As I stepped on the bus waiting to leave the Sentinel offices, I thought about the scene I had just witnessed.
I saw hundreds of people of all ages coming together to make a statement against the treatment of the Jena Six. I had never been a part of a major rally like this before in my life—I had missed being a part of the immigration rallies while I was a student in San Diego.
We left the office sometime after noon for the two-day trip down to Jena (pronounced JEE-nah). The bus was a mixture of old and young faces, most of whom, like myself, had never gathered in a movement of this magnitude before.
But now, here we were; on our way to perhaps the largest non-immigration rally the country had seen since the Million Man March.
We came together for one purpose, to bring awareness to another case of injustice facing African Americans. No matter how old or young you were, you knew this was a historical moment and you had to be a part of it to let those six kids know we had their back.
The silence of the first few hours melted away into warm conversation as a community was birthed against the backdrop of the Arizona desert. We talked amongst ourselves to see where we all came from. We shared food and resources and most of all we listened to what we all had to say about this case.
REST IN ARIZONA
We made our first stop at a Flying J gas station/truck stop. As we stepped into the hot, humid Arizona evening, the sun was setting behind us as we prepared for our first long night of driving. But something great happened that encouraged us.
We met a couple—a Black man and Native American woman—that asked us where we were going. They knew all about the case and expressed their support for our universal cause. It was a reminder that America is no stranger to mistreating its people.
Native Americans have been mistreated far longer than Blacks in America and to hear this woman express outrage over the Jena Six case, brought back memories of how her people have been persecuted throughout American history. It was encouraging because it was the first, but not last, time that we would make a stop and find people who knew why we were traveling and would lend us their support.
At 3:30 A.M., September 19, this was our second stop of the trip.
Once we crossed the Texas border, we knew we’d be on the road for an entire day. At this point, everyone got off of the bus tired and groggy, rushing to charge their phones or pick up some late snacks.
Yes, it was still hot outside. So you could only imagine how hot it would be during the day once we reached Jena—the estimated temperature was in the low 90’s. As intimidating as it would be to wear Black with that news, we knew that once we reached that town, that color would be the best thing that the Jena Six families and community supporters would want to see.
As we woke up to a new day, everyone had their opinions on the case. Some felt that our presence there was not enough and that we needed to react in a more violent way. Others said that we should not hate the people down there because we are coming to demand justice, not revenge.
Our sergeant at arms, Shaka Sartoro, told us on the road that we are indeed going down there as “ambassadors of righteousness” and that we should carry ourselves accordingly. Do not instigate anything, respect the authorities and their laws and stay in large groups.
We also heard that we might face counter-protests from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups so these warnings were well-issued. With the townspeople already fearing a riot of some sort, it is a helpful reminder for all of us to retain our composure.
In my mind, I hoped that all of us would not disappoint the Jena Six and their community with any type of foolishness. We came in peace to bring injustice to the light and I prayed that we would not let them down.
Something caught my eye as we drove through Weatherford: the high school football team practicing. It seemed natural in this state where football is king but it made me think of Mychal Bell.
Bell, the only member of the Jena Six still in jail, was an All-State running back at Jena High School. He had received interests from several Division I schools and now his senior year is being spent in a jail cell.
As those boys played in the Texas sun, I felt bad for Mychal because he couldn’t do that. I felt bad for the four other members of the Jena Six, who had lost part of their senior year and are now trying to piece it back together at other schools outside of Jena.
At this point, we had the chance to get to know some of our fellow travelers and what inspired them to get on the bus. One man spoke of how he had faced discrimination when he tried to move into a White neighborhood in Los Angeles. Another man talked about how as a young child in the Jim Crow South, he had to address every White person as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
The woman sitting in front of me spoke of how a teacher called her a ni**er b***h when she was in elementary school in Compton. After she punched the teacher in retaliation, she was expelled but not after defiantly standing up for herself in front of the Compton School Board.
Adrianna Gardner, a 22 year-old recent graduate from the University of LaVerne, told me before we left that this issue was a fight for young people and by her being there, she was showing that there were “some of us who care.”
Then in Dallas, our final pit stop before crossing the Texas-Louisiana border, I met a young woman who talked about going down to Jena to show love, not hate. We had such a great conversation about this but what I remember most is her demeanor, her calm spirit and passion. It was an example of how some of the riders aren’t coming down angry but have no less passion towards this case than a militant.
It is stories like that motivated people to jump on this bus and whatever drove us individually, we collectively used it as fuel for our righteous cause.
We crossed the Louisiana border around 9:00 p.m. local time and after picking up some supplies at a local Wal-Mart, we pulled into our next rest stop. It was here that I saw a beautiful example of “Southern” hospitality.
Earlier we were told that Southern University would allow us to shower and refresh ourselves before heading to Alexandria. But I didn’t know what to expect until we walked through the doors of the gymnasium.
They prepared hospitality kits for us, complete with washcloths, soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush and some candies for good measure. And after we showered in the locker rooms, they rolled out some basketballs for people to play and unwind after four hours on the bus.
That shower felt like the best shower in a long time. The warm water was almost like a baptism, making us new creatures getting ready to be used by God as messengers of His justice.
After everyone was done, we felt recharged and our adrenaline was going full speed. Everyone was happy to be clean and they were ready to be a part of history. But we were also appreciative that the angels at Southern opened their doors and their hearts to us.
ALEXANDRIA AND THE ROAD TO JENA
We reached our meeting point in Alexandria around 3:30 a.m. and as tired as I was, I decided to go out and meet the folks who would be joining us. The first group was four adults from Lafayette, who ranged from 22 to 28. As they spoke in their Southern drawl, they told us some of the officers warned us of what to expect down there.
As we walked and spoke to people, I could feel the excitement in the air. Hundreds of folks were milling around just waiting…waiting for the moment we were told to descend upon Jena. All of us part of one large community with a common goal and purpose.
But I also discovered how much the national media had failed to inform people. Every person I spoke to told me that they heard of the case within the past month due to the Internet or Michael Baisden’s radio show.
Even the people from Louisiana said that their local newspapers had relatively no coverage of what happened. It was slightly surprising, but then again, it just showed the extent of how the media dropped the ball leading up to this event. Sadder still, few media outlets were preparing the country for this historic rally by giving them updates.
But they only missed out on a powerful pre-rally statement. As tens of buses continued to fill this open parking lot, it showed us just how big this rally was going to be and how many people had come to show their support.
One passenger was almost in tears as she watched the buses come in. She said that watching this gathering made her feel that she was watching our people rise from the dead. A new generation has been birthed and given the motivation to carry on the torch of our fathers.
At 5:30, the buses left for Jena and we picked up some more passengers, including CNN.com writer Eliott McLaughlin. Some of the passengers asked why CNN and other news outlets did not cover the case until recently. McLaughlin told us that he frankly had no clear-cut answer as his editors, for some unknown reason, made the decision.
As the sun rose, we drove with no traffic on the road towards Jena. There was traffic around us, however, as people had their work commute impeded by this caravan of buses, some stared at us in awe or disgust, depending on how you want to view it.
All of a sudden, the bus line stopped as the cars continued to drive past us. We didn’t know what was going on until the bus drivers told us that due to the small size of the town, they were only letting in five buses at 12-15 minute intervals.
This prompted Niele to encourage everyone to get off the bus and start walking the 25 remaining miles to Jena. At first I was like, it’s going to take us six to seven hours because I was thinking about how long it took people to run the L.A. marathon.
But watching from my window and seeing masses of people get out and walk on the highway, you got empowered thinking that nothing was stopping us, not even the police who we felt were deliberately trying to keep us out
When Niele told me that the Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery was much further—54 to be exact—I decided to get off but just when I was getting ready to walk down the highway, the buses started moving. We cheered and as the buses kept stopping to pick up people down the road, we saw no signs of traffic that the police warned us about. We were on the road to Jena; one family under a groove and nothing could stop us now.