Carnegie Mellon students walk out in honor of Jena 6

“We all live in Jena” was the message of the National Student Walk-Out that took place Oct. 1. A group of Carnegie Mellon students participated in the protest to support the Jena 6, a group of black high school students who were excessively charged with crimes stemming from a fight with a white classmate in Jena, La. Over 100 colleges participated nationwide, according to SPIRIT president Chloe Taylor, a senior history and international relations major.

Taylor led a group of about 35 Carnegie Mellon students and joined hundreds of students nationwide in the National Student Walk-Out. At 1 p.m. Oct. 1, Carnegie Mellon students gathered at the Fence and prepared for the two-hour march to the District Attorney’s Office, located downtown in the Allegheny County Courthouse roughly four miles from campus. Carnegie Mellon students were the first group to begin marching; the group grew as protesters joined from the University of Pittsburgh, Carlow University, Duquesne University, and local high schools.

Taylor was proud of the spirit that Carnegie Mellon students brought to the protest.

“We brought the energy from the beginning and set the tone,” Taylor said.

Taylor learned about the walk-out from activists from Sankofa Community Empowerment who asked her to urge Carnegie Mellon students to participate. “It was great to see CMU students take an active stand on an important issue.”

Protesters joined with people on the street as they chanted “Justice for Jena” and “No peace, no justice,” according to Luther Young III, a sophomore industrial design major. Young had heard about recent proceedings in Jena on NPR about a week before the protest and felt compelled to join the protest.

“I just knew it was something I had to participate in,” Young said.

Adam Schloss, a senior in physics and public policy and management and president of Hillel, was also compelled to join Carnegie Mellon students at the walk-out. He had seen posters for the protest and met with Taylor the day before the walk-out.

“I wanted to get involved because of the historical ties between Jewish and black people,” Schloss said, noting that African-Americans and Jews share a history of unfair treatment.

For Muhammed Shodeinde, a sophomore in chemical engineering and SPIRIT member, raising awareness of the injustice faced by the Jena 6 was enough for him to participate in the walk-out.

“I felt that people needed to know that we students are aware of what’s going on and that we do care,” Shodeinde said.

When the mass arrived at the District Attorney’s Office, community activists and members of the crowd shared their views.

“[The atmosphere at the courthouse] was really powerful because you don’t see students come together like that,” Young said. “I learned a lot and met a lot of people, but I felt like I knew them already because we were all united for one cause.”

The Jena 6 — Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw and Jesse Ray Beard — were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time of the incident, but were charged as adults with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder after a fight with Justin Barker, a white student in the small, predominantly white town of Jena, La. The legal adult age in Louisiana is 17.

Although the charges of Bell, Bailey, Jones, and Shaw were later reduced to aggravated battery, critics agreed that the students should be tried as juveniles. Purvis has not been arraigned, and Beard’s charges are not available, since he was 14 on the date of the fight.

In June 2007, Bell was the first to be convicted of aggravated battery as an adult, a charge that could have sent him to prison for up to 22 years.

The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton called for a rally Sept. 20, the day of Bell’s sentencing. Between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters swarmed Jena that day, according to CNN. Bell’s adult charges were dropped; on Sept. 27, he was released by a juvenile court at $45,000 bond, down from the $90,000 bail set by Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. Bell still has to be tried in a juvenile court; the other five students are awaiting trial.

Protesters demanded that all charges be dropped against the Jena 6; that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the teens’ arrests; that Mauffray be dismissed from Bell’s juvenile case; that Mauffray and LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters be investigated for unethical conduct; that the Jena school district superintendent be removed from office; and that all U.S. justice systems stop racial profiling of African-Americans.