Traffic jammed the two-lane road leading into the tiny town of Jena, La., early today as thousands of demonstrators gathered in support of six black teens charged in the beating of a white classmate, reports the Associated Press. The Rev. Al Sharpton said it could be the beginning of the 21st century’s civil rights movement, one challenging disparities in the justice system. The six were charged a few months after the local prosecutor declined to charge three white high school students who hung nooses in a tree on their high school grounds. Five of the blacks were initially charged with attempted murder, but that was reduced to battery for all but one; the sixth teen was charged as a juvenile.
District Attorney Reed Walters denied that racism was involved. He said he didn’t prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. The beating case “has been portrayed by the news media as being about race,” he said. “And the fact that it takes place in a small southern town lends itself to that portrayal. But it is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.” The teen who was beaten, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function later that night.