JENA, La. - The promised arrival of 50,000 demonstrators to this rural town is unnerving locals who fear the protest over the treatment of six black teens will spark chaos.
Most shop owners won't even open tomorrow during the march, noting that demonstrators will outnumber residents roughly 20 to 1. They fear the influx will cripple the six-traffic-lights downtown, which consists mostly of single-story boutiques, banks and eateries such as the Burger Barn and the Brisket House.
The rally is being organized to condemn the town's treatment of the so-called Jena 6, six black teens who were hit with severe charges after allegedly beating up a white student last year.
The white teen was punched and kicked at Jena High School on Dec. 4, one of a series of racial clashes that began when white students hung nooses in a school tree.
"You've got 40,000 people or so coming into this small town who know nothing about Jena except they've been told white people are bad and black people are good," said Nora Bradford, 51, the owner of a dress shop. "Are we concerned? Of course we are."
Police said they were gearing up for the rally that they estimated could bring up to 50,000 people to the community.
Col. Stanley Griffin, chief of the Louisiana State Police, insisted the protest "will be secure and it will be uneventful," but he provided no details on crowd control.
Residents of this mostly white town aren't taking any chances.
Gary Moser, 70, the owner of a two-story brick building that houses two boutiques, plans to board up his property.
"We're only 2,300 people, and there are supposed to be 10 times that many [protesters] here," he said. "We've never had to deal with anything as momentous as that."
Rumors even floated around town that members of the Ku Klux Klan may show up tomorrow.
But what's shaping up as one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in years has no single leader, no agreed schedule and no central gathering spot.
The rally grew from a grass- roots movement spread through Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio.
The call to protest reached an estimated 1,000 New Yorkers headed to Jena in buses, cars and vans.
The first contingent boarded a bus outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem last night.
Auto technician Ely Roberts said he was going because, "I'm supporting my people. It's 2007 and racism should have stopped a long time ago. I have a 14-year-old son. This could have happened to him."
The case has divided Jena since Mychal Bell, then 16, and five other black teens, all members of the high school football team, were charged with attempted murder in the assault on Justin Barker, 17.
The charges brought widespread criticism that blacks were being treated more harshly than whites.
The white students who hung the nooses around the tree were punished with three days of in-school suspension.
The charges against the Jena 6 were reduced, but Bell has been jailed since January, unable to meet a $90,000 bond.
On Friday, the state appeals court threw out his conviction of aggravated battery, saying he shouldn't have been tried as an adult.
"I'm ready to get his life back on track," Bell's mother, Melissa, said yesterday, "getting him back to being a teenager again."
Contact Rich Schapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org
With Ethan Rouen and Leo Standora in New York
For more on the Sept. 20 Jena 6 Demonstartion, and Rally visit www.minglecity.com/jenasix
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