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

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Deep South Didn’t get the Civil Rights Memo

 The drama unfolding in Jena Louisiana has spawned two high-profile stories: one, by Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune; the other, by Tom Mangold, in the London Observer.  Both stories have entered the Blogosphere and have been reprinted by the Baltimore Sun and even an English language newspaper in China.

The civil rights movement convulsed America for a full decade by forging a sturdy alliance between high status black leaders and white liberals. White conservatives screamed that the Jim Crow laws were about states rights. But black opinion leaders found these laws were humiliating and once white liberals were persuaded that Jim Crow and justice were incompatible, they became desperate to dissociate themselves from these loathsome statutes. According to the official story line, the civil rights steamroller plowed through the states rights facade in a glorious march to liberty and justice for all.

The Jena story suggests that certain pockets of Deep South America didn’t get the civil rights memo. That is certainly the burden of the Jena stories published yesterday. Mr. Witt’s headline reads, “Racial demons rear heads.” Mr. Mangold takes things a step further with his “Racism goes on trial again in America’s Deep South.” The Jena story gives white Southerners yet another opportunity to voice a clear and unequivocal “no” to the dismal legacy of Jim Crow.

Would this story be attracting so much media attention if it had nothing to offer but an addled DA over-reacting to a school fight—even if the hapless defendants were facing multi-decade sentences without parole? I suspect not. So thank God for the nooses hanging in the school yard! These vile reminders of lynch mob morality have attracted attention to an all-too familiar story that rarely gets much attention. Jena is being covered as a story about the persistence of the old Jim Crow, but it is much more than that. Jena is also a story about the new Jim Crow: the manipulation of the criminal justice system to deprive low status black people of basic justice.

The trial of the first three Jena defendants, originally scheduled to begin this morning, has been continued until sometime next month. DA Reed Walters had been trying to get one of the defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. This would have made Walters’ job much easier, but no one took the bait. Then a defense attorney filed a motion to have Mr. Walters recused from this case. Initial indications are that Judge Mauffray has scheduled a hearing for mid-June to determine if Mr. Walters should recuse himself from this case. That ought to be as interesting as the trial itself.

I hope the media doesn’t get tired of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind. I got a call from the BBC yesterday asking if they could interview me later in the day. I told them that would be fine, but they needed to know the trial had been continued. That was the end of that. But the delay won’t stop Tom Mangold’s documentary on Jena from airing on BBC 2 this Thursday evening; nor, I suspect, will it keep flagship publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post from getting a piece of the Jena action.

The lull in the action may frustrate the press, but it is good news for the defendants. The more attention this story attracts the harder it will be for Reed Walters to work his usual magic before an all-white jury. If you would like more background on this story please give me a call.

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Looking for Justice in Jena, Louisiana


This Jena story by Jordan Flaherty is being widely circulated by newsletters like Counterpunch. Flaherty lets the families have their say and provides some helpful historical background to the unfolding tragedy in Jena. It now appears that three defendants, Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell and Theo Shaw will be going to trial on May 21st. Jason was with us for our rally last week and has clearly put a great deal of work into this project. I particularly appreciate the recognition he gives Friens of Justice. I generally see myself as a stage director trying to frame a story for others; as such, I don’t usually appear as an actor. Occasionally, however, it’s nice to have our efforts recognized. I am currently in the Dallas area making contacts and telling the Friends of Justice story. I spoke at City Church last night and made some amazing contacts. Friends of Justice is seriously considering a move to the Dallas Metro area sometime this summer. I’ll keep you posted as our plans evolve.

Alan Bean

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Free the Jena 6!



I am writing this update from the House of Java in Alexandria, LA. Yesterday I spoke at the rally covered below. The sympathetic tone of this article says a lot. While in Jena I picked up many indications that several members of Jena’s white establishment are on the verge of jumping ship. The overreach by District Attorney Reed Walters is simply too bizarre to sustain strong support. There are also strong signs that public trials would open the door to a roomful of embarrassing revelations. My prayer is that DA Walters (not “Walter Reed” as the article below has it) will simply drop all charges and wipe this slate clean.


At yesterday’s rally King Downing of the national ACLU announced that he has sent an open letter to the DA asking for a mountain of information concerning the kind of treatment white and black students have received from the disciplinary system within the schools and the criminal justice system. Message: our concern with LaSalle Parish justice doesn’t end with Jena 6. When the megaphone was handed to me I recalled my reaction to seeing old postcards produced to commemorate public lynchings in the postbellum South. Preachers would be pictured in their Sunday finest, eating potato salad and fried chicken while singing Amazing Grace and other gospel standards. Inevitably, off to one side of the picture, you would see the lifeless corpse of a young black man hanging from a tree. Clergy support for acts of state sponsored terrorism has grown more subtle over the years, I said, but the clergy continue to serve as enthusiastic cheerleaders for the status quo, no matter how biased and bizarre it might be. Then I traced God’s protective love of the poor and the oppressed through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The fate of the Jena 6, I said, has created a crisis of conscience for the religious community–both white and black. Not the sort of thing that ever gets quoted in the newspaper, of course.


Stay tuned folks–this story will soon be receiving that national coverage it richly deserves. An important hearing is scheduled for May 8th and three defendants are headed for trial on May 21st unless DA thinks the better of his bizarre decision to transform a school fight into a capital crime. If you would like to know more about this story, contact me at 806-729-7889 (cell) or at I should have more to report next week.


See the full report of Friends of Justice here: Jena 6 summary

Alan Bean

Friends of Justice


Impact of the Colomb-Davis case on a new prosecution

The long-term impact of the Colomb-Davis case in Louisiana continues to expand. Assistant US Attornhey Todd Clemons has refused to identify the inmate witnesses lining up to testify against George Celestine and his co-defendants in a Lafayette case similar to the Colomb-Davis prosecution. Sammy Davis Jr., one of the defendants in the Colomb-Davis case, introduced me to Celestine shortly after Sammy was released last year. George is a slim, thoughtful, spiritual man who has not always chosen his friends wisely. But the government’s “case” against him is so similiar to the Colomb-Davis case that the DOJ clearly fears a similar result if they release too much information. Fortunately, the Colomb-Davis fiasco has opened the eyes of Federal Judges like Tucker Melancon and Rebecca Doherty and judicial displeasure has placed prosecutors like Todd Clemons and Brett Grayson in an untenable position. I have recently been contacted by two other defendants facing similar charges and will try to check out the details during my current trip to Louisiana. I write this from the House of Java in Alexandria, LA, and will be leaving in a few minutes to attend a peace rally for the “Jena 6”. I will have a full report on that event ready for you either later this evening or tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

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Duke Case Shows Justice System’s Flaws

I met Radley Balko, the author of this piece, at the Atlanta roundtable on the use and misuse of informants. Read Seligmann, one of the wrongfully prosecuted Duke Lacrosse players, says, “I can’t imagine what they do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.” Balko uses the current string of exonerations in Dallas County to suggest defendants without resources go to prison. Tulia enters the picture as an example of a wrongful prosecution that didn’t involve DNA (most of them don’t). The newly elected Dallas County DA, Craig Watkins describes the attitude of his predecessors like this: “If you sent someone to jail who was possibly innocent, it was a badge of honor.” Watkins is right. Richard Posner, Chief Justice of the 7th Court of Appeals and highly celebrated legal analyst, exposes the assumptions that make wrongful prosecution such an intractable problem:

I can confirm from my own experience as a judge that indigent defendants are generally rather poorly represented. But if we are to be hardheaded we must recognize that this may not be entirely a bad thing. The lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants seem to be good enough to reduce the probability of convicting an innocent person to a very low level. If they were much better, either many guilty people would be acquitted or society would have to devote much greater resources to the prosecution of criminal cases. A barebones system for the defense of indigent criminal defendant may be optimal. (This is from his The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, pp. 163-164)

Posner’s statement is based on the assumption that few innocent people are wrongfully convicted as a result of poor-to-mediocre legal representation. But the DNA exonerations in Dallas County, the horrific findings at the Houston crime lab, the Tulia case and a host of similar horror stories have obliterated this comfortable assumption. Low status defendants (as opposed to the members of the Duke lacrosse team) are wrongfully convicted because men like former Dallas County DA Bill Hill prosecute defendants in the absence of strong evidence. So long as the perp du jour fits the profile (poor, uneducated, black or brown) nobody in the system (least of all jurors) will care too much about guilt or innocence. A simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that society would be better off if this guy (and as many people like him as the system can arrest) were warehoused behind bars for as long as the law allows. The real crime is fitting the profile in the first place. This explains why the Dallas criminal justice establishment refused to believe that hapless Mexican nationals had been set up in bogus drug deals by crooked cops and sleazy confidential informants.

The election of Craig Watkins is something to celebrate.

Alan Bean, Friends of Justice,2933,267800,00.html