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On the road to Jena: Protesters endure roadblocks, delays

  • Story Highlights
  • Louisiana State Police estimate up to 20,000 people converged on Jena
  • Police were forced to limit how many buses could get into the town at one time
  • Protesters say difficult journey was worth being able to show support for "Jena 6"
  • The teens are charged with beating a white classmate
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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JENA, Louisiana (CNN) -- The convoy of buses pulled onto the shoulder Thursday morning, about 25 miles from Jena. Niele Anderson, the Los Angeles DJ and newspaper editor who made last-minute arrangements to get me on the bus, motioned to follow her, "C'mon, let's get out."

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JoAnna Scales took her kids out of school to make the trip from Los Angeles, California, to Jena, Louisiana.

Passengers trickled out of the dozen buses in front of us and also from the line of buses that stretched over the hill behind us.

Word that the police weren't letting us proceed to Jena came through the grapevine a couple of minutes before the friendly Louisiana trooper ambled over.

"The town is locked up," said the officer, E.E. Andrus. "We can't get 'em into town. People don't realize Jena's about as big as from here to that hill over there," he said, pointing to the buses disappearing over the highway horizon a half-mile away.

The protesters pleaded to let us pass, but the officer explained it wasn't going to happen: "I'm taking 'em right now. I'm sending an escort with 'em -- five buses every 12 minutes and that's the best we can do. Otherwise, we're gonna sit there."

The crowd was disappointed, but remained calm despite the news that we were now projected to reach Jena well after the rallies and marches began. Video Watch protesters stalled 25 miles out of Jena »

Anderson told me she was going to encourage everyone to get off the buses lining the highway. Why? "We're gonna walk to Jena," she said.

People began congregating on U.S. Highway 165. Some of them brought their "Free Jena Six" signs. Many wore T-shirts proclaiming the same. Confused commuters peered at us as they crept through the crowd.

Reluctantly, I hopped back on the bus to grab my equipment, two bags weighing about 50 pounds -- not to mention the notebooks and camcorder jammed in the cargo pockets of my shorts.

When I got off the bus, Anderson said never mind. The police were now saying we would be allowed through. Had they found a new route? Or more room for buses in Jena? "It's 'cuz the CNN man's with us," said one protester. I quickly denied it. No one explained the turn of events, but I have to admit, I was pleased we weren't about to hike 25 miles.

At that point, I had been on the bus about two hours -- nothing to complain about when you consider that Anderson and more than 100 fellow protesters had been on a pair of buses for two days.

That they took such a journey -- and that they were ready to hoof it when that journey was cut short -- is testament to the passion and empathy the plight of the Jena 6 ignites. Photo See photos of the bus ride to Jena »

JoAnna Scales is a 39-year-old mother of three teenagers who took her kids out of school for four days to make the trip from Los Angeles, California, to Jena and back. She said a few days in tight quarters is nothing compared with the decades behind bars that she thinks the Jena 6 are unjustly facing.

"It's been trying, but one love," she said of the bus trip. "You gotta work it out because if this could happen to [the Jena 6], it could happen to anyone."

It was a common refrain Thursday. After arriving at 4 a.m. in Alexandria, Louisiana, at the Alexandria Coliseum, where hundreds of people sleepily met about 30 buses for the hourlong ride to Jena, I met students and lawyers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers and aunts -- even members of motorcycle groups. They all said they couldn't bear to turn a blind eye to what they said is a bastard brand of justice.

It's not that the young black men were justified in the December beating and stomping of their white classmate, not at all. It's that five of the Jena 6 were charged as adults, the attempted murder allegations were excessive and the bonds were set higher than the price of most homes in Jena, the protesters said.

Also, they said, too little was made of the nooses hung from the "white tree" at Jena High School last September. Had that matter been handled appropriately, nothing would've gotten out of hand, said some.

Emily Calloway, on the bus from Los Angeles, said she thinks it's a racist area, regardless of the nooses, and she thinks the police were being racist when they stopped the buses on Highway 165. Pressing on to Jena, she said, will "make an effective statement to the authorities and to the judge" in the Jena 6 case.

"I think that it was a tactic to humiliate the effort and to humiliate the cause," she said of the temporary roadblock. "I think it's an outrageous travesty of justice and further act of discrimination and racism."

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Cathryn Shabazz, sitting across the aisle from Calloway, agreed the stop was suspicious, but said she thinks the problem is larger than central Louisiana, and that's why she got on the bus.

"You can go north, south, east or west," she said, "and find the same degree of racism." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Jena (Louisiana)

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