Correction appended. See below.
Yesterday afternoon, a large group, most dressed in black, gathered on Ho Plaza under a tree strung with six nooses.
The group, consisting of students, faculty and members of the Ithaca community, was gathered for a demonstration held by the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., and the Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc., in support of the Jena Six, each represented by a noose.
Racial tensions erupted in violence in Jena, Louisiana last August, when a group of black students sat under a tree at Jena High School where white students typically sat. In response, white students hung nooses from the tree and provoked a series of skirmishes throughout the town.
In one incident, a white man was charged with battery after beating up a black man who showed up at a “white” party.
However, when the six students who have come to be known as the Jena Six fought a white student at lunch, they were charged with second-degree murder and sent to jail with bails set near $100,000.
The demonstration at Cornell was held to coincide with similar demonstrations held around the country today, the day Mychal Bell, one of the Six, was supposed to be sentenced. However, his conviction was overturned because his lawyers say he should not have been tried as an adult.
Brittany Swift ’08, president of Sigma Gamma Rho, helped organize the Cornell demonstration because “[the story] wasn’t getting enough national attention . . . and I didn’t see anybody else stepping in.”
“Not enough people at Cornell know about it because we live in a bubble,” she added.
Alex Haber ’08, who attended the demonstration, agreed.
“I think it’s egregious that such a blatantly racist event could take place in our country and that Ho Plaza isn’t full of people [coming out against it],” said Haber.
The demonstration opened with remarks by Chris Whylie ’10, vice president of Iota Phi Theta, who helped organize the event.
After explaining the story behind the Jena Six controversy, he told the applauding crowd, “When you see something that you don’t think is right, don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t think this is right.’”
After Whylie’s remarks, attendees were encouraged to sign petitions to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) and the Jena District Attorney Reed Walters, asking for fairness and justice for the Jena Six.
Amanda Colon ’09, who initiated the protest idea, said the petitions were important because “We have to do something.”
She added that the demonstration sought to more effective by encouraging more direct involvement.
People at the demonstration could buy black solidarity ribbons for $1 whose proceeds would be sent to the Jena Six in order to help cover the costs accrued by the court proceedings.
Blanco’s phone numbers were also displayed and attendees were encouraged to call her and declare their support for the Jena Six.
People at the demonstration were invited to participate in a “speak out” and express their thoughts on the incident.
About a dozen people spoke, voicing their horror at the “blatant racism” in Jena and hoping that the incident would draw attention to racism all over America.
One speaker said the public outcry shows that, “you can’t attack [minorities] without a response.”
Lisa Guido, an Ithaca resident, spoke about attending the trial of Bell. She brought her family to the trial to “witness the event and show support to the Jena Six and their families.”
She said that her two young children played with relatives of the Jena Six, an action that she hoped sent a message against racism.
Black Students United senior co-president Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08 also spoke, pressing the crowd to recognize that racism is still an issue.
“You have to destroy the temporal distance between then and now. So many things we fought against back then are still present now,” she said.
She said she hoped people wouldn’t be “lulled into a false sense of security.”
Later, in his concluding words, Whylie urged the crowd, “Do something. Take a stance. Don’t be the kid who goes home and goes to sleep tonight thinking that everyone else will take action for you.”
Dr. Karen Williams, who works at Gannett, said she attended the demonstration because her son is a black man around the same age as the Jena Six. She asked, “Why would I not be here?”
Lumumba-Kasongo called the event a success, saying the demonstration showed, “We do have the power to affect change.”
She said she hoped that the event had raised awareness not only of the plight of the Jena Six, but also of the racism that many black people face everywhere.
“For black students, race is a daily reality and others don’t realize it,” Lumumba-Kasongo said. “I hope this alerts people to find out about black people and their issues even here at Cornell.”
Correction: This article incorrectly states that the Jena Six were charged with second-degree murder. They were actually originally charged with second-degree attempted murder. The Sun regrets this error.