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:

http://www.newvisioninstitute.org/foresight/?p=117

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.

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

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
http://www.motherjones.com/mojoblog/archives/2007/05/4497_adolescents_pla.html 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:
http://thetowntalk.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070522/NEWS01/705220329. 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
https://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com
http://rawstory.com/news/afp/Racial_demons_resurface_with_nooses_05242007.html

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

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

Friends:

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

http://www.counterpunch.org/flaherty05092007.html

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