With a Stroke of my Pen

This month, I wrote a song about the crisis in Jena, Louisiana. The first verse sets up a critical moment: when the District Attorney came to the high school to speak to the students after three nooses were hung in the courtyard:

Down in Jena, Louisiana,
There’s a tree in the square
There’s a fire at the schoolhouse,
There’s a noose in the air.
Down in Jena, Louisiana,
In the land of the free,
There’s a man at the courthouse
And he’s talking to me:
“Sunday morning, I’m a church mouse,
But Monday morning at the courthouse,
With a stroke of my pen,
I’ll make your whole world end,
And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Won’t put your world
Back together again.

Why would a district attorney conclude that a flash of school violence in which no one was seriously injured translates into fifty years in prison without parole? Wednesday’s recusal hearing at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse provided some answers.

Attorneys for two of the Jena defendants are contending that DA Reed Walters should recuse himself because he is personally invested in these cases. Exhibit 1 was the nasty statement Walters published in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested. “I will not tolerate this type of behavior,” Walters wrote. “To those who act in this manner, I tell you that you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and with the harshest crimes that the facts justify. When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law. I will see to it that you never again menace the students at any school in this parish.”

These angry words take on a new significance when they are linked to comments Walters made at the Jena High School auditorium a few days after three nooses swung from a tree in the school courtyard. A black freshman, you will recall, had asked if black students could sit under an oak tree on the traditionally white side of the school courtyard. The remarkably light punishment was justified by the perception that the boys had committed an innocent prank free of racial overtones. The day after the punishment was announced, several black students “occupied” the space under the now infamous tree.

And who do you suppose took the lead in this spontaneous act of protest? You got it—the young black athletes now known as the Jena 6.

School authorities were terrified. Every police officer in LaSalle Parish was summoned to the school. Several dozen black students were standing under the tree surrounded by a ring of white students. A dozen police officers looked on helplessly until a school bell summoned the students to class.

To the white authority figures in Jena, Louisiana, the impromptu demonstration led by the Jena 6 had the feel of anarchy. The principal called the entire student body to the school auditorium for an unscheduled assembly. A sheriff’s deputy called Reed Walters and told him to get over to the High School immediately.

Reed Walters took the stand on two occasions during the June 13th recusal hearing. Asked to describe his emotional state the day of the school protest, Walters said he was frustrated and angry. “I had just been handed an aggravated rape case,” the DA explained; he was trying to decide whether to press for the death penalty. “I was really wrapped up in that,” he said.

In comparison to his important rape case, the disturbance at the high school was much ado about nothing. “I told the students I was tired of what was going on,” Walters testified. “I was tired of the problem they were having. I felt that this was something they needed to handle themselves.”

Here we reach the crux of the matter. If the student protest was a justifiable response to a bizarre and unjust disciplinary decision, Mr. Walters’ reaction is incomprehensible. But if the noose incident really was a childish prank, it follows logically that the Jena 6 and those who followed their lead were exploiting the situation as an excuse for making trouble. They weren’t really concerned about racism or equality, the argument goes—they were just a bunch of thugs who needed to be straightened out.

Everything Reed Walters said the day of the protest under the tree reflects precisely this attitude. “I would like to be your best friend,” he told the students; but I can be your worst enemy.”

Then, with a dramatic flourish, Walters brandished his pen like the sword of Damocles. “With a stroke of this pen,” he told the students, “I can take your life away!”

Everyone testifying at the June 13th hearing, Walters included, agreed that this statement was made—but who was the intended audience?

White students? Not at all—they were happy as clams with the situation and were in no mood to protest. Walters was talking to black students, in general—and to the Jena 6, in particular. He was telling them that if they continued to cause trouble, he would destroy them. His remarks in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested in early December show that he was making good on a threat he had issued back in September.

Reed Walters suggested that the white and black students needed to work things out for themselves. They did. None of the tragic events that have placed Jena, Louisiana on the map would have taken place had Reed Walters kept his pen in his pocket and delivered a different speech. He could have called the nooses a hate crime. He could have denounced that crime and called for every authority figure in LaSalle Parish to follow his lead.

But, as a practical matter, Reed Walters had no choice but to wave his pen and issue threats. If the nooses constituted a hate crime he would have been forced to file charges against white students—a one-way ticket to political disaster. The white community had already decided to treat the noose incident as a harmless stunt and the DA had no choice but to follow their lead.

The assault at the school in December was a direct consequence of the DA’s bizarre speech in September. Reed Walters sowed the wind; Justin Barker and Robert Bailey reaped the whirlwind. Mr. Walters is prosecuting a crime produced and directed by Reed Walters.

Americans are tired of listening to the laments of poor people. There are no crimes of desperation, we say, just crimes of opportunity. America is a level playing field, so quit making excuses. And then we find three nooses dangling from an oak tree in Jena, Louisiana, or Camden Jew Jersey, or Tulia Texas . . . and we reach for our pens.

The Jena 6 story in a nutshell: Report and Recommendations

Media coverage of the Jena story was inspired by a brief narrative compiled by Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice (see link below).  The information contained in this document was culled from interviews with dozens of black and white Jena residents, newspaper accounts, eye witness statements and court documents.  Dr. Bean’s account shows how official tolerance for racial hatred sparked a steadily escalating string of violent encounters between white and black students.   The accuracy of this information has since been confirmed by other investigators.

Jena 6 Summary


Friends of Justice is currently investigating other cases demonstrating systemic issues within the criminal justice system.  You can be a part of our exciting work by making a donation to Friends of Justice.  You can use the “donate” tab on our home page for PayPal donations.  Checks should be made out to Friends of Justice and should be mailed to:

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Black Gold

This little throwaway story is far more significant than it seems. We learn that Florida-based Geo Group has decided to triple the size of the LaSalle Detention Facility in soon-to-be-famous Jena, Louisiana, even though no one is currently operating the facility. Geo Group is confident that the rapid expansion of the prison system in Louisiana will bring a buyer its way sooner or later. This is reminiscent of a prison-building scam that included former Texas Governor, Mark White and the Graham brothers (low-life street hustlers from Houston) that produced small and ephemeral headlines back in the 90s. Six private prisons were built on the assumption that Texas would pick up on the private prison craze. Instead, George W. Bush and Ann Richards got into I’m-tougher-on-crime-than-ya’ll food fight and Texas built 105 new prisons housing 108,000 new prisoners over a five-year period. One of these prisons was built just west of Tulia, Texas. It stood empty for several years before being picked up by the state of Texas for 50 cents on the dollar.

The lock-up in Jena has a troubling history that sheds considerable light on the plight (note the internal rhyme) of the Jena 6. The prison started out as a juvenile detention facility, but was closed in 2000 after charges of racism and sexual harassment created a minor scandal. The prison was re-opened just after Katrina to house overflow prisoners (so to speak) from New Orleans. Once again, the facility was shut down after . . . you guessed it: more allegations of brutality and overt racism. But Geo Group remains confident that the unit will shortly be filled to overflowing with young black males. You begin to understand why the Jena 6 face capital charges over a school fight that resulted in no serious injuries. Mass incarceration may not be good for Louisiana, and it sure ain’t good for America–but it’s sure as heck good for Geo Group: share prices have almost tripled in the course of the past year. The real product being marketed here is poor black males. I wish I was kidding folks, but I’m not.

Alan Bean

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

Don’t Let the Nooses Fool You: The South is Us

Lydia Bean, founding member of Friends of Justice, blogs on Jena at Foresight:


It wasn’t surprising that race relations in Jena, Louisiana deteriorated after white students hung three nooses in a tree at the high school, to warn black students not to sit in the “white” side of the schoolyard. After this hate crime went unpunished by the school principal, white and black kids got into several fights around town. The white residents of Jena weren’t indignant about the nooses, but they were indignant about black kids defending themselves from white racial attacks. After a fight between black and white kids, only the black kids were prosecuted—for attempted murder.

The blogosphere has exploded with interest in this case, after the faith-based organization Friends of Justice worked to attract attention. But much coverage of this incident shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both progressive identity and the nature of the problem. Many bloggers across the nation are clicking their tongues about Jena as a vestige of the old Jim Crow, and despairing that progressive politics could ever flourish there, in that muggy, exotic, backward place we call “The South”. What progressives don’t realize is that the South is Us. Repeat after me, progressives: The South is Us. The progressive movement shouldn’t think of itself as a beleaguered minority of intellectuals who hide out in Berkeley and New York City, rolling their eyes at those backward yokels in “The South.” That’s a recipe for bad strategic thinking and in-group dogmatism. And it also misunderstands the causes of racial inequality in our criminal justice system.

Because there’s nothing exotic about Jena, Louisiana, except that the white kids got away with hanging three nooses in the public school. The sad truth is that young black men are routinely demonized by police and prosecutors all over America. Our nation has set up a direct pipeline from high school to prison for young poor black men, so that we have more black men in prison than in college. And for the most part, nobody cares unless someone does something exotic like hang up a noose. Without the nooses, nobody would have cared if these young men had been prosecuted on bad evidence on a petty charge, and thrown away for life like so many of their generation. Jena isn’t about the old Jim Crow, it’s about the New Jim Crow. (more…)

The New Jim Crow and the New Groupthink

Some of the most insightful commentary on the significance of the Jena story appears in a blog I came across this morning. A few months ago, a local Jena pastor described his home town as a racist backwater. Recent events have forced the Rev. Eddie Thompson to eat those words. Now he is defending his home town against Yankee “Carpetbaggers” (from Texas and New Orleans) who are distorting the story. The Rev. Eddie has fallen victim to the sort of groupthink that emerges when small towns circle the wagons. Fortunately, a contributor to “Blogher” knows the Rev. Eddie personally. Her response to his about-face show a tremendous depth of insight. I encourage you to scroll through the entire string of posts–you will learn something. At least, I did.

Stories like Tulia, Texas and Jena, Lousiana are revelatory; the elements of ambiguity evoke an enormous range of response. People see what they want to see, what they choose to see. Some, like me, see a clear line of cause and effect running from the nooses hanging in a tree at Jena High School to the fight outside the gymnasium doors. Others see the fight at the school as an isolated occurrence hermetically sealed from past events. The implication is that the black assailants at the school picked a white kid at random and beat him within an inch of his life. Why? Because they are anti-social monsters who have no regard for human life. This is the way the story was originally presented in the Jena Times.

People who think this way inevitably play down the significance of the nooses. Racism was not involved–not at all. The first theory I heard was that the noose-boys had just watched Lonesome Dove on cable and were enamored of the image of three nooses hanging in a tree. Now we are told that the nooses were hung because the Jena Giants were about to face a neighboring football team called the Mustangs. It is admitted that the nooses appeared in a tree on the traditionally white side of the school square a day after a black student had asked if he could sit under that tree. But that was just a coincidence. Several Jena residents have even suggested that the black boy who made the request was being unnecessarily provocative. Denial this deep is alarmning.

It is likely that the Jena 6 will face an all-white jury. With local opinion cleanly divided along racial lines, Mykal Bell and his co-defendants will not be tried by a jury of their peers.

But this isn’t just about Jena, any more than the Tulia fight was just about Tulia. This is about the way America treats low-status defendants. Jena and Tulia explain why our prisons have been filling up with young black males from the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Jena is about the New Jim Crow.

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