102 JAMZ Staff, HBCU Students Visit Jena
Almost as soon as the staff of 102 JAMZ’s “Wild Out Wakeup Show” finished their Sept. 19 program, they packed remote broadcasting equipment, cell phones and address books and drove more than 14 hours to Jena, La., a town of 3,000 residents.
They planned to stop overnight in a hotel, but heard along the way that police might shut down the city, said producer Tiffany Richmond. So they forewent a few hours of sleep and instead set up camp on the lawn of the La Salle Parish Courthouse. The four JAMZ staffers – Richmond and DJs Afrika, B-Daht and Kyle Santillian, joined about two dozen protesters gathered in the predawn.
“By noon, you could not get into the crowd there were so many people,” Richmond said.
Officials estimated the crowd at 20,000; participants have guessed that as many as three times that many people flooded the small town of Jena on Sept. 20.
They came to protest the indictment of six black teenagers on charges of assault and battery in an attack on a white student. The fight followed months of racial tension that started when nooses appeared under a tree at the high school known as the “white tree.”
Bell and his codefendants faced potential sentences of more than 20 years apiece. Black leaders from across the country, concerned about the harsh charges meted out against the teens, mobilized protesters from all corners of the country. They converged on the day Bell would have been sentenced if the Louisiana Court of Appeals hadn’t overturned his conviction the week before.
Richmond, who is from a town about the size of Jena, said she was amazed at what she saw.
“Everyone was pleasant,” she said. “Everyone had manners, there was no rioting. You could see stars walking in the crowd. It was like a family reunion.”
Fifty students from NC A&T University also chartered a bus for the trip, as did a number of students from Bennett College. Tiffany Lindsay, president of Bennett’s Student Government Association, said the trip – which the students financed themselves – came together in about three weeks. Bennett students also raised $10,000 for the Jena Six legal defense fund.
“I’m still humbled by it,” Lindsay said. “It was great to be around so many of my people for such a positive event. It was great to show how much people supported Mychal Bell.”
David Street, Student Government Association president at A&T, said he first heard about the Jena Six in early summer.
“I was shocked, to say the least, to see that racism and unequal treatment was alive and well in this day and age,” he said.
Street said he had been involved in a couple of protests, but nothing on the scale of what he saw in Jena. The involvement of students like Street and Lindsay impressed A&T instructor Bryon D. Turman.
“About eighty to eighty-five percent of the people demonstrating were between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four,” Turman said. “You hear a lot about Gen Y, Gen X and the hip-hop generation, about how they are materialistic and self-centered – a lot of negative isms. But a good population of those kids has some social understanding. They are willing to put their bodies where their mouths are.”
Turman, a longtime educator, said he first heard of the Jena Six from an NPR story in late spring.
“My initial reaction was shock that a fight had broken out and that the situation had degenerated to the point that it was six kids beating up one. The school’s reaction was clearly wanting in this case. I was concerned about the young men involved, the one white victim and the six black teens facing so many years in prison.”
Turman met one couple who traveled from California for the protest. The protest, which featured the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, was a movement of individuals, not organizations, Turman said.
“One of the things the Jena Six demonstration showed is that we don’t need the big organizations to organize us into a voice for the people,” he said.
The staff of 102 JAMZ broadcast their regular morning show from Jena on Sept. 20. Richmond said they met some other radio DJs from stations in Alabama, but did not encounter any others from North Carolina or other states outside of the Gulf Coast. At 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, their broadcast ended, but the foursome stuck around Louisiana gathering interviews and showing support for the teens. They left Jena a few hours before the protest ended so they could get back to Greensboro in time for the Friday morning broadcast.
“We didn’t get much sleep, but it was worth it,” Richmond said. “It was definitely the most immense civil rights demonstration since the sixties. I’m a recent college graduate and I never thought I would be a part of anything like this.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.