Category: Criminal justice reform

Part 2: A New Civil Rights Movement gains traction in Jena, LA

Executive Director Alan Bean wrote this three-part reflection after participating in the September 20th rally for justice in Jena, Louisiana. Alan concludes that a new civil rights movement was gaining traction in Jena on September 20th, 2007. But that movement will look totally different from the spectacle that America saw on CNN.

We’ve broken up this reflection on the September 20th protests into three parts:

Part 1: Premonitions of a Movement | Part 2: Sowing the Wind | Part 3: Looking to the Future

Part 2: Sowing the Wind

After talking to several women from black churches in Dallas, I strolled up to the High School courtyard, where the three nooses had been hung. I recalled that brisk January afternoon when Caseptla Bailey first led me to the tree in the square. “What do you want to see this for?” she asked me.

“Caseptla,” I said, “this tree is going to be famous.”

I had no idea just how famous Jena’s “white tree” would become.

Thousands of protestors were milling around the schoolyard. Everyone had the same question, “Where was the tree before they cut it down?”

I pulled out a copy of the picture I had taken back in January, and led a small group of students to the spot. “It was here?” they asked skeptically. All that remained of the tree was a patch of loamy soil—even the stump had been dug up.

I suddenly became a tour guide to a crowd looking for the famous tree. “No one actually called it a “white tree” I said. “In fact, no one minded too much if a black kid wanderer onto the white side of the schoolyard so long as they wandered back to black side after a few minutes. But it was commonly understood that white students hung out on the tree-end of the courtyard while black students clustered at the opposite end. A sidewalk divided the two groups.

“It wasn’t something we talked about much,” a former Jena High student once told me. “You just hung with your own group. It was just the way things were . . . until we moved out of Jena.”

As I waxed eloquent on the subject of Jena’s regime of de facto segregation, a large crowd gathered around me. “Did the white kid get beat up for hanging the nooses?” someone asked.

The ensuing Q&A session confirmed what I had long suspected—the superficial reporting on this story has left a lot of people confused. Many protesters seemed to believe that black kids beat up white kids for hanging nooses in a tree.

In reality, three months separated the “noose incident” from the assault on Justin Barker.

“This isn’t about the kids,” I told the throng gathered around me. “This is about adults. In particular it is about two public officials: Superintendent Roy Breithaupt and District Attorney Reed Walters. These men could have transformed an ugly incident into a teaching opportunity. Reed and Roy could have said, “I don’t know what you were thinking when you hung these nooses, but to African Americans, a noose hanging from a tree is a symbol of hate and a threat of violence. Racism has no place in Jena or at this high school. There may have been a color line at Jena High School in the past, but those days are gone.”

That should have been the first step. Next, every student, every teacher and every school employee should have been exposed to a thorough history lesson coupled with a ringing reaffirmation of unity and racial equality. Expelling the noose hangers for a day, a semester, or the entire school year would have solved nothing. The student body needed facts and they needed direction.

When you have nooses hanging from a tree in a segregated school yard, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Is there a color line at Jena High? By attempting to dodge the question, Superintendent Breithaupt preserved the status quo—and in Jena, that meant reinforcing the precedent of a racially divided campus.

When Roy Breithaupt dropped the ball, DA Reed Walters had a chance to pick it up. The noose hangers were given a few days of in-school suspension because, Breithaupt explained, they were simply pulling a juvenile prank. Black football players expressed their outrage by “occupying” the now-infamous tree. Moments later, they were joined by virtually every black student at the high school. The atmosphere was tense. Shoving matches broke out. The police were called and the entire campus was placed on lock-down for the rest of the week.

District Attorney Reed Walters and every member of Jena’s all-white police force were called to a hastily called assembly in the school’s ancient auditorium. White students sat on one side of the aisle; black students on the other. “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters said as he waived his pen in the air. “Remember, with a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.”

Walters has since denied that these words were aimed exclusively at the black students. But white students weren’t protesting the nooses—black students were. Walters had no quarrel with the white kids; he was addressing the black side of the aisle.

The District Attorney has subsequently explained that he felt the noose issue was being blown out of proportion and that the black and white students needed to work things out for themselves.

The implication of Walters’ message was as clear as it was sinister: “The status quo at Jena High School will be maintained, and any student who can’t live with that fact will be punished severely. Nothing is going to change—not in Jena!”

Like Pandora, Reed Walters lifted the lid and released the furies. The Bible warns us that when a nation sows the wind, we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Reed Walters sowed the wind; now Walters, and everyone else in Jena, is reaping the whirlwind. The sins of the fathers are being visited upon the children.

From the time Reed Walters waved his pen, white and black students were placed on a collision course that could only end in a train wreck.

As I talked to the throng of protesters at the tree site, I pointed to my old picture. “You see the smoke damage around the windows of the school?” I asked. “That part of the school is gone—it has been demolished.”

The racial violence that flashed through Jena in the wake of the school fire would have been unthinkable without Reed Walters and his pen. In fact, I have always sensed that Jena High School would still be intact (tree and all) if Walters had denounced the nooses instead of issuing threats. The fights, the fire, and the fractured psyche of an entire community lie at the feet of DA Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt.

“But this isn’t just a story about Jena,” I told my audience; “this is a story about America. Young people, especially poor black young people, are being subjected to pressures they can neither understand nor control. They make mistakes. They lash out. And there is always a Reed Walters waiting with his pen at the ready.”

The crowd surrounding me was growing by the minute. People were asking for my card and wanting to know where to send donations to Friends of Justice. Fearing that I was turning into another Jena huckster, I shook a few hands and moved on.

Part 3: A New Civil Rights Movement gains traction in Jena, LA

Executive Director Alan Bean wrote this three-part reflection after participating in the September 20th rally for justice in Jena, Louisiana. Alan concludes that a new civil rights movement was gaining traction in Jena on September 20th, 2007. But that movement will look totally different from the spectacle that America saw on CNN.

We’ve broken up this reflection on the September 20th protests into three parts:


Part 1: Premonitions of a Movement | Part 2: Sowing the Wind | Part 3: Looking to the Future


Part 3: Looking to the Future

A squat young white boy with a precocious goatee was holding forth for the crowd as I left the premises. “I was still in Jr. High when this here all happened,” he was saying, “so I didn’t see it. But it’s all about this white kid named Justin. He’s a big racist; hates black people. Why, two days before he got himself beat up, he pulled a shotgun on a couple of black boys right here in Jena.”

The kid had his facts all tangled up. Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th assault, was arrested for bringing a firearm to school in his vehicle—but that was in May of 2007. A white young man did pull a shotgun on Robert Bailey and two of his friends—but it wasn’t Barker.

Justin Barker is just another victim of Reed Walters’ pen. Justin may have taunted Mychal Bell and his friends prior to being assaulted—he may even have used the n-word. But violence wasn’t the answer. Justin attended a ring ceremony later in the day; but his injuries were serious. Moreover, the emotional consequences for Justin and his family have been horrendous. They have suffered every bit as much as the black defendants and their families.

It was sad to see Justin Barker and his family line up behind Reed Walters and a clutch of police officers the day before the rally. Mr. Walters is no friend of the Barker family, and his is no friend of Jena. He is a pathetic shill for a political establishment dedicated to the maintenance of Jim Crow inequality. The final victim of Mr. Walters’ pen will be his career as a prosecutor.

I am encouraged to read that Craig Watkins, the new District Attorney of Dallas County, has expressed concern over Reed Walters professional deportment. Several men and women from the Dallas District Attorneys office made the trip to Jena as observers. We need prosecutors who are tough but fair. Watkins fits the bill; Walters does not.

Rumors spread like a prairie fire when little towns like Jena find themselves under the media microscope. Everyone was convinced that the KKK were going to march on September 20th. Later in the day, a rumor swept through town that Mychal Bell had been released from prison. Fortunately, the KKK waited for the crowds to leave. Unfortunately, Mychal Bell is still incarcerated.

The day ended with a Hip Hop concert at the park organized by some of the family members. Artists from across Louisiana drove to Jena to show their support for the Jena 6. The NAACP of Louisiana did its level best to shut down the Hip Hop venue. They were concerned about the n-word, the f-word, and all the rest. The event received little publicity. If the Hip Hop generation is going to take the lead in this new civil rights movement, socially conscious Hip Hop music has got to be front and center.

An event this peaceful, positive, and exuberant was bound to inspire backlash from some of our sick white brothers and sisters. Trucks were driving around Alexandria (about 45 minutes down the road from Jena) sporting nooses. The intent was to spark violence. It didn’t work. Anyone disciplined enough to make it to Jena was too savvy to fall for an ignorant provocation like that.

Later, things grew more sinister. A white supremacy web site has published the addresses and phone numbers of the defendants, their families, attorneys and supporters. David Duke has come out in support of Justin Barker—another friend the family doesn’t need. Since almost 70% of LaSalle Parish voters supported Duke’s run for Governor back in the day, David felt it was his duty to ride to their defense.

Mr. Walters; when David Duke and the Klan are your best friends, you have a PR problem.

Please continue to pray for the Jena 6 and their families. Also pray for Justin Barker and his family. And pray for the people of Jena—white and black. When the celebrities leave and the reporters pack up their cameras, these folks have got to find a way to live together. Let’s keep our protest focused, fact-based, and objective. Jena is America. America is broken and badly needs fixing. So does Jena. The New Jim Crow is the sickness; justice is the cure.

The Wall of Shame

Friends of Justice
3415 Ainsworth Court, Arlington, TX 76016 817.457.0025

Thankfully, we’re getting past the, “Is Jena the most racist town in America?” question. Jena is America. No one would be talking about the Jena 6 were it not for the bizarre behavior of District Attorney (and lay preacher) Reed Walters, the prosecutor who told students at the Jena High School that he could make their lives disappear with a stroke of his pen. Moments earlier, black students had occupied the “white tree” at Jena High School. White students and white police officers had surrounded the protestors. Push was coming to shove. Tension was high. Mr. Walters aimed his grotesque threat at the black students responsible for organizing the impromptu protest under the now-famous tree.

At a mid-June hearing, Reed Walters explained that he was highly frustrated when he made the remark. In his opinion, the black students were making a mountain out of a molehill. Superintendent Roy Breithaupt was asserting that the white boys who hung nooses from the tree in the school courtyard were guilty of nothing more serious than a childish prank. Mr. Walters agreed. Black students, and the black parents who had gathered at a black Baptist church the previous evening to voice their outrage and consider their options, were equally out of line. Walters explained that he wanted to put a stop to the madness–hence the “stroke of my pen” comment.

A few weeks ago, Scott Henson and his excellent Gritsforbreakfast blog featured an article naming the ten worst prosecutors in America. Topping the list was Alberto Gonzales, the late Attorney General of these United States. Running a close second was Terry McEachern, the architect of the debacle in Tulia, Texas. (I devoted four long years of my life to a running critique of McEachern before he was finally disciplined by the Texas Bar Association). The third worst prosecutor in America, according to the article, was Mike Nifong–currently doing a 24-hour stretch for contempt–who was disbarred for his disgraceful conduct in the Duke Lacrosse imbroglio. Number four, was Charles Foti, the Louisiana Attorney General.

If the list of America’s worst prosecutors comes out again next year, I except Reed Walters will make the top three. Walters is not incompetent (his prosecuting skills are probably a touch above average); but his world view renders him incapable of discharging his legal obligation: seeing that justice is done. As this column from the traditionally conservative Washington Times suggests, pundits across the nation are asking pointed questions about Mr. Walters’ fitness for service.

Is Jena America’s most racist community? I seriously doubt it. Does Jena need a new prosecutor and a new school superintendent? Unquestionably!

Alan Bean
Friends of Justice

Another prosecutor out on a limb?
In Durham, N.C., today, disgraced former District Attorney Mike Nifong
<> for a brief (but symbolically important, we’re told) 24-hour
term behind bars.

In the Duke rape case, Nifong showed how a rogue prosecutor can ruin lives.
Now some folks say something similar is unfolding in Jena, La. <http://> , a
small town of about 3,000 in the northeast section of the state.

The case centers around Jena High School and a shade tree in the center of
the courtyard.

For years, only white students sat under the tree at lunch. Then, about this
time last year, Sept. 1, a black student asked the assistant principal and
other faculty members during an assembly if he could sit under the tree and
was promptly told to “sit where ever he liked.”

The next day the student did, and the day after three hangman’s nooses
appeared on the tree.

That lit the fuse.

Outraged black students tried to stage peaceful protests, but fights broke
out on and off the school grounds.

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, asked to speak to a school
assembly as part of the effort to defuse the situation, “told students
/<br /> to stop making trouble as he could end their lives “with the stroke
of a pen.”

But tensions boiled over in December, when six black students beat Justin
Barker, a white student, who fell during the attack, hit his head and
suffered a concussion. Barker was treated and released that day, but the
prosecutor in Jena decided to charge the boys who would become known as the
“Jena Six” with attempted murder.

So far, only one of the “Jena Six,” Mycheal Bell, has been convicted (by an
all-white jury, on charges of battery and conspiracy to commit battery). He
is to be sentenced on Sept. 20, when he could face a maximum sentence of
almost 23 years.

After what happened at Duke, people in Jena and people around the country
following the case are asking
<> why would
a prosecutor issue a threat like Walters did? Was his comment aimed at black
students specifically?

Yes, fights at school are reprehensible, but what purpose could possibly be
served by charging these teen-agers with attempted murder?

And if Mike Nifong’s questionable and inflammatory statements against the
innocent white Duke lacrosse players led to his disbarment, shouldn’t Mr.
Walters — who has refused to talk to reporters about his comments to the
assembly — have to explain his actions?

— Brian DeBose, national political reporter, The Washington Times
Posted on September 7, 2007 12:22 PM

Jena is America


The case of the Jena 6 is being spun as a crude vestige of Mississippi Burning racism. From the blogs to the mainstream media, the Jena story is framed by a noose.


So, what’s the problem? After all, this is a story about old style Southern racism, isn’t it? Well yes . . . in part, at least. Unfortunately, when the part is taken for the whole we might be hearing the truth; but we aren’t hearing the whole truth. Sometimes only the whole truth can help us. This is one of those times.


Let’s face facts. The “Jim Crow is alive and well and living in Jena, Louisiana” message has been phenomenally effective. Letters, emails and donations have been pouring in from New England, New York, California, Old England, France and Canada; in short, from everywhere the American heartland (and the Old South in particular) is regarded as a breeding ground for small-minded bigotry.


Tragically, these howls of outrage are completely justified. Men like DA Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt bungled “the noose issue” back in August of 2006 because they couldn’t call a hate crime by its proper name. Place yourself in their position and their behavior, despicable though it is, becomes understandable.


To deal with the noose issue in a responsible manner, Reed and Roy would have been forced to acknowledge the obscene southern legacy of racial violence. By implication, they would have been tracing an unbroken line between chattel slavery, post Civil War “night riders”, lynching and the whole ugly panoply of Jim Crow laws that shaped southern culture until the late 1960s.


Reed and Roy couldn’t call the nooses a hate crime without admitting that a generous slice of the Southern heritage pie is lamentable. They would have been forced to say, in effect, “The nooses hanging from the tree in high school courtyard represent a tradition of racial hate and violence that all God-fearing residents of LaSalle Parish must repudiate and deplore.


Reed and Roy couldn’t do it. So they papered over the crumbling wall of bigotry and hoped nobody would notice. Worse than that, they warned black student who refused to live with the status quo that they would face dire consequences. There is no defense for this behavior.


Reed and Roy dropped the ball precisely because they were functioning as public servants charged with upholding, defending and reinforcing local values and mores. Their wheeling and dealing was driven by the prevailing moral market place. Any other course of action would have called down howls of protest from prominent white residents. Reed and Roy were acting in the public interest as defined by influential people in their social world.


So, what’s my beef?


I’ll try to explain. Tour the prisons in the general vicinity of San Francisco, Boston and New York City and you would see the same social world you would encounter in a typical prison in East Texas or Central Louisiana? In both cases, young black males would be grossly over-represented. If the coastal folks are so much more enlightened than their benighted brethren and sistern in the fly-over zone why are their prisons jammed with the same kind of people?


You probably won’t find “white trees” and nooses in New York and Los Angeles—that’s a Southern thing. But you will find the same kind of racial profiling regime that insures that young black males are disproportionately watched, hassled and arrested by the police; and you will discover that the over-prosecution of young black males is just as rife in our coastal paradise as it is in our southern purgatory.


That’s what Friends of Justice calls “the New Jim Crow”; and it ain’t just a Southern thing. Jena is America.


Could I have sold this story to the media as a New Jim Crow story? No, I couldn’t. To date, the mainstream media denies the existence of such a phenomenon.


Friends of Justice specialize in truths that don’t play well on prime time because a misdiagnosed disease cannot be cured.


This is a story about ugly vestiges of Old Jim Crow racism—a predominantly southern problem that is gradually, and mercifully, fading. But this is also a story about the New Jim Crow—a frightening new disease that is spreading like a metastasizing cancer.


Make no mistake; I want to win justice for the Jena 6! But in the process, I will be drawing repeated attention to the ease with which poor black males are targeted for prosecution in our nation.


That isn’t a story we are likely to see in the mainstream media any time soon. Media people face the same dilemma that haunted Reed and Roy—they can’t get too far ahead of the zeitgeist personified by their editors. Paradigm shifts rarely begin with public officials and they don’t incubate in the mainstream media. But a paradigm shift is exactly what America needs, so that’s what I will be writing about in the days to come. Stay tuned.


~Alan Bean

Friends of Justice

If you appreciate the work of Friends of Justice in Jena, please consider making a donation to fund our grassroots organizing!  You can donate online here, or send a check to the address below.

Friends of Justice
3415 Ainsworth Court
Arlington, TX 76016
806-729-7889 or 817-457-0025

Criminal Justice reform hits the Silver Screen

Paramount pictures is going ahead with its Tulia movie starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. The project appeared to be on the rocks when the Carl Franklin, the original director, walked away. Now, with John (Boyz in the Hood) Singleton signing on as director, “Tulia” is back on track.

The Tulia drug sting of 1999 transformed me from a Baptist minister into a criminal justice reform activist (although I still see myself as a pastor). Friends of Justice emerged as the organized resistance to the prosecution of 46 Tulia residents (39 of them African American) on the uncorroborated testimony of an unsupervized and corrupt undercover officer. You won’t learn about Friends of Justice from watching the Tulia movie, of course; but we were the folks that turned a routine drug prosecution into a national scandal.

I sometimes cringe when I ponder what Hollywood might do with the Tulia story. The silver screen has never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and I’m sure “Tulia” will be no exception. On the other hand, the movie (should it ever reach the theaters) should give Friends of Justice an opportunity to tell our story and share our vision.

Several people have asked me why the media generally tells the Jena 6 story without reference to grassroots organizing. You rarely hear about the work of the LaSalle Parish NAACP (founded, against all odds, in response to DA Reed Walters’ bizarre behavior). You don’t learn how Friends of Justice framed the story for the media and brought the ACLU and other organizations into the fight. You don’t read about the tireless efforts of Tory Pegram of the La. ACLU, or the work of King Downing of the national ACLU office.

Grassroots organizing is deleted from the story for two reasons: time constraints, and the law of dramatic parsimony. Every playwrite knows the importance of keeping the dramatis personnae to a minimum; too many characters and the narrative becomes murky and confusing . Which is why Friends of Justice has never figured prominently in the media rendition of the cases we have been involved in, even when our involvement has been critical. The Tulia movie will be no exception.

Unfortunately, the casual viewer concludes that the system effectively identifies and deals with legal outrages like Tulia and Jena. It doesn’t. The crucial role of grassroots organizing, media relations, and coalition building is not generally appreciated. As a result, the average citizen has no idea how many Jenas and Tulias go down with hardly a flicker of protest because no one outside the system is paying attention.

My moaning notwithstanding, the stars of Hollywood are aligning in a most fortuitous fashion. Director Carl Lewis, the original director of the Tulia movie, may be taking on a movie loosely based on the excellent 1999 Frontline feature, “Snitch” (also the title of the projected movie). Eight years on, “Snitch” remains the only serious media treatment of a serious problem.

In March of 2006, Ann Colomb and three of her sons were convicted of running a crack operation out of their FHA home. The case was built entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of federal prison inmates. Thanks to the intervention of Friends of Justice, and the miraculous appearance of two whistle-blowing federal inmates, the charges were dropped after Ann and her sons had spent three months in prison.

In making it as easy as possible to bust genuine drug dealers, we have made it just as easy to convict innocent people like Ann Colomb and her sons. Snitches are rewarded for telling the story the government’s way, and punished for inconvenient testimony. The snitching issue is currently the subject of congressional hearings–a very promising sign. Hopefully, the “Snitch” movie will bring attention to yet another serious problem with the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system is so broken that nothing short of a complete paradigm shift will save us. Thanks to little grassroots organizations like Friends of Justice, stories like Tulia, the Colomb case and Jena keep piling up. One of these days people are going to pay attention.

If you appreciate the work of Friends of Justice in Jena, please consider making a donation to fund our grassroots organizing!  You can donate online here, or send a check to the address below.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

Alan Bean

Friends of Justice
3415 Ainsworth Court
Arlington, TX 76016
806-729-7889 or 817-457-0025