“I don’t like to talk about ‘at-risk’ kids,” the man was saying. “We need to start holding people responsible for their actions. It’s time to stop making excuses.”
The remark was made in the fellowship hall of a Dallas church during a well-attended presentation by the Children’s Defense Fund on ”dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline.
“A lot of us rode the buses down to Jena, Louisiana a few months ago,” the man continued, “to speak up for the Jena 6. And then we read that one of these kids just got picked up for attacking a fellow student right here in Dallas. Imagine that, after thousands of people sacrifice so much to stand up for him, he goes and lets us down.”
As Charlotte Allen would say, the remark was “irresistable”. It was the elephant in the room; somebody had to say it.
I am often asked if, given the manifest imperfections of the Jena 6, I regret bringing their story to the attention of the world. What about the money-in-the-mouth stunt on YouTube, or the “thuggin’ for the cameras” episode in Atlanta? What about the disclosure of Mychal Bell’s juvenile record? And now Bryant Purvis slams the head of a fellow student into a desk for allegedly deflating the tires of his car. If we’re going to defend victims of injustice, people ask, shouldn’t we be looking for a latter day Rosa Parks?
No, we shouldn’t. There may be instances in which paragons like sister Rosa are railroaded by the system, but they are aberrations. A good justice narrative captures a localized and specific example of a national phenomenon–we focus on the rule, not the exception.
Rosa Parks wasn’t the first African American to go to jail in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to yield her seat to a white person. Months earlier, a young woman named Claudette Colvin had experienced precisely the same indignity. But Claudette had issues. She didn’t leave the bus with quiet dignity and she was carrying a child conceived outside of marriage. Civil rights leaders (wisely) decided to pass on Ms. Colvin.
But that was 1955. The spiritual heirs of Rosa Parks aren’t going to jail; these days, prison space is reserved for kids like Claudette Colvin.
Claudette Colvin possessed many redeeming qualities. So does Bryant Purvis. Bryant is a big kid; six-foot-six and still growing. He’s intelligent. He’s unusually good looking. The kid has potential. Although he stands accused of assaulting Justin Barker, eye witness statements suggest he wasn’t present at the scene.
Reed Walters would eventually have dropped all charges against Bryant Purvis if events had been allowed to play out naturally. Now, all bets are off.
Friends of Justice is dedicated to the non-violent teaching of Jesus; the philosophy that inspired Gandhi and King. But we also stand with little kids and adolescents victimized by the foolish and short-sighted decisions of adults. In her address to the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta, Marian Wright Edelman told us that she is often asked “what’s wrong with the children.” “There’s nothing wrong with the children,” she replies; “the problem is with the grown-ups”.
By “grown-ups,” Ms. Wright Edelman isn’t just talking about out-of-control mothers and fathers who abnegate their parental responsibilities (although they are part of the picture). The grown-ups most responsible for the plight of our children are policy makers whose callous decisions have placed innocent children in harm’s way.
To employ a biblical image, Jena is about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. A year ago, I spoke to over 100 members of Jena’s black community at a public meeting at a local Baptist church.
“Our children have tried to work things out the way things are worked out in the schoolyard,” I said, ”through intimidation, violence and revenge. But it was not their job to work things out—it was not their job to say yes and no—that is a job for adults. Had the adults said no in September, had they said it loud, and had they said it proud, had they said it like they meant it, there would have been no fight at the Fair Barn because there would have been nothing to fight about. And without a fight at the Fair Barn there would have been no need for retaliation in the school yard.”
The events of the past year have done nothing to alter my perspective.
Shortly after speaking in Jena last year, I flew to Atlanta for a summit on the misuse of confidential informants. During a breakout session I had an informative chat with Ed Burns, co-writer of HBO’s The Wire. Ed told me he had worked as both a school teacher and a police officer in Baltimore, experiences which allowed him to see the social catastrophe playing out in that city from both sides. The Wire focuses on young, black inner city men caught up in the drug trade. Some of these guys are cold-blooded killers: the kind of people who need to be in prison. But most of the characters are normal kids living in the middle of a toxic environment. They try to break free, but they can’t. Eventually, they all find their way into the morgue or the criminal justice system.
Ed Burns provides an insider’s different perspective on police work; his officers are more sinner than saint. Internecine power struggles abound. Rogue cops beat helpless suspects and pocket money seized in drug raids. The line between “real police” who go by the book and bad cops on the make is drawn in shades of gray. No one faults Ed Burns and David Simon, his co-writer, for glorifying the thug life or for demonizing law enforcement–the portrait is too stark and unsentimental to be denied. Burns and Simon are like the inner city poets celebrated by Bruce Springsteen who “just stand back and let it all be.”
Rosa Parks was the perfect symbol for the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s; her story drove the Old Jim Crow regime to its knees. But the New Jim Crow gives Rosa Parks a pass.
In 2008, the heirs of Claudette Colvin are caught in the crosshairs and somebody needs to tell their story. We can no longer afford to deal in hagiography (stories of the saints); by definition, the children in the cradle to prison pipeline are deeply troubled. Criminal justice reformers have two options: we can eschew the narrative strategy altogether in favor of statistics-laden policy papers, or we can tell real-life, Bruce Springsteen, Ed Burns, Claudette Colvin-type stories that just ”stand back and let it all be.”
Friends of Justice will continue to tell Claudette’s story. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s the truth.