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Unitarian Universalists Demonstrate in Support of Jena 6

Dozens of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) and eight UU ministers—the Revs. Liz Brown, Steve Crump, Eliza Galaher, Forrest Gilmore, Fred Hammond, Lyn Oglesby, Meg Riley, and Jim VanderWeele—participated in the September 20th demonstrations in Jena, Louisiana, in support of six young African-American high-school students known as the Jena Six. Below is an on-the-scene report from Meg Riley and her daughter Jie.

Notes from Jena, Louisiana, September 20, 2007

A report in two voices by the Rev. Meg Riley and Jie Wronski-Riley

(Meg) It was our privilege to be among tens of thousands of demonstrators in Jena, Louisiana, on Thursday, protesting the racial disparities in treatment and sentencing of six young African Americans in a racially charged schoolyard fight. My daughter Jie, about to turn 11, asked if she could join me here as a birthday present. Following are our notes from the "Free the Jena Six" rally.

We joined a busload of protestors at 3:45 a.m. in the parking lot of UU Church of Baton Rouge, the church with the LED sign out front demanding "Truth and Reconciliation in Jena!" Four UU ministers are on the bus—Rev.Steve Crump of Baton Rouge, Rev. Jim VanderWeele of Community Church, New Orleans, Rev. Liz Brown of Slidell, Louisiana, and me. We know that Rev. Lyn Oglesby, from Shreveport, is also boarding a bus about now. The bus also holds an MCC minister, a Baptist minister, and an interesting mix of UUs and others. Louisiana Public Radio is interviewing Steve Crump as I board the bus, and he says, "This bus is Louisianans who are demanding justice!"

Though I brought a clerical collar and dressier clothes, I'm outfitted now in a "Standing on the Side of Love" t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. I'm not here to be interviewed myself, but to lend support and cheers to the great organizing coming out of our Louisiana UU congregations. It is a proud moment in UU history, emerging from a shameful one in U.S. history. I am delighted to see the old friends I've come to love working in the past two years on Gulf Coast recovery and justice.

(Jie) A dark parking lot is home to action, to a protest finally happening, Jena 6. I am in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It is 4 o'clock, the air is fresh and the sky reflects black on the trees. I've boarded a bus with people, all with the same mission.

Jena is a dusty, barbecue smelling place. We pulled to a stop in front of two old ball parks. We had passed little businesses and woods. The bus pulled away leaving us on a sandy gravel road.

We wandered a bit and then went to bleachers. The sun blazed down on my face, my sunglasses were sweaty. Static metallic voices boomed out from left field. I've met and am meeting many new people. Good music. Many different hairstyles and dos. Different t-shirts and Red Cross handing out free chips, Gatorade, water, cookies, rice crispies, etc.

(Meg) The speakers at the rally are angry about the Jena case, but this is one of the least edgy demonstrations of any kind I have ever attended. Indeed, sitting in the sun, it is easy to believe that the biggest problem I'm here to address is good application of sunscreen. With all the music and prayer and great energy, it is weirdly easy to forget that I'm at a political demonstration and to feel instead as if it's some kind of family picnic. I feel uncomfortable about this reversion to privilege, and am oddly relieved later when an African American woman on the bus home says the same thing—"Some of the time, I was so happy I just plain forgot how mad I was!"

(Jie) After the rally we lined up and stood there. We moved in rows of eight, or in our case nine. It didn't work. Finally our row was up; we walked on a fenced path that went around the park. Both my mom and me had packpacks. I stocked mine with pencils, paper, clipboard, snacks, walkie talkies, and more. There were a lot of nice rocks; by the end I had a huge pocketful.

(Meg) The march is going two miles to the Jena courthouse, in 90 degree full sun, and then back again. Our row includes Bob and Diana Doroh from Baton Rouge—Bob the courage behind the decision to charter a bus, our bus Captain—and also a family of African American residents of Jena. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to them. They are two sisters, their mother, and a son who, like Jie, is in fifth grade. Unlike Jie, Demetrius is not skipping school today—Jena has closed its schools. Demetrius tells me the school was on ‘lockdown' the day before, and kids were unable to go down the halls to the bathrooms.

Closed along with the schools are Jena businesses, ranging from McDonalds' and Popeye's to local stores. They are eerily surrounded with yellow police tape and orange plastic fencing. We are incredulous as the bus passes through town; all the money these vendors will lose! But we are delighted to see the entrepreneurial spirit of African American vendors, who sell a wide variety of food and rally paraphernalia. We wonder what the residents of this 85% white town expect to happen today.

I ask Demetrius and his family the questions which have been on my mind as I have made this journey to Jena: Are they worried about white violence after all the ‘outsiders' have gone home? This extended family (which extends into the entire row behind us, more folks of all ages from Jena ) is delighted that we are there. They say some folks they know are worried about ensuing violence, but they're just happy. I ask them if they see any white folks from Jena in the crowd, and they shake their heads sadly. "No," says the family matriarch, "and I been LOOKIN'!"

A man named Timothy, a slim young man with a battered Bible in his hand who says "Bless you" to each person he encounters, tells me, "Even if the whites aren't here, they're thinking about this. It's a good thing to bring these kinds of wounds out in the open, so they don't fester." Timothy is from another town fifteen miles away. He says life there is very similar to Jena, with whites believing racism is over, all healed, and the people of color holding all the pain of it. Later Jim VanderWeele tells me he did meet one white woman from Jena who is appalled by the injustice.

It is a delight to unexpectedly run into another colleague, the Rev. Forrest Gilmore of Princeton, New Jersey, whose black "Free the Jena Six" t-shirt also says "Philly bus." He tells me that that he is joined by several UUs from Princeton, and that the bus-ride down took 27 hours!

Though I don't know the details why, there are two rallies taking place today—the NAACP rally in this park has about 2,500 participants. Dozens more NAACP buses are held up by sheriffs and never make it. We don't know how many of them gave up and joined the other rally, the ‘town rally' at the courthouse held by the Rev. Al Sharpton. News reports say "tens of thousands of people" were in Jena. In town, there are more speakers, supposedly including families of the young African American men, but the sound system makes it impossible to understand a word they say. Someone tells me it has been announced that the $90,000 bail has been raised to release Mychal Bell.

As the day winds down and we wait for our bus to pick us up, rumors begin to circulate. A young woman walking by says that the third circuit Court of Appeals has stated that Mychal Bell must be released within seventy-two hours. We all cheer wildly. This is the same court of appeals who had said a week earlier that it was illegal to try him as an adult and threw the case out. (Why that decision did not result in his being immediately freed has been the matter of bitter speculation all day.)

Soon someone else walks by and says that Louisiana Supreme Court has dropped all charges against all six young men, and they are now home. We all look like we want to believe it but the cheering is less enthusiastic. Three other people come by and say exuberantly that Mychal Bell is home. On the bus home, those with electronic communications equipment are desperately seeking corroboration of these rumors, and when I get back to the Baton Rouge hotel room I do the same. All that an extensive web search nets me is confirmation that the first statement is true: Within seventy two hours, Mychal Bell must be released.

I report this to Jie, saying happily, YES! At least we know for sure that they have to release Mychal within 72 hours! We can hope that our coming here helped that decision to get made! "Sure it did," she replies with wisdom which makes me wonder if it can really be that she's only turning eleven, not fifty, on Sunday, "No one down here wants this kind of fuss."

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Last updated on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.

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