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


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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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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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UK is outraged, Jena still needs convincing

Someone from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) has cobbled together a Jena story based loosely on Tom Mangold’s reporting in the London Observer. Mangold’s Jena documentary aired on the BBC this evening. As soon as the closing credits began to roll my inbox filled up with outraged emails from all over the UK.

You might also want to check out the Mother Jones blog where you will find another unattributed Jena expose. That’s fine. We just want to get as many people as possible thinking about the implications of this story.

Speaking of which: consider this piece from the Alexandria Town Talk: The story itself is unexceptional, but the 23 (and counting) reader comments that follow are deeply disturbing–to me at least. Local white residents seem convinced that the Jena 6 stomped Justin Barker half to death–even though it is well known that, later that day, Barker showed up at a ring ceremony. I am not trying to justify what was by all accounts a serious attack. But I am troubled by the lack of proportion. Young men could be old men by the time they get out of prison for a school fight in which no one sustained serious injuries. If members of the Jena 6 were involved in the fight (and the June 25th trial should shed light on that question) they weren’t trying to kill anyone; they were trying to teach a rival a lesson. Conversely, when a gang of white kids jumped Robert Bailey at the Fair Barn a few days earlier, they were trying to get a point across (don’t insinuate yourself into all-white social functions). In both cases, friends joined in after the first punch was thrown as an act of solidarity. In neither case was there any serious intention of causing lasting bodily harm.

Both violent incidents are serious, and both merit a disciplinary response. But attempted second degree murder? Twenty-five years to life in prison without parole? We throw lives away in America with scarcely a thought–so long as the lives belong to poor people of color. I spent half an hour on the phone this afternoon with a young Latino who told me his brother will die in prison. At the age of fourteen the young man started slinging crack to local addicts so he could buy fancy running shoes and $80 shirts. At twenty he was sentenced to life in prison. The man was a drug dealer–sure enough. But he was a low-level, non-violent punk who may eventually have made good if he had been sent down for five years. But they gave him a life sentence, so we’ll never know. Again, where is the sense of proportion?

Alan Bean
Friends of Justice
(806) 995-3353
(806) 729-7889

Donate to Friends of Justice and be a part of this civil rights revolution in Texas and Louisiana!