I came across Charlotte Allen’s Jena story in a bookstore in Atlanta’s Peachtree Mall. I was killing time while my wife, Nancy, tried on shoes at the Naturalizers store. Glancing at the magazine rack, my attention was captured by the upper lefthand corner of the Weekly Standard: “Jena: the Amazing Disappearing Hate Crime.”
I plopped down $3.95 and gave Ms. Allen’s article a quick read. Gradually, it all came back to me. Allen called me up a few months ago, just as the furor over Jena was begining to fade. At the time, I was getting three or four calls from journalists every day and the conversations blur together. But Allen stuck out because her tone was unusually combative and . . . I think “dismissive” would be the word.
The Weekly Standard story is predicated on the now-familiar notion that Alan Bean twisted the facts to create a news story ex nihilo, out of nothing.
I hesitate to give Ms. Allen’s article more attention than it deserves. The piece doesn’t turn up readily in a Google search, and it is in my best interest to let it pass unnoticed. I bring it to your attention because it is makes explicit ideas that are often merely implied.
William Kristol’s Weekly Standard published Ms. Allen’s tortured prose because it reinforces the magazines editorial stance. Kristol (a newly minted New York Times columnist) is a neoconservative icon, a dreamer of dreams. The Standard helped create the moral and philosophical environment that gave us the Iraq War. Create a democratic eden in Iraq, the reasoning went, and corrupt Islamic regimes would topple like dominos all over the Middle East.
Kristol’s Standard sees America as an exceptional and potentially heroic nation. America is great because she nurtures virtues like integrity, honesty, fidelity, and perseverance. These admirable qualities are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and would collapse without it. We cannot afford to embrace diversity too enthusiastically, neo-cons believe, because America’s greatness is a product of western, white, Judeo-Christian culture. We are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.
This way of seeing the world necessitates faith in the wisdom and virtue of public institutions and public officials. These folks aren’t perfect, but in a rough and ready way they reflect the genius of America and are therefore worthy of trust and, yes, reverence.
Charlotte Allen is a professional debunker, adept at poking holes in liberal baloons. Her most ambitious efforts to date have been devoted to lampooning members of “the Jesus seminar” and their renewed quest for the historical Jesus. Allen is an orthodox, traditional Roman Catholic, thoroughly steeped in the wisdom of church fathers like Augustine and the authority of Mother Church.
Yesterday I introduced you to Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Patterson believes in a flawless Bible; Allen believes in a flawless tradition. Like Patterson, she has made common cause with traditionalists like Bill Kristol and Patterson’s Southern Baptist Convention . . . any port in a storm.
This explains why my take on Jena is so distasteful to people like Kristol and Allen. I have presented the public officials of Jena, Louisiana as self-serving, small-minded, dull-witted bureaucrats. I have repeatedly asserted that Jena is America. I contend that the American criminal justice system is corrupt, inefficient, unspeakably expensive, cruel, unusual, and counter-productive. I see the dream of American exceptionalism as an unqualified nightmare.
What is more, I say these things as a Baptist minister. My wife is also an ordained Baptist Minister, and she agrees with me. So does my father-in-law, Charles Kiker . . . you guessed it, Charles is also an ordained Baptist with a doctoral degree in Old Testament.
Ultimately, we are critical of public officials because we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Charlotte Allen worships the Christ of Church tradition who sitteth at the right hand of God; the Christ who turned over his mission to a human institution which now represents his interests. The Friends of Justice follow the historical Jesus (the one Allen says we will never find) who preached good news to the poor and who was crucified by religious and political luminaries.
Like Charlotte Allen, I believe in original sin (a good Augustinian doctrine if ever there was one). For evidence, I point to well-intentioned religionists like Reed Walters, while Allen references troubled black males like Mychal Bell.
I appreciate the efforts of police officers, prosecutors, judges and juries–they provide an invaluable service and are worthy of our prayers and our respect. Unfortunately, public officials are flesh and blood mortals who repeatedly fall prey to ignorance, self-delusion, hubris and blind ambition. These failings are particularly evident when the powerful confront the people Jesus called “the least of these”.
Allen’s version of the Jena story is copied, almost verbatim, from the annals of the Jena Times. Documents created by public officials like DA Reed Walters, local law enforcement, Sammy and Craig Franklin at the Times, the Alexandria TownTalk, and US Attorney Don Washington are swallowed whole and trusted implicitly. Information gleaned from poor black folks in Jena is dismissed out of hand.
My great sin was to accept the word of street punks like Robert Bailey over the word of public officials in good standing like Reed Walters.
I assured Charlotte Allen that I carefully perused every relevant issue of the Alexandria and Jena papers before I released a word about Jena to the national media. This meant long days in the local library and, at a quarter a page, a hefty photocopying bill.
In addition, I worshipped with the prominent white congregation Allen references in her article and spent an hour and a half discussing the issues with the town’s most prominent white pastor (who doubles as a reserve police officer).
Next, I made an appointment with Craig and Sammy Franklin at the Jena Times. I shared my take on the story with the Franklins and asked them to rebut my central contentions. Then, as Allen reports, I told them how the national media would handle the story.
Following that, I spent the better part of a day at the courthouse pouring over legal documents and eye witness statements. I photocopied this material and spent a full day pouring over it.
I talked to members of the local school board and got their side of the story with the proviso that I not mention them by name.
In addition, I talked to the only people who lived close enough to the salient events to know what actually went down–the young men now known as the Jena 6. I interviewed Robert Bailey for two hours in the lock-up on the second floor of the LaSalle Parish courthouse.
I didn’t accept the word of anyone involved in this story uncritically–original sin applies to every aspect of every person. Folks lie; they spin the truth; they pass over inconvenient details. My job was to learn everything a person could learn and then ask which version of the story made the most sense.
Ms. Allen’s essay has many low points (her faith in public officials is both touching and troubling), but the nadir comes with her treatment of Mychal Bell’s trial. Could a sentient being really consult the transcript of that unseemly affair and conclude that Blane Williams represented his client to the best of his ability? Does Ms. Allen have any idea what competent legal counsel looks like? This helps explain how court appointed attorneys can roll over and play dead in the courtroom and no one (apart from the defendant and his family) appears to notice.
Toward the end of my conversation with Ms. Allen I suggested that events in Jena unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The sins of the fathers were visited upon the children (black and white). If public officials in Jena had taken the noose incident seriously and confronted it boldly, a world of hurt would have been avoided and Jena, at long last, could have transcended her Jim Crow legacy.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen. To her credit, Charlotte Allen quotes Eddie Thompson, a Pentecostal pastor who lives close enough to the poor and blue collar folk in Jena to know what’s going on.
“It’s an unconscious racism,” Thompson told Allen, “something that most white people here aren’t even aware of. You see it in income disparities, the fact that blacks live in a lesser part of town and are a lower socioeconomic group. For the black community, there’s been a lack of ownership, a feeling that they weren’t part of the town.”
And this is why public officials were unable to respond to the message conveyed by the nooses hanging from the tree at the white end of the school courtyard–nobody was willing to bell the cat, to reference to the elephant in the room, to acknowledge that vestiges of Jim Crow segregation clung to the community like moss clings to the trees along Highway 8.
Unable to confront reality, people like Roy Breithaupt and Reed Walters decided to sweep the incident under the rug. I didn’t invent the unrest at the high school in the wake of the disciplinary committee’s refusal to attach any racial meaning to the noose hanging. The Jena Times reported that parents were coming to school to pick up their kids. White-on-black fights were breaking out all over the campus. All of this is a matter of public record.
I didn’t make up the incident that sparked a school assembly. Robert Bailey and his friends stook defiantly under the tree on the white end of the school ground. Why is there no documentary evidence of this event? Because it wasn’t in the interest of public officials to mention it. Instead, they called an unscheduled assembly at which Reed Walters made his infamous “stroke of my pen” comment.
I didn’t make that up either; Walters has admitted in open court that he made the remark. But what did it mean? According to Craig Franklin (whose version Walters’ remark departs considerably from the DA’s courtroom testimony), the words meant nothing at all. Or almost nothing. He was trying to silence the room. If the little chatterboxes didn’t shut up, so this version goes, Walters was willing to use the power of his office to make their lives disappear. Is that what he said? Is that what he meant?
No, his comments were directed at the black students whose legitimate protest had sparked the campus unrest the assembly was designed to quash. This is the only version of the facts that makes any sense whatsoever, a point Charlotte Allen would be forced to acknowledge if she gave the matter any thought.
Allen suggests that I invented a series of black-white confrontations involving Robert Bailey et al and the circle of friends surrounding the noose boys. If these violent altercations took place the way Robert Bailey claims they did, we have clear evidence that the hostility unleashed by the noose incident was alive and well in late November of 2006.
Unfortunately, the fights are not documented. By the time the police arrived on the scene, the participants had scattered and there was nothing to report.
Fortunately, private investigators have thoroughly researched my version of events and, on the basis of numerous interviews in Jena’s black and white communities, have confirmed my story. Should any of these cases proceed to trial, the truth will emerge.
I could walk you through Ms. Allen’s article paragraph-by-paragraph and reduce her claims to rubble, but what’s the point? The issue here is epistemological: how do we know what we know? Allen thinks you get at the truth by reading official documents produced by public officials. That’s a good place to start, but if that’s where you end up the full truth will remain illusive. Experience has taught me to distrust stories (be they ever so official) that don’t make sense.
Original sin dictates that, in her role as professional debunker, Charlotte Allen will always have plenty of material to work with whether she’s skewering the Jesus Seminar people or civil rights luminaries like Al Sharpton. When Jena went national an unholy host of saints and fools rushed to the fires of celebrity. Silly things were said and done. Am I responsible?
Did I oversimplify the story as some have alleged? Actually, I took a simple tale about black thugs beating up an innocent white kid and added several layers of inconvenient complexity–the truth is always more complicated than the newspapers (or the news magazines) would have us believe.Alan Bean Friends of Justice