Equal Justice Under Law?

Alan, Nancy and Lydia Bean were in Washington, DC this week. We were representing Friends of Justice at a social justice conference sponsored by Sojourners magazine and its sister organization, Call to Renewal. This was my third trip to the capital with our organization. My first was in the early summer of 2002 when I attended a civil rights conference with Freddie Brookins Sr. Freddie’s son had been swept up in the Tulia drug sting. A sleazy cop named Tom Coleman testified that young Freddie Brookins Jr. had sold him an 8-ball of powdered cocaine. Freddie Jr. said it never happened. Freddie Sr. believed his son. The jury believed Coleman. Freddie Jr. went down for twenty years.

While in Washington, Freddie Brookins Sr. and I were strolling around the National Mall in our cowboy boots and Friends of Justice t-shirts. When the Supreme Court building loomed above us, Freddie asked me to take a picture of him with the impressive edifice as a backdrop. As I framed the picture on Freddie’s camera I noticed the famous inscription on the Court’s façade and repeated it out loud: “Equal Justice Under Law”.

“Yeah, right!” Freddie responded with a grunt of disgust. An explanation wasn’t necessary.

A year later, I was back in DC at the behest of the Black Congressional Caucus. Maxine Waters wanted a couple of Tom Coleman’s victims to appear on a panel alongside some of the attorneys who had represented them. Dennis Allen and Freddie Brookins Jr. had only been in the free world for a week or two when I took them to DC. When the security people at the Amarillo airport asked for identification, Dennis and Freddie flashed their inmate cards from the Texas prison system. The guards didn’t look reassured—but we got on the plane anyway. While in town we visited the Supreme Court building and I remembered the elder Brookins’ response to the “equal justice under law” motto. I wondered if Freddie had changed his mind now that his son had been exonerated by the same system that convicted him.

The Beans were in Washington this week to talk about Tulia and some of our recent adventures in Louisiana. The highlight of the week was a candidate’s forum in which the three Democratic presidential frontrunners, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards answered questions about faith and poverty. The event was sponsored by Sojourners and carried live on CNN. When Soledad O’Brian finished interviewing Wallis and the Democratic hopefuls, she turned things over to Paula Zahn.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with a producer for Paula Zahn’s NOW program. She was in Jena, Louisiana interviewing some of the boys facing life sentences for their alleged part in a school fight. She had also spoken to the family of the boy on the receiving end of the school violence and had conducted a series of random person on the street interviews (the piece airs tonight, June 7, at 8:00 Eastern, 7:00 Central). She told me that most white folks in Jena believe the media has “blown things way out of proportion.” But when people are asked if they think virtual life sentences are an appropriate penalty for involvement in a school fight, “They have nothing to say—they don’t seem to be able to interact with the question.”

This morning I got a call from a white woman who grew up in Jena, Louisiana. “Thank you so much for standing up for those six black boys,” she told me. “But don’t think that blacks are the only victims in LaSalle Parish—they do us poor whites the same way.”

That’s why Friends of Justice talks about “The New Jim Crow”. We have all heard about the wealth gap. Thousands of articles have been written about how the upper 5% of the population has been making out like bandits. Less attention is being directed to the bottom 5th percentile—the folks grossly overrepresented in the prison population. I read this morning that poor Paris Hilton has been shifted to home arrest after five harrowing days in prison. The night before I watched two back-to-back reruns of “The Closer” in which, as always, rich white guys from the upper 5th percentile were sent to the slammer for greed-based murders most foul. In reality, however, prison is reserved for the surplus population—particularly poor people of color. These facts aren’t open to serious dispute.

What is in dispute is how best to respond to our burgeoning wealth gap and its alarming consequences. To date, we have decided to use the dynamics of the New Jim Crow to warehouse the “dangerous classes” in prison. To facilitate this dismal experiment in social engineering we have made it as easy as possible for people like District Attorney Reed Walters to incarcerate young men like Robert Bailey in Jena or for prosecutors like Terry McEachern to lock up folks like Freddie Brookins, or for Assistant US Attorneys like the egregious Brett Grayson to lock up Ann Colomb and three of her children. We then make it as difficult for poor people to survive on the streets once they are released from prison. This insures that, in most cases, their stay in the free world will be nasty, brutish and short.

You may believe that this is a fine recipe for public safety, a prudential response to the glories of globalization and our steadily growing wealth gap. But if we want to make the New Jim Crow a permanent feature of American life we need to hire somebody with a sandblaster to remove the words, “Equal Justice Under Law” from the façade of the Supreme Court.

This will require the drafting of a new motto—we can’t just leave the space blank. How about, “The Best Justice Money Can Buy!” A bit tacky? Perhaps. If you have a better idea, I welcome your suggestions.

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Related Links:
The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0606/p01s02-uspo.html
Sojourners: http://go.sojo.net/campaign/voteoutpoverty/wnswus5r2e3bdwb?
Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/04/AR2007060401989.html
Cal Thomas: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/06/whats_faith_got_to_do_with_it.html
U.S. News and World Report: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070601/01evangelicals.htm
CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/06/05/democrats.religion.ap/index.html