Telling Claudette’s Story

Rosa and Claudette
Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin

“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.


4 thoughts on “Telling Claudette’s Story

  1. Excellent, Alan. Of course we (you) will always have to deal with the “fan mail” of Charlotte Allen and her spiritual and intellectual kin.

  2. You musn’t shy away from the truth just to avoid steeping on the toes of an elite few or damaging the glass houses that so many in society live in.The trhuth is what it is, so they can’t balme you, if the blame is to be placed anywhere blame it on the “TRUTH”.

    Let The Truth Be Told, Another Legal Lynching In Dallas, Texas”

    State of Texas v. Lakeith Amir-Sharif

    “There is no crueler tyranny than that which is exercised under cover of law, with the colors of justice”… U.S. v. Jannotti, 673 F.2d 578, 618 (3rd Cir. 1982)
    Martin Niemoeller, a Dachau concentration camp survivor, wrote these haunting words after his release:

    “I didn’t speak up!
    In Germany, the Nazis? came? for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then, they came for me? and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.”

    It is the belief of many within society and the justice system that poor and working class black, brown and yellow people aren’t committed enough to make a difference.” Lets prove them wrong. Get involved, act today. If you are not doing something to change the system and the process, you have no right to complain. So, let’s get to work.

    Making The Walls Transparent (MTWT-TEXAS)

  3. State of Texas v. Lakeith Amir-Sharif
    F0525061, F0559639, MA0521971,MA0425257

    To find many of the answers as to why there was a Fake Drug Scandal in Dallas, and why 15 recently exonerated citizens were wrongfully arrested, tried and convicted, to prison, and why 400 plus others imprisoned citizens from Dallas County alone are claiming they were wrongful convicted and that DNA testing will prove their innocence, you need to look no further than the case of Lakeith Amir-Sharif and the many things MTWT, Justice Watch, Prison Legal News (PLN) and others have pointed out to the world via MTWT’s website and other sources. Today, the wrongfully accused is Sharif, but tomorrow it could be you, or someone you know or care about.

    For all those interested, especially investigative news reporters and concerned taxpayers, a Public Records Request will verify everything that MTWT, Justice Watch and other have been saying about the shameful prosecution of Lakeith Amir-Sharif:

    1.) Based on (closely guarded) information and belief thus far the Dallas DA” Watkins and the judges have squandered over two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000.00) of our tax dollars to try and gain a conviction based on the allegations of a woman whose credibility leaves al lot to be desired. Why is the D.A.’s office prosecuting charges that would of never gone beyond the police investigation stage where it in the majority of other jurisdictions around the U.S. Why such zeal to convict this man? Why the total disregard for being a good steward of taxpayers money.? There is nothing “smart” (on crime) about this. Given all the thousands wasted thus, its fair to say the Dallas D.A.‘s office is treating this like a capitol murder case. Why?

    2.)The alleged victim/witness, Cathy Jonette Hawkins is a vindictive, and heartbroken ex-girlfriend who has changed her story every time she has told it. More specifically, Ms. Hawkins committed aggravated perjury in her three criminal complaint affidavits, filed Nov. 23, 2004; Feb. 10, 2005 and Sept. 01, 2005. Ms. Hawkins has also given contradictory and inconsistent testimony about the alleged crimes when she appeared in court on November 17, 2005 in front of former Dallas District Judge Manny Alvarez. . Mr. Watkins’ DA’s office is aware of but has ignored all of this. Why, is Ms. Hawkins perjured testimony the ?

    3.) Police officers from the Farmers Branch Police Department committed perjury in their affidavits presented to the magistrate judge to obtain an arrest warrant for the alleged Stalking charge. in those affidavits the officers falsely claimed on numerous occasions that they had responded to calls to Ms. Hawkins place of employment and home regarding criminal acts perpetuated by Sharif.

    There is “NO” police report on file that shows the Farmers Branch Police responded to Ms. Hawkins home, and only two reports can be found that they responded to her job. Only one of the dates given in their affidavits match the numerous dates given to they alleged when seeking the arrest warrant.

    4.) The Stalking charge is “statutorily invalid” and was known to be so by the Bill Hill administration when it was presented to the Grand Jury. The Texas Penal Code at sec. 42.07 requires two (2) reported incidents of stalking, yet there is “NO” two police report of stalking on file with either the Dallas or farmers Branch Police Departments. Why, was this charge ever processed and why are tax dollars still being used to prosecute this case?

    5.) For 16 1/2 months while Sharif sat in the Dallas County Jail, he was court-appointed two different attorneys and neither of these attorneys filed any motions on Sharif’s behalf. These court-appointed attorneys also “NEVER”:

    a. Conducted any investigations, to prepare a defense.

    b. Requested any subpoenas to obtain security footage available that could of proven that Sharif was not anywhere in the area at the time alleged in the Stalking complaint.

    c. Requested any subpoenas to obtain telephone records, pawn store receipts, and other financial statements of the victim and Sharif, which would of discredited Ms. Hawkins claims that she had broken off her relationship and she was not intimately involved with Sharif after mid 2004 and all of 2005. Why hasn’t the DA’s office verified this?

    6.) Ms. Hawkins wrote a letter stating Sharif is “innocent”. Why, has the judges, the DA’s and even Sharif’s court-appointed attorneys suppressed this evidence? Why hasn’t a handwriting expert been sought if the letters authenticity is in question? Why hasn’t Ms. Hawkins herself been questioned about this letter if truth and justice is what these proceeding are actually about?

    7.) Sharif has been denied his Constitutional right to a speedy trial on a 2004 misdemeanor charge involving Ms. Hawkins. Why despite numerous request from Sharif has the judges and his court-appointed attorneys refused to grant him his day in court on this charge? He has more than enough time served, so why is the DA’s office wasting tax dollars by prosecuting it?

    8.) Sharif was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (to wit: a car) causing serious bodily injury. There are several problems with this charge, which on the part of Sharif was a at beast a simple car accident.
    a. First, the alleged victim Ms. Hawkins suffered “NO” injury, repeat “NO” injury. No medical attention was ever sought by this woman.

    b. Second, it was Ms. Hawkins who first ran her car into Sharif knocking him onto the hood of her car and causing him serious bodily injury resulting in Sharif being hospitalized. Why wasn’t/hasn’t Ms. Hawkins been charged for her criminal actions?
    Selective prosecution and unequal justice which Texas is famous for

    c. Third, after running over Sharif Ms. Hawkins tried to flee the scene of the crime. She drove erratically through her and Sharif’s apartment complex towards the exit gate. She abruptly slammed on brakes o avoid hitting the exit gate that was closing. This caused Sharif who was following her to hit the rear end of Ms. Hawkins’ car. Where is the crime of aggravated assault in this incident?

    d. Why did the DA’s office wait 9 months after the incident and the creation of Making The Walls Transparent (MTWT’s) website which exposes the injustices in the Dallas justice and jail system before charging Sharif? Is there a connection?

    e. Why wasn’t this incident investigated by police as a crime, rather than an unverifiable “traffic accident”?

    9.) The office and Dallas DA Craig Watkins himself are the defendants in a pending federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Sharif in 2006. Is it not a conflict of interest for Mr. Watkins and his staff to be in charge of prosecuting these charges against Sharif? Does the pending civil rights litigation have any impact on the impartiality of the prosecution? has or does the pending litigation play a role in DA Watkins decisions made with respect to how these charges against Sharif are being handled?
    The foregoing facts exposes a undeniable example of ill begotten power in the hands of irresponsible and unethical prosecutors inside the Dallas DA’s office.

    There are many more red flags and unethical behind-the-scene activities inn the case of Sharif. If we continue to deprive citizens of their legal and Constructional rights then we will be no better then the Nazi’s. each of you receiving his email have a stake in the quality of our justice system and the perception that the nation and world has of the State of Texas.

  4. In the Texas justice system, and particularly in Dallas County, there are many examples of the fundamental unfairness, class discrimination, blatant racism, police, judicial and prosecutorial misconduct and repeated human/civil rights violations that take place daily. No better example of this is the arrest, indictments and prosecution of Lakeith Amir-Sharif on charges that lack a factual basis and are based solely on sloppy police and prosecution investigations, questionable acts by judges, and the knowingly perjured testimony of a angry, vindictive, and heart broken ex-girlfriend named Cathy Jonette Hawkins. Now this case like the majority of criminal cases prosecuted inside this country “does not” involve DNA, so any reforms of our criminal justice system must take this fact into account when trying to address the larger problems that affect the system. There is a greater possibility of an innocent person being convicted in non-DNA cases than if there is DNA available.

    A casual review of the facts and circumstances surrounding of Mr. Amir-Sharif’s cases will leave you wondering why has the Dallas D.A.’s office continued to prosecute this innocent man; and at the expense to taxpayers of over two hundred fifty thousand dollars to date ($250,000.00). You’ll see that the only thing Lakeith is guilty of is adultery, but that isn’t a criminal offense, nor is it reason to warrant a 20 – 30 year sentence as the prosecution is seeking. This ill-conceived prosecution was started by the racist and unethical former D.A. Bill Hill, and it illustrates for people everywhere why Texas (and especially the Dallas justice system which leads the nation in the number of DNA exonerations) is in such a crisis. The case of Mr. Amir-Sharif is 101′ study of American Injustice at it’s best/worse.

    Lakeith Amir-Sharif is “INNOCENT” and we at Making The Walls Transparent, America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Justice Watch will continue to say it until justice is served in Lakeith’s case and other cases in which the defendant is not guilty of the crime they have been charged with. Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, the judges and others are well aware of Lakeith’s innocence but they have turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the people’s call for justice in this case. The biggest obstacle that stands in Lakeith’s way is that he is young, black, and without the means to afford competent and effective legal representation interested in seeing justice served. This is suppose to be a constitutional right of his, but like many low-income defendants around the country the reality is much more different than mirage of justice presented by the system. Lakeith is a good father and single parent who is currently caring for his 3 year old daughter.

    We the friends and family are bringing this unfortunate ordeal to the people in hopes that by doing so others will be inspired to stand up for their rights and confront injustices that we know aren‘t just occurring in Jena, LA, Dallas, Texas but that are taking place daily in your area also. We hope that no other person in Texas or elsewhere has to ever have to experience the pains and indignities caused by the injustice we have, because what Amir-Sharif goes through we his love ones also share in his suffering.



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