Hat Tip: By Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, Black America Web
Tennis shoes were used as dangerous weapons on Dec. 4, 2006 when six black students at Louisiana’s Jena High School fought white schoolmate Justin Barker, LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters told a courtroom this summer.
So hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, youth members of the NAACP have launched a drive to encourage people to turn in their dangerous weapons — sneakers, or tennis shoes as they are called in the South.
“We want used sneakers. We want the rank, stank, dirty sneakers. We want to send a message,” said the Rev. Elisha B. Morris, youth advisor for the Philadelphia Youth Council NAACP. “We’re going to box the sneakers up and ship them to the district attorney in Jena, Louisiana.” The group also wants each person who donates sneakers to contribute $2 for the Jena Defense Fund.
The effort is in response to charges brought against six black youths following the 2006 fight. Initially, Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw faced charges attempted murder and conspiracy in connection with the fight. A juvenile was also charged.
Bell was tried as an adult and convicted before an appeals court overturned that action and said Bell’s case should be handled in juvenile court. He is now going through proceedings in juvenile court, which are not public.
The fight followed weeks of racial tension in the town of 3,000 touched off in August 2006, after white students hung nooses from a tree. The white students were suspended from school several days, school officials have said.
The call for equal justice for the Jena Six picked up volume throughout the summer, and on Sept. 20, more than 25,000 people from across the country converged on Jena to show support.
The “Dangerous Weapons Drive” was launched on that day during a rally at Temple University in Philadelphia. Morris said a photographer at the event took his sneakers off and turned them in on the spot along with $2.
“No student, regardless of race, should have to tolerate what the Jena Six has faced,” said Darius Alexander, president of the Temple University Progressive NAACP Chapter.
“The charges were absurd. We want to send a message that this will not be tolerated,” Alexander told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
About 80 pairs of sneakers have been collected at Temple so far, but organizers expect more to come.
A local radio station is helping the effort by supporting a drop off point for sneakers at an Oct. 19 concert at the Wachovia Center featuring Kanye West, Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Eve, Akon, Swizz Beatz, Soulja Boy and Cassidy. Also, contests throughout the Philadelphia area have different organizations competing to collect the largest number of sneakers.
Morris said he wants to encourage activism among youths while sending a message to the justice system in LaSalle Parish and the state of Louisiana. He said he envisions a scene reminiscent of the courtroom scene in “Miracle on 34st Street.”
“The judge asked, ‘Where is the proof that this man is Santa Claus?’ First, they presented the judge a few letters that had been sent to him through the post office. Then, they brought in several loads. That’s what I want to see,” Morris told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
When Syracuse University professor and activist Boyce Watkins heard about the sneakers campaign, he laughed, he said.
“I think the shoes prove a point. It is so reflective of the energy and creativity young people bring to the movement,” Watkins told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“The civil rights movement was driven by youths. They are idealists, and they believe. They are not constrained by social norms,” he said. “Some people call it the hip-hop generation. I call it the hip-hope generation. We have to support them and harness and nurture their energy.”
Mike Weaver, an Atlanta-based researcher who visited Jena long before the thousands arrived on Sept. 20, said while the sneakers drive will send a message, he is doubtful of the impact.
“They are going to ship (the shoes) to District Attorney Reed Walters, and he’s going to do the same thing he has done before,” Weaver said.
Morris said the goal of the sneakers drive and the contributions is to keep the momentum of Jena going, especially among the youth. “This is not over,” he said.
According to Watkins, attention needs to be focused on the entire system of justice in LaSalle Parish and in Louisiana.
“This is much bigger than Jena,” he said. “What about the thousands who are in prison because of an unequal system of justice?”
None of the six Jena youths currently are in jail. Bell was released on Sept. 28, a week after the rally that attracted world wide attention.
Alexander, a senior majoring in kinesiology at Temple, said word of the drive is spreading to other Philadelphia-area college campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. High school students are also getting involved.
“For me, personally, I just think about the same thing could happen to you,” he said. “That should give enough reason to fight.”