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Lawmakers, Students Take Up Justice Struggle for the Jena Six

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One week after tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Jena, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking up the case of the Jena Six. Students are getting involved, too. A coalition of hip-hop artists and grassroots organizations are calling for a National Student Walk-Out on October 1st. We speak with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and student organizer DeShaun Davis. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: A week has passed since tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Jena, Louisiana, for one of the largest civil rights rallies that the South has seen in years. Now, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking up the case of the Jena Six. On Friday, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers plans to hold a forum on Capitol Hill, as well as future congressional hearings on Jena. On Tuesday, the Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas called for the immediate release of Mychal Bell and a Justice Department investigation into the situation in Jena.

Mychal Bell has been held in jail since December, after he was arrested with five other African-American students for allegedly taking part in a schoolyard fight after nooses were hung from a tree at the school. The local district attorney, Reed Walters, originally charged Bell and four of the other students with attempted murder. The DA claimed the students used sneakers as potential murder weapons. They initially all faced over 100 years in prison before the attempted murder charges were reduced.

AMY GOODMAN: Mychal Bell was convicted of assault by an all-white jury, but the conviction was thrown out earlier this month when an appeals court ruled Mychal Bell should not have been tried as an adult. On Wednesday, Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco announced prosecutor Reed Walters has decided not to challenge the ruling that sends Bell’s case to juvenile court. Supporters of Mychal Bell say they now hope a bond will be set low enough to allow his release.

To talk more about the Jena Six, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee joins us from the Capitol. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Lee.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON-LEE: Amy, it’s a delight to be with you and to be with your viewers. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you with us. I know that you were in Jena for the mass protest last week. We just got this latest word of the governor of Louisiana, Blanco, announcing that Reed Walters is not going to challenge the appeals court decision that would put Mychal Bell’s case in a juvenile court. What can you do, as you stand there in the Capitol Rotunda?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON-LEE: Well, first of all, let me say that Mychal Bell was a hostage without judicial will. He was held hostage, because he was wrongly tried as an adult, as the others are being charged as an adult. And then, when the court indicated that he was wrongly tried, he was not immediately released.

And so, we can look from Capitol Hill at the large amount fractures in the judicial and justice system across America. And as we looked at the movement, in which I participated on Thursday, along with leaders like Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, who came together when no voices could be heard, they raised their voices with Mychal Bell’s family. It calls upon Congress and calls upon this nation to restore the values of democracy again. As I listened to the Chilean president, we know what happens when democracy collapses.

And I was appalled at the story of Mychal Bell and those other teenagers, all-white judge, all-white jury and a white prosecutor who refused to listen. In fact, we were told that Mychal’s conditions changed, after we were there, for the worse. And so, we’re going to shine a brighter light on the criminal justice system that seems to use inner-city youth as fodder for their system, that seems to give long terms for African-American males and other minorities, that seems to ensure that the system does not work in a fair and just way.

I could not believe that after all of the petitioning of the very fine lawyers that were working for Mychal Bell, the evidence that showed that the youngsters were provoked — and we don’t condone violence — that there could not be a reasonable solution that did not include a bias because of his race.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the case of the Jena Six has become a major issue in high schools and college campuses as cross the country. And a coalition of hip-hop artists and grassroots organizations are calling for a national student walkout on Monday, October 1, to show support for the Jena Six. Organizers include the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the National Hip Hop Political Convention. Hip-hop artists Mos Def, M1 and Talib Kweli have endorsed the walkout.

And DeShaun Davis joins us here in New York. He’s a senior at NYU and a coordinator of the student committee of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Welcome to Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome, DeShaun.

DeSHAUN DAVIS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you doing in the high schools and colleges?

DeSHAUN DAVIS: In the high schools, we are asking for students, as well as those who are not in academic institutions at the time, to dress in all black, to show solidarity and show support for the trials of the Jena Six. In colleges, we are asking students to walk out at 12:00 noon on Monday in all time zones. After that, we are asking them to mobilize.

In New York City, we are asking folks from Columbia, Fordham University, Hunter, all the neighboring New York City schools, to meet in Washington Square Park after they walk out. At 1:30, we will be walking in linear groups of six to City Hall, where the demands of the walkout will be read.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you hear about the Jena case? And did you go down to Jena for the mass protest?

DeSHAUN DAVIS: I was actually unable to, due to, you know, my status as a student, as well as other engagements. However, part of the work that I’ve been doing personally is encouraging people to be aware. And, actually, two weeks ago we had a movement to have folks to dress up on Thursday, September 20, to show solidarity with what’s going on down there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Congresswoman, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the impact of this case nationwide on re-examining the justice system, how effective now do you think the movement will be to re-examine the injustices that continue to dog our criminal justice system, especially around the issue of race?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON-LEE: Powerful. This was a powerful indictment. You can see by the movement of young people that certainly filled the streets of Jena and now with a major movement across America that we have gotten more than a wake-up call. In fact, we have got a piercing spear to the heart to recognize that we have a failed system.

When you cannot get the Department of Justice to act expeditiously, as we as members of the Congressional Black Caucus and I asked more than a week ago as we saw this crescendo arising in terms of the crisis in Jena, and yet to get a response from the Department of Justice, and when we were concerned about Mr. Bell’s status, you know that we must change the laws on mandatory sentencing, as these sentences become known around the country.

And the hearings that Mr. Conyers, Chairman Conyers, will lead — and I will join him as a member of that committee — we will look at prosecutorial abuse or prosecutorial misconduct. We will look at these mandatory sentencing. We will look at the question of race and bias in the whole system of justice, no matter whether you’re a woman, whether you’re a war protester, whether you’re a minority, whether or not you come from a certain region. We have to get into the system now and say, “What are the values? We all are created equal. Well, then, this system is not promoting that.”

These young people, these college students and high school students are to be celebrated. They are part of the movement. The movement is awake. And we’ll say enough is enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember, Lee, I know you have to go, but I wanted to ask you about Reed Walter’s, the DA’s, op-ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, where he said no matter how hard he searched, he could not find anything in Louisiana law that made the hanging of the nooses a crime, but the beating up of the student was a crime. He didn’t mention that after the nooses were hung and after the black students sat under the tree that was traditionally sat under by white students, they had this little civil disobedience where they stood under the tree, and that he and police then came to the school, which shocked many, that the DA would come to the high school, and they held an assembly, and he threatened and said, “I can wipe your lives out with the stroke of a pen.” But can you talk about this comment, about what constitutes a hate crime and what could have been done as the months passed and the racial tensions mounted?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON-LEE: Thank you for that very large question. And it’s wonderful that the First Amendment allows anyone to put pen to paper, and certainly the district attorney has a right to his freedom of expression. But I can tell you, starting with the Mississippi hanging fruit of the Jim Crow days and the later days after the Civil War and slavery was beginning to end and others were opposed to that, the noose has always symbolized a symbol of extreme terror and intimidation and fear.

I am literally outraged, as a trained lawyer myself, that a person of moral consciousness could not determine the intimidating factor, if nothing else, a simple, if you will, charge of trespassing could have been utilized to initially suggest that these kinds of acts should not be tolerated and then maybe some charges that could generate from battery, if you will, that might have lent themselves to some kind of interpretation.

But more importantly, this district attorney, in collaboration with the federal government, could have asked the U.S. attorney and made the nexus between the terrible hanging of nooses and the intimidation of a community. We, too, are appalled at the sitting U.S. attorney who would make public statements that did not suggest a thorough legal analysis or reaching out to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, because maybe a civil rights charge could have been filed, that the civil rights of the community or the individual Jena Six could have been — there was a suggestion that they were violated. There is no excuse.

There certainly should be healing in this community. There should be reconciling. The school district should be held accountable for keeping these children divided. But there is no excuse for not having a legal remedy to the crisis that is going on in that community. That is what provoked this situation. And when the justice system fails, America fails.

We don’t want that to ever happen again, and we’re going to say enough is enough. The House Judiciary Committee and, we hope, the Senate Judiciary Committee will say to America: everyone has a fair chance in the nation’s courts and legal system.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Sheila Jackson-Lee, I want to thank you very much for bringing this information to us, the Texas congressmember speaking to us from the Capitol Rotunda. She serves on the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees. She’s chair of the Congressional Children’s Caucus. This is Democracy Now!,

DeShaun Davis, senior at New York University, coordinator of the student committee of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, what is your website?

DeSHAUN DAVIS: For more information about Jena, people can also access

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us.

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