Protest against MLK Day in Jena

Michael Brown, of West Monroe, La., holds a Ku Klux Klan flag as he talks with reporters in front of the courthouse in Jena, La., on Monday. Brown is a self-proclaimed member of the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press


Michael Brown, of West Monroe, La., holds a Ku Klux Klan flag as he talks with reporters in front of the courthouse in Jena, La., on Monday. Brown is a self-proclaimed member of the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press

By Mary Foster

JENA, La. – About 50 white separatists protested the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday in this tiny town, which was thrust into the spotlight months ago by 20,000 demonstrators who claimed prosecutors discriminated against blacks.

Police separated participants in the “pro-majority” rally organized by the Learned, Miss.-based Nationalist Movement from a racially mixed group of about 100 counter-demonstrators outside the LaSalle Parish Courthouse. There was no violence and one arrest, a counter-demonstrator.

Chants of “No KKK” from the mostly college-age counter-demonstrators were met with a chant from the separatists that contained a racial epithet.

At one point, dozens of state police forced back about 10 people, dressed in New Black Panther uniforms, who had gathered around a podium where the separatist group’s leader Richard Barrett was to speak.

One man who broke away from that group was arrested and booked with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest; authorities identified him as William Winchester Jr. of New Orleans and said he was a member of the New Black Panthers. Members of the group at the scene declined to comment.

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Race relations in Jena (population about 2,800) have been in the news ever since six black teenagers were arrested in the beating of a white classmate at Jena High School in December 2006.

About 20,000 people peacefully marched in support of the so-called Jena Six in September, and Monday’s demonstration was organized in opposition to both the teenagers and the King holiday.

Five of the black teens were originally charged with attempted murder, leading to accusations that they were being prosecuted harshly because of their race. Charges have since been reduced.

Critics of the prosecutor have noted that months before the beating, no charges were filed against three other white students accused of hanging nooses – seen as signs of racial intimidation – in a tree at the high school. The prosecutor has said that the noose hangings, while “abhorrent,” violated no state law.

Many Jena residents said that coverage of the controversy last year unfairly portrayed them as racists, and that Barrett’s group brought renewed unwanted attention. Only when faced with a lawsuit did the town drop a requirement that the Nationalists post a $10,000 security bond for a permit.

Almost all the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators appeared to be from outside of Jena.

“I’d like to see more people from Jena here,” said George Ferguson, a local resident who wore a T-shirt reading “Justice for Justin,” referring to Justin Barker, the white teen beaten in the school attack. “I haven’t seen anyone else I know.”

A few locals, black and white, watched from the sidelines.

“I wanted to see what was going on, I’ve heard a lot about it,” said Charles Bailey, a white 58-year-old Jena resident. “It looks like a big waste of my tax money.”

Police from several organizations, including Louisiana State Police and at least three parish sheriff’s departments, were on hand. Snipers staked out the roofs of buildings across the street from the courthouse.

Jena resident Dayna Brown, a black woman who made a scrapbook on the September protest, had her camera in hand Monday. She said she was ready to see Jena’s time in the spotlight end.

“I’m hoping this is the last of it,” Brown said. “Jena’s not a bad place to live if you’re black or white. We’d just all like to see things settle down.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of the September march, preached at a Jena church Sunday but was not among the counter-demonstrators; he said he had prior commitments.

Some of the Nationalist supporters were armed despite a call from Barrett to leave guns behind.

Acting LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin told a father and son from Tioga, about 30 miles from Jena, to put away two shotguns. Franklin allowed them to continue to wear holstered sidearms, but Jena Police Chief Paul Smith told David Dupre Jr. and his father that they would have to put away all weapons during the march, under Louisiana law.

“I’m here to protest black-on-white crime,” David Dupre Sr., 53, told reporters.

His 31-year-old son, at times using racial slurs, said: “It’s time for us white folks to start getting some of our rights back.”

One of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, 17, pleaded guilty in December in juvenile court to second-degree battery. A judge sentenced him to 18 months with credit for the 10 months he’d already served in jail. Trials are pending for the others charged.