Charlotte Allen Responds

Rev. Bean has graciously offered me an opportunity to write a critique of his critique of my Jan. 21 article for the Weekly Standard, “Jena: the Amazing Disappearing Hate Crime,” so I am herewith taking him up on his offer.            

First, Rev. Bean accuses me and the Weekly Standard of subscribing to an ideology centered around a “white, Judeo-Christian culture.” It hardly bears pointing out that both Judaism and Christianity are historically rooted in the Middle East, that is, Asia. As the religious historian Philip Jenkins, author of “The Next Christendom” (2002), never tires of pointing out, Christianity is in fact moribund in “white” Western Europe, while it is growing exponentially in the Global South—Africa, Asia, and South America, where they actually believe what the Bible says, including all that stuff about Christ sitting “at the right hand of God,” in contrast to being eaten by wild dogs after his crucifixion as the Jesus Seminar people claim. Indeed, as Jenkins notes, “Africa may soon be home to the world’s largest Christian populations.” So I don’t get what Rev. Bean means about Christian culture being “white” or anti-“diversity.” Even in America, the vast majority of blacks and Hispanics are Christians.            

Second, Rev. Bean argues that because I am a Roman Catholic (my response: guilty as charged), and I believe in the teaching authority of my church as not only the “human institution” (I’d call it an all-too-human institution) that Rev. Bean describes but also as an institution divinely guided by the Holy Spirit, I take at face value all truth-claims made by secular authority figures, in particular the secular authority figures in Jena, Louisiana.            

This charge, as well as the leap of logic that it entails, is absurd. The “official documents” that I consulted for my story consisted of transcripts made by the court reporter and photocopies of handwritten witness statements made by members of the Jena Six and also by the students, teachers, and school administrators who witnessed the attack on Justin Barker on Dec. 4, 2006. Those documents recorded what people said, not officials’ spin on what they said. I also read the thorough, almost daily, contemporaneous reporting on the noose-hangings and the Barker assault in the Alexandria, La., Town Talk, a non-Jena newspaper whose coverage was criticized by some Jena whites I interviewed for being overly sympathetic to the Jena Six and for supposedly blowing the noose incident out of proportion.            

In none of those sources did I find any corroboration for three assertions made by Rev. Bean in his narrative, presumably on the basis of his interviews with members of the the Jena Six and their relatives: 1) that black students at Jena High School, whether including or excluding Jena Six member Robert Bailey Jr., had staged a protest under the noose tree (I’m not saying they didn’t, but merely that no one, including the black parents outraged by the nooses themselves, mentioned any protest); 2) that LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters was specifically addressing (and hence threatening) the protesting black students, or any black students at Jena High, when he made his “stroke of the pen” speech at the school assembly; and 3) that Bailey was hit over the head by whites wielding beer bottles—or even by a single white wielding a single beer bottle—during the Fair Barn altercation on Dec. 1, 2006, necessitating a trip by Bailey to a hospital emergency room for stitches. For example, Bailey’s own victim-impact statement, part of the court record in the criminal case brought against his assailant, Justin Sloan, did not mention bottles, other weapons, or medical treatment of any kind.            

The rubber hit the road regarding corroboration for all three incidents at a hearing on June 13, 2007, on an unsuccessful motion by Bailey’s lawyer, Samuel Thomas, to have Walters recused as prosecutor for having a personal interest in the case that hindered the fair and impartial administration of justice. A transcript of that hearing lies on my desk as I write this. That hearing was Thomas’s big chance to offer evidence concerning the alleged protest under the tree, the alleged threat by Walters at the assembly, and Bailey’s alleged  hospitalization, all of which Thomas had made part of the grounds in his motion to get Walters off the case. Thomas in fact presented not a shred of evidence at the hearing supporting the proposition that any of those three incidents had actually occurred: not a word of testimony from Fair Barn partygoers or Jena High students, teachers, or administrators who had been present at the assembly, not a single emergency-room or other medical record. 

Indeed, Thomas did not even ask the then-principal of Jena High, Scott Windham, who had been in the auditorium at the assembly and whom Thomas called as a witness at the hearing, whether he had perceived Walters’s “stroke of the pen” statement as having been addressed only to black students. So for me the question was: Do you believe Rev. Bean’s narrative (and its various permutations as its contents filtered into news reports and blogs) or your own lying eyes reading this transcript? 

Finally, there is the matter of Mychal Bell’s supposedly incompetent respresentation at his adult trial by the black public defender Blane Williams, I’d like to know exactly what else Williams could have done at that trial, beyond what he did do: cross-examine the students who had witnessed the assault on Barker and preserve a number of legal issues for appeal. Had Williams called his client to the stand, he would not only have waived Bell’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination but subjected him to impeachment by his own witness statement and the improbable chain of events it recorded, plus undoubtedly a string of rebuttal witnesses. Whom else could Williams have put on the stand? Other members of the Jena Six? Good luck. Bell’s mother? What could she have said—”My son, he’s a good boy”? The problem Williams faced was that, as Bell’s subsequent guilty plea indicated, his client didn’t have much of a case. I don’t see how Bell’s high-power new team of lawyers from Monroe did any better a job of representing him than Williams had. Arguably they made things worse by exposing Bell’s prior criminal record to public scrutiny. 

I’m not saying that “original sin,” as Rev. Bell so Augustinian-ly puts it, didn’t play a role in the racial black eye that Jena received over the noose and Barker incidents. As I wrote in my article, the LaSalle Parish school board failed to communicate adequately to the black residents of Jena and to the world at large that hanging nooses on a schoolyard tree was intolerable. Public officials and white Jena citizens who could have spoken to the press early and forthrightly about the various incidents chose not to do so. As I also said in my article, Walters’s original charge of attempted second-degree murder against the Jena Six was probably excessive, although it was certainly not improper, given that repeated kicks to the head can be fatal and the attack on Barker ended only after teachers and other students at Jena High pulled his assailants off his unconscious body. But none of the evidence I looked at persuaded me that systemic racial injustice, whether peculiar to Jena or symptomatic of America as a whole, played any role in the prosecution of the Jena Six. 

As an irresistible footnote, I might add that the Jena Six would come off as more sympathetic and credible if they didn’t get involved in incidents like this one. http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2008/0207082jena1.html

3 thoughts on “Charlotte Allen Responds

  1. As Ms. Allen would say, “just for funsies,” here’s the letter that the Weekly Standard published in this week’s edition in which Ms. Allen was forced to concede several major errors in her article as they pertained to my writing about Jena. Goodness knows how many other errors are lurking in her piece…

    Jena, Versailles, and Cuomo
    02/11/2008, Volume 013, Issue 21

    JENA REVISED

    I APPRECIATE THAT Charlotte Allen, in her piece criticizing media coverage of the Jena Six story, “Jena: The Case of the Amazing Disappearing Hate Crime” (January 21), credited my reporting as “temperate” and duly noted that my body of work is balanced and included a story pointing out problems with the accounting of the funds donated to the Jena Six defense fund. But since Allen purports to be doing a precise factual deconstruction of the Jena coverage, I must point out three errors in her analysis of my coverage.

    First, in her effort to prove that my stories “hewed closely” to the Jena narrative prepared by civil rights activist Alan Bean, Allen states that I passed along Bean’s assertion that LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters had attended an assembly at Jena High School and directed threats at black students. In fact, I could never confirm this incident during my frequent reporting trips to Jena, and, while it may appear in other journalists’ stories about Jena, you will not find it in any of my coverage.

    Second, Allen asserts that my stories contained no interviews with any African-American residents of Jena beyond the Jena Six and their families. This is demonstrably false. In my very first story about Jena, published on May 20, 2007, I quoted one mother of a Jena Six defendant; two white town officials (the mayor and the school superintendent); a white preacher; a white civil rights activist; and two black Jena residents who were unconnected to the Jena Six defendants or their families. One of those African Americans was the lone black member of the Jena school board, who verified that “whites and blacks are treated differently here.” Subsequent stories I wrote about Jena quoted other African Americans as well.

    Third, contrary to Allen’s assertion, the Denver Post is not owned by the Tribune Company.

    HOWARD WITT
    Houston, Tex.

    CHARLOTTE ALLEN RESPONDS: I owe Howard Witt a clarification for my “hewed closely” sentence. I lumped Witt’s reporting with that of the BBC’s Tom Mangold, giving the misleading impression that Witt had reported LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters’s supposed threat to black students at a Jena High School assembly in September 2006. Witt never reported that.

    As for Witt’s allegation that I said his stories “contained no interviews with African-American residents of Jena beyond the Jena Six and their families,” I did not write that. What I wrote was this: “A noticeable feature of all the news stories about the Jena Six was the almost-complete absence of interviews with any black residents of Jena beyond the Jena Six and their family members.” Note the “almost.” A few interviews with other black residents of Jena do pop up here and there in Witt’s stories and those of other reporters but not many.

    I stand corrected as to the Denver Post’s ownership.

  2. “Several major errors,” Mr. Witt? I count one minor error and a clarification regarding your reporting of the Jena story.

  3. You know, Allen,
    You are beating a dead horse! It is over! Give it a rest! Your side lost, the RIGHT side won!!
    Or, are you, as a false prophet and simply seeking the approval of the king’s court, as the false prophets did before you?

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