Al Sharpton met with one of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, who has been held in jail since December.

REV. AL SHARPTON: This is not about politics. It’s not about black against white. This is about equal protection under the law and justice. We spent about 20, 25 minutes just now with Mychal. It breaks our heart to see him handcuffed and in leg shackles, but his spirit is high. He has said that he is very encouraged to know that thousands of people have come into this little town to stand up for him and his five friends. He asked me to communicate that he is praying, and, with the grace of God, he will rejoin us soon. But he does not want anything to be done in any way tomorrow to disparage his name with violence or even a word that is negative. This is about standing up for justice. This is not about being against anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: District Attorney Reed Walters also broke his silence Thursday. He held a press conference surrounded by police officers and supporters, including Justin Barker, the white student who was beat up last year.

REED WALTERS: I do want to set the record straight on a few things that the news media seem not to understand and to answer your questions as best I can. This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race. The fact that it takes place in a small Southern town lends itself to that portrayal. But this case is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions. That is what it’s about.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Reed Walters. Mychal Bell has yet to be released from jail. He was the first of the Jena Six to be tried. He was tried by an all-white jury from an all-white juror pool, and he was convicted of aggravated battery. He has been in jail since December, and, as Reverend Al Sharpton said, when he went to see him yesterday, he was in shackles and handcuffs.

Today, we’re going to go from Jena, where thousands of people are expected to descend on the small town. Today, September 20th, was the day Mychal Bell was to be sentenced, but last week an appeals court in Louisiana threw out his conviction, saying that he should have been tried as a juvenile, not as an adult. The DA Reed Walters says he is deciding what to do. It is believed he will be appealing that decision. But for the time being, Mychal Bell remains in jail.

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