Civil rights protesters converge on US town

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JENA, La, Sep 20 (Reuters) Thousands of people from across the United States descended on a small town in central Louisiana today to protest what they say is injustice against six black teenagers charged over a high school fight.

Protesters arrived in buses and cars from cities as far away and apart as New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New Orleans for a rally in support of the ''Jena 6.'' The case has become a symbol for many African Americans of a wider struggle against racism and perceived discrimination against black males by the criminal justice system.

''I feel like it (injustice against blacks) has been happening for years and ... (the ''Jena 6'' incident) is just one of those things that gets national attention,'' said Esau Dorrough, a retailer who took two days off work and traveled nine hours by bus from Atlanta to attend the protest.

The case has its origins in an incident in August last year when three nooses were found hanging from a tree at the high school in the town of 3,000 northwest of New Orleans.

Black residents said that incident stoked tension in the town and in December the teenagers were charged with assault after a white schoolmate was beaten up.

Charges against some of the boys were later raised to attempted murder, drawing accusations from protesters that they had been excessively charged. Those charges have since been reduced.

For many blacks the ''Jena 6'' has attained the status of a modern-day version of the incidents that punctuated the US civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Word about it has spread through the black community partly through syndicated radio shows by civil rights leader Al Sharpton and popular disc jockey Michael Baisden but the case has remained little known among the wider US public.

VYING FOR BLACK VOTE Several candidates for the Democratic nomination for president including senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards issued statements urging justice in the case. The candidates are vying for black votes.

In his statement, Obama welcomed the reduced charges against the teenagers and said he hoped that the decision would ''lead the prosecutor to reconsider the excessive charges brought against all the teenagers in this case.'' The protest was originally timed to coincide with the sentencing of one of the students, Mychal Bell, convicted on charges including aggravated second-degree battery.

He was tried before an all-white jury which civil rights leaders said is itself evidence of discrimination.

This month the conviction was overturned, in part because Louisiana's Third Circuit Court ruled that he should not have been tried as an adult.

Prosecutor Donald Washington, U.S. attorney in the western district of Louisiana, said some of the facts of the case had been exaggerated. He said there was no direct link between the noose incident and the December fight, which he said was motivated by ''male bravado'' rather than race.

Some black community leaders in Jena said the case was an example of wider problems in the town of 3,000, which they said was effectively segregated and had few opportunities for blacks 40 years after the end of segregation.

''Blacks live on one side of town. Whites live in another side of town. We live in a segregated city. We've done it all our lives.

It's not something that we want but it's something we can't do anything about,'' said B L Moran, pastor of Antioch church in the town and a rally organizer.

Reuters SKB GC1944

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