ALEXANDRIA and JENA, Louisiana — It's 5:50 a.m. and dark as midnight outside, but the ideas, ideals and passions of the people inside throngs of buses, cars, SUVs, limousines, motorcycles and other assorted vehicles on the road to Jena are bright and vibrant.
Everyone wants justice for the "Jena Six," a group of black teens who were initially charged with the attempted murder of a white classmate last year after a series of incidents, which included white students allegedly hanging nooses on a tree planted on high school grounds. The case has been a cauldron of racial tension, anxiety and pain (see "Jena Six: What Sparked Protesters To Descend On Small Town In Louisiana?"). Five of the teens have been charged as adults, and last Friday, an appeals court threw out the conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell, the only one of the six who has been in jail since their arrest in December. While the appellate court ruled that Bell should not have been tried as an adult, on Thursday (September 20), he is expected to find out if prosecutors will appeal the overturned conviction.
"I just want to make sure everyone gets a fair shake," one man says to his family as they walk up. "Everyone deserves a fair shake."
The traffic is heavy here as vehicles converge en route to the small town of Jena — population approximately 3,500 — to support the teens there who have been entangled in legal and racial turmoil. It's backed up for miles, and a myriad of cars are parked along the highway leading to the convention center, the meeting place for the caravan. You don't just bump into people, you bump into entire families, entire communities who have galvanized for the "Free Jena Six" movement. There's a family of seven that drove 15 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina. Another family flew all the way from New York.
As 6:30 a.m. arrives, the barbecuing has stopped and the movement is moving — a caravan of vehicles miles long is rolling to Jena.
On a bus filled mostly with Los Angeles residents — although there's also a couple from North Carolina, as well as people who have traveled from England and Africa — the vibe is anxious yet positive.
A few people are holding homemade posters that say "We want reparations." Chants of "We shall overcome!" are heard. A Latino man from East Los Angeles exclaims, "La Raza in solidarity with the Jena Six!"
"We're coming to get you, Jena Six. We're coming," another lady declares.
At around 7 a.m., as the caravan draws closer to Jena, the sun is up and signs of the Southern town become more evident: Confederate flags are hung outside stores along the highway. Some of the townspeople are coming out of their houses to look at all the vehicles that are now stopped in traffic.
By 9 a.m., there's a huge delay on the highway leading into Jena. Word has it that police are only allowing five buses into town every 15 minutes. With hundreds of buses carrying thousands of people, anyone with half a brain knows that the town isn't big enough for so many vehicles.
Undaunted, the masses — mostly black people wearing black T-shirts to denote solidarity with the Six — get off the buses and stream onto the highway. They are prepared to get into Jena by any means necessary.
"Take some water — hitchhike or walk," one man yells as he hands out bottles.
But no sooner do the people hit the road than the buses start to move. Whatever the holdup was, it's over — for now, anyway. Let's get rolling ...
At around noon, virtually every business in Jena is closed except a supermarket or two. Not even McDonald's is open. But even if all the locals were out and about, Jena would still have a small-town feel — after all, its population is just 3,500 people (86 percent are white). Driving to the parking lot where many buses will be parked, you see nothing but black people in black shirts, some holding up the black-power fist.
"No justice! No peace!" is being yelled by marchers as they make their way down West Oak Street past Jena Town Hall. The march makes a right turn on North First Street, where a bunch of the action is taking place.
A man who looks to be a preacher is standing on an RV, microphone in hand, giving Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Somebody is playing African drums and there are various other small circles of people congregating.
[This story was originally published at 11:28 a.m. ET on 9.20.2007]