Category: Jena

Challenging the New Jim Crow, Part 3

By Alan Bean

This is the third excerpt from a speech delivered on the campus of the University of Chicago.  Part one can be found here two can be found here.

The New Jim Crow comes to Jena, Louisiana

In 1991, the same year Larry Stewart was elected Sheriff of Swisher County, Texas,  J. Reed Walters became District Attorney of LaSalle Parish in north central Louisiana, winning 52% of the vote.  David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who ran for governor that year, carried 70% of the vote in the parish, his best showing in Louisiana.  Since the LaSalle Parish electorate is 86% white, this suggests that an unapologetic racist won over 80% of the white vote that year. 

In 2008, 85.5% of LaSalle Parish voters supported John McCain; a likely indication that Barack Obama received zero support from white voters. 

When Reed Walters passed his bar exams in 1980, Speedy O. Long was still District Attorney.  Long took the young attorney under his wing and taught him the ropes.  When Speedy went to his reward in 2005, Reed Walters called him a friend and mentor. (more…)

Portraits of a Problem: the Jena 6 and Mass Incarceration

Robert Bailey working out with friends

Thanks to their participation in the nationally televised Bayou Classic, Mychal Bell and Robert Bailey Jr. have now been recognized for something unrelated to the Jena 6 phenomenon.  When their names were called, it was because they had made a contribution on the field.

But there is far more at stake here than simple athletic success.  Mychal and Robert are making a positive contribution to their teams under the tutelage of seasoned football men who care about their players’ moral and educational advancement more than they care about winning.  Mychal and Robert are getting a second chance.

That’s a big deal when you consider that, in the natural order of things, Mychal and Robert would now be institutionalized felons rotting away in obscure Louisiana prisons.  By the time the prison doors swung open, the road to higher education would be blocked by dozens of petty regulations designed to keep offenders from reintegrating into society.  (more…)

Former Jena 6 Defendants, Bailey and Smith, play in Bayou Classic

You can find an update on this post here.

By Alan Bean

When the Grambling Tigers and the Southern Jaguars meet tomorrow in the New Orleans Superdome to play their annual Bayou Classic, two members of the Jena 6 will be on the field.  Robert Bailey Jr. is number 85 for the Tigers and Mychal Bell is number 26 for the Jaguars.  The game is being broadcast Saturday, November 27 at 1:00 (C).  Robert and Mychal are both working hard and maturing into fine young men. 

Two other former Jena 6 defendants are also involved in college sports, Corwin Jones is playing football with Tyler Jr. College in Texas and Bryant Purvis is playing basketball with Southern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.   Theo Shaw is enjoying his studies at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, and Jesse Ray Bear  graduated from high school in 2009. (more…)

From Jena 6 to Law School: Theo Shaw

Theo Shaw

Theo Shaw had already spent a month in the Lasalle Parish Jail when Friends of Justice first arrived in Jena.  Seven months would pass before he returned to the free world.  Last week, I sat down with Theo across the street from the University of Louisiana, Monroe campus.  He had been a bewildered High School kid the last time we had spoken; he is now a confident young man.  Theo politely answered my questions about the Jena 6 experience; but his eyes didn’t sparkle until the conversation shifted to the future.  Theo Shaw is a man on a mission.  (more…)

Donald Washington’s Jena

Donald Washington, Louisiana’s first African-American US Attorney, is stepping down.  Among his greatest achievements, he says, is his handling of the controversial Jena 6 case in 2007. 

If you think Mr. Washington is proud of bringing a serious racial incident to the American public’s attention, think again.  Quite the reverse.  Louisiana owes Mr. Washington a vote of thanks for effectively debunking bogus claims made by people like me.

“There’s a huge story that one day may be told,” Washington said. “To sum up our involvement, the Department of Justice did a great job of ensuring that controversies that happen on school campuses don’t become federal cases unless the facts in evidence lead us in that direction.”

Mr. Washington was under heavy pressure to prosecute the young men who hung nooses from a tree at Jena High School as hate criminals.  I have always supported his restraint in that regard. 

But there’s more.

“As far as the kids are concerned, it is more than abundantly apparent that they never intended for what happened in two disparate and separate events to be linked together and become the focus of a national controversy. And to this day, all of those groups that intended to ferret out any kind of nefarious conduct on behalf of the citizens of the Jena community still have failed to do so.”

If you find that hard to follow, here’s a rough translation: “There was never the slightest relationship between the nooses hung at the High School in September and the schoolyard assault on Justin Barker three months later.”

Since I am the first person to link the nooses and the beat-down, I take Mr. Washington’s comments personally.  That doesn’t mean I disagree with his assessment in every particular.  I never argued that the black football players who assaulted Mr. Barker were consciously avenging the noose provocation.  On September 20th, 2007 I enjoyed a series of conversations with the men and women who rode the buses to Jena from all over the nation.  Most of the folks I talked to believed the assault on Barker followed hard on the heels of the noose hanging. 

Not so.  It’s true that black students were deeply provoked by the noose incident.  The nooses appeared the morning after a black freshman asked if it was okay for black students to sit under the tree at the white end of the school courtyard.  Although black kids were free to visit the tree whenever they chose, everybody in Jena understood that one side of the courtyard was reserved for white kids and the other end was for the black students.  It had been that way ever since Jena schools integrated in compliance with federal law in 1970.  The kid who asked the question was challenging the tradition of a segregated school courtyard.  That was the issue and folks on both sides knew it.

Black kids were angry in the wake of the noose incident; but they weren’t fighting mad. 

The Jena equation doesn’t balance until you factor in the behavior of adults. 

First, the school superintendent announced that the noose hanging was completely unrelated to racism.  Is Mr. Washington, the outgoing US Attorney from the Western Louisiana Division of the Department of Justice, signing off on this bizarre sentiment?

So it seems.

It was the refusal of school officials to acknowledge that Jena High School had a racial problem that sparked the anger of black students.  Now they were fighting mad.  Pushing matches flared up on campus.  Nothing serious, but tension was escalating.  It got so serious that police officers placed the campus on full lockdown.

That’s when the second bull-headed act by a white public official took place.  The principal called all the students to the school auditorium for a special assembly.  True to tradition, the white kids sat on one side of the aisle, the black kids on the other.  Every uniformed police officer in town was in the room.  District Attorney Reed Walters walked to the podium and told the kids to settle down and get a grip.  Then he turned to the kids on the black side of the aisle, pulled out his Parker Jotter and said, “I want you to know that I can end your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

Walters has admitted making this remark.  He says he thought the white and black students should have been able to work things out among themselves.

One thing was certain, the student body wasn’t going to get any guidance from adults.

DA Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt weren’t acting on their own initiative.  They were desperate men doing what they had to do.  They couldn’t address the racial history of Jena without throwing their community into an uproar.  Besides, Reed and Roy were raised in the segregated South.  Their behavior suggests they have never backed away from the racist assumptions at the heart of the Jim Crow regime.  These men weren’t going to tolerate overt racism.  If the white kids had donned sheets and burned a cross on the black end of the school yard, school officials would have taken action.  But anything more subtle than that would be ignored or interpreted as innocent juvenile horseplay.

Justin Barker was best friends with the boys who hung the nooses.  These were country kids who grew up in all-white schools.  When they hit high school, they were bused to the semi-integrated high school in Jena.  It was only natural that these kids were intimidated by black students–especially football players.  But it would be a tragic mistake to single out the kids who hung the nooses for special attention– as Walters and Breithaupt’s bizarre behavior suggests, the noose hangers were reflecting the values of the culture that shaped them.

Tension between the white “noose boys” and the black football players rose steadily during the fall semester–but the altercations were always off campus.  Then somebody set fire to the high school campus–a detail rarely mentioned in media accounts.  Robert Bailey was assaulted at a Friday night dance and this led to a related altercation at a convenience store the following morning.  When school opened on Monday morning, angry confrontations erupted during the lunch hour.  Kids were rehashing the Bailey beat-down and Justin Barker was at the heart of the action.

So, although there is no direct connection between the noose incident and the assault on Justin Barker, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots.

Unless, as folks like Donald Washington would have you believe, the Friends of Justice narrative is largely fictional.

Which brings us to June of 2009 when the five Jena defendants still awaiting trial pled guilty to simple battery and were sentenced to a week of unsupervised probation.  When the week was over, the charges were expunged from their records.

Why did Reed Walters allow a dedicated team of lawyers to bargain him down from attempted murder to simple assault?

Because the Friends of Justice narrative was accurate in every detail.  In fact, the carefully-researched truth was far worse.  If Reed Walters had taken a single defendant to trial, the whole sordid story would have come out and crowds of indignant protestors would have returned to Jena.

Walters yielded to the inevitable.  Simple as that.

Donald Washington has another story.  “All in all,” he says, “the federal agencies involved — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the FBI to the Department of Community Relations — performed their duties admirably, professionally and thoroughly.”

I won’t quibble.  I was contacted by Carmelita Pope Freeman of the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice shortly after the Jena story first broke in the national media.  Carmelita wanted to sit down with folks on both sides of the issue and work toward an amicable resolution.  I told her she needed to wait until the legal process was over.  In a recent conversation, Ms. Freeman told me her work in Jena is finally winding up.  I hope she was able to make solid progress.  I hope lessons were learned.  But my fear is that Donald Washington’s take on the situation received the imprimatur of the federal government and everyone moved on.

The last time I spoke to Donald Washington was at a townhall meeting in Bunkie, Louisiana in the summer of 2008.  “I read everything you write,” he told me, “and I’ve got no problem with what you’re trying to do.  Just one word of caution: Be fair.”

I assured the US Attorney that I would be heed his advice.  As I turned away, Mr. Washington’s eyes lit on the diminutive Ann Colomb, a housewife from nearby Church Point, Louisiana.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Washington said, “but you look awfully familiar.  Have we met?”

“No, Mr. Washington,” Ann replied, “we haven’t met.  I was the woman you put in jail for dealing drugs.”

The US Attorney’s face fell.  “Oh, Mrs. Colomb,” he said, “I am so sorry about what happened to you and your family.  And I want you to know that the men who lied about you and your sons are being punished to the full extent of the law.”

When Ann Colomb told me this story later she wasn’t impressed.  “All they did was give more time to the snitches that had the courage to admit what they done,” Ann told me.  “I don’t blame those poor souls for lying on us; the folks I blame is Don Washington, Brett Grayson and the rest of the those DOJ boys that paid the snitches to lie on innocent people.”

You will be discouraged to learn that federal cases built almost entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of convicted drug dealers are still being prosecuted in the Western District of Louisiana.  Next week, five defendants the feds know as “the Sunnyside Organization” will go to trial in the federal courtroom in Lafayette.  I have been monitoring this prosecution for three years and it looks like a replay of the Colomb fiasco.  More on that when the trial is over.

US Attorneys like Donald Washington serve at the whim of presidents.  Washington was appointed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama wants to move in a different direction.  How different, I wonder?  Does the president know how the Jena situation was resolved?  Does he know what happened to Ann Colomb and her sons?  Does he know what is happening to the Sunnyside defendants even as we speak?  Probably not–he’s a busy man.  But I will do everything in my power to keep him, and you, informed.

Orlando Patterson’s quiet revolution

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes two major claims in this stimulating op-ed piece in the New York Times. First, he suggests that racism has changed its shape without losing its power.  This means that a black president must never address the race issue directly.

Patterson understands the historical roots of American racism as well as any living American scholar.  Here’s his mini-lecture on the subject:

We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.

Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.

At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.

The civil rights movement opened up new opportunities for educated people of color by abolishing “the lingering public culture of slavery”, but while black people have made great strides in the entertainment, athletic and political fields, the social segregation in America has actually deepened.  African Americans are still perceived to be “culturally different”, Patterson writes, and “In the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.”

Social isolation means that white Americans have a hard time grasping the individuality of black Americans.  As a result, the pathologies of the few are attributed to the many.  Although the relationship between social pathology and bad public policy is simply assumed in the academic community, a black president must never appear to be making excuses for absentee dads and street-hardened thugs if he wants white votes.

I’m not sure if Patterson is trying to describe the president’s thinking in this op-ed, or if he is telling Obama how he ought to think.  Maybe he’s doing both.  Obama, Patterson suggests, must never lecture white America about race.  In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama had to speak out to keep the race issue from derailing his candidacy.  But since entering the White House, he has made only one foray into racial politics (his remarks about the Gates-Crowley affair) and Patterson sees that as an unmitigated disaster. 

Therefore, the professor says, America’s first black president “will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate.” 

Patterson seems to agree with this stark assessment.

Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?

So progressive analysts seem to believe.  So it has always been.  The NAACP was horrified by Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent direct action because the strategy invited a violent white backlash.  King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy. 

Similarly, the Freedom Rides of 1961 received negative reviews from the mainstream press.  It was generally assumed that anyone foolish enough to sit in the front section of a bus in Alabama or Mississippi had only themselves to blame if they received a brutal beating.  But every Freedom Rider sent from Jackson to the notorious Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta weakened the position of Southern politicians.  Ultimately, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission into changing the law.

Only after non-violent and inter-racial strategies were abandoned did a conservative backlash against civil rights take hold in America.   For an entire decade, the conflict between civil rights and states rights shaped the way Americans thought about the past and the present.  The living narratives unleashed by non-violent direct action seized white America by the throat.  The strategy was daring, dangerous and uniquely effective.  Civil rights activists created a social crisis in America and waited for the truth to surface.

The narrative strategy Friends of Justice employs is rooted in the early civil rights movement.  By taking hold of the narrative surrounding actual criminal cases we spark an intense conversation about race and justice.  Initially, public officials ignore us.  When that doesn’t work they attempt try to spin the story in their own favor.  In the resulting clash of narratives the truth ultimately rises to the surface.  Not everybody sees it, of course.  Some folks remain convinced that Tom Coleman made good cases in Tulia or that the nooses hanging from a tree in Jena held no racial significance.  But Jena changed the way school administrators think across America, Tulia led to widespread reforms and the Colomb case (though it gained less publicity than Jena and Tulia) exposed fundamental flaws in federal conspiracy law

Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system.  Not by himself, he can’t.  Our punitive justice system was shaped by tough-on-crime politicians exploiting and feeding public fears at the top of their lungs.  There was nothing subtle or “quiet” about this process.  Divisive and damaging narratives about crack babies and inner city thugs built the present system and only healing justice narratives can take it apart.  

Conservative politicians could afford to be speak loudly because they reflected the zeitgeist.  White people were angry, afraid and in the majority.  Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change.

White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance.  Given the right environment, all people can learn.  But there will be nothing quiet about the process.  “You shall know the truth,” Jesus tells us, “and the truth shall set you free.”  Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies. 

Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement.  Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds.  It’s up to the rest of us to speak the loud truth without apology.

Jena 6 students get some positive publicity

P6264495Jesse Ray (Jody) Beard, best known as the youngest member of the Jena 6, is finishing High School at a private boarding school in Connecticut.  CNN recently interviewed Jesse Ray and Alan Howard, the NY attorney who has taken the young man under his wing.  You can find the text version of the story here.  I had the privilege of getting to know Mr. Howard during my last trip to Jena (in the picture at the left, he and attorney David Utter chat with Jesse Ray) and was moved by the depth of his commitment. 

Also, the newspaper in Monroe, Louisiana did a story about Robert Bailey, Jr., another Jena 6 student who will be entering Grambling University in the fall.  Robert took a couple of summer school classes at Grambling this summer and earned a 4.0 average.  The story is unavailable online but the text is pasted below. The picture at the beginning of the article shows Robert lifting weights in June of 2009.

As the story suggests, the Bailey family has a long tradition at Grambling.   The second picture I have inserted into the news story features Robert’s grandmother during her Grambling days.  Elegant, don’t you think?  At the very end, the educational plans of all six young men are noted briefly. 

I hope Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th, 2007 assault at Jena High, is also looking at a bright future.  Friends of Justice got involved in Jena not to pick sides but to bring some redemption to a tragic situation.  Are we better off with these young men attending college classes or locked up in a state prison? 


July 19, 2009

Former Jena Six student hopes to overcome past, look to future

By Stephen Largen

GRAMBLING — What might have sucked most people into a downward spiral only seems to have made Robert Bailey Jr. more determined to turn his life around.

Bailey, 19, is one of the Jena Six — six black Jena High School students initially charged with attempted murder in connection with a Dec. 4, 2006, assault on white student Justin Barker at the LaSalle Parish school.

The controversial case drew attention across the nation after many called the arrests and subsequent charges racially discriminatory and excessive. A massive civil rights demonstration ensued on Sept. 20, 2007, when at least 20,000 people marched through Jena to protest.

Bailey wrapped up his legal issues late last month when, along with Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw, he pleaded no contest in a Jena courtroom to misdemeanor simple battery. Bailey and the others were sentenced to seven days of unsupervised probation and a $500 fine, but were given no jail time.

They also reached a confidential settlement out of court with Barker.

The only member of the group to serve time was Mychal Bell, who pleaded guilty in December 2007 to second-degree battery and was sentenced to 18 months.

Now, after graduating in May from Shaw High School in Columbus, Ga., Bailey is taking summer classes at Grambling State University, where he plans to major in marketing. Bailey also will attempt to walk onto the football team as a wide receiver.

P6264434For Bailey, GSU was a natural choice. His grandmother, mother and several aunts went to the historically black college.

“That’s all I hear is Grambling,” Bailey said.

“In my house it was Grambling this, Grambling that — especially during football season.”

Bailey’s mother, Caseptla Bailey, who lives in Jena, is happy with her son’s decision to study at her alma mater.

“I’m very pleased with him,” Caseptla Bailey said. “I think something positive came out of all this. I think it was good he moved and got away from Jena. People here are still talking about the case. I still feel that people hold a grudge.”

Can’t go back

Robert Bailey said he has only been back to Jena for a total of three or four days since the controversy exploded.

He said he’s made the choice to keep a low profile.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t like to say Jena,” Bailey said.

“People say ‘You know that’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life, right?’ I’m like, ‘For real?’ And I think about it, like, ,you’re gonna be 40 years old and people are going to look at you like you’re that Jena Six boy. I think it is going to stay with me, but it depends how you look at it. I just choose not to suck myself back into that environment where I know I’m going to get the finger pointed at me. I just choose to stay away.”

Bailey also chose to stay out of the spotlight at Shaw, where he enrolled in January 2008 and stayed with family after being kicked out of Jena High.

For his first six months at the school, Bailey didn’t even use his own name.

Instead, he went by the pseudonym “Xavier Lee,” until a local media outlet identified him as a member of the Jena Six.

“The media found out I was in Columbus,” Bailey said.

“I had people coming to me like, ‘Dang, that’s one of them boys. You seen one of those Jena Six boys?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I ain’t seen him,'” Bailey said with a laugh. “I keep to myself, I try to stay to my own business.”

Bailey was granted a final year of athletic eligibility by the Georgia High School Association.

He used that year to help lead the football team to the state playoffs.

“We did pretty good,” Bailey said.

“We made it to the state playoffs. I had 23 catches, 350 yards, four touchdowns.”

Bailey drew scholarship interest from several Division II teams but chose GSU instead.

“I just chose to come to Grambling just off of love. I want to be here,” he said.

Grambling’s alumni association has pitched in to make Bailey feel welcome.

One of the chapters has given him a textbook scholarship for his freshman year.

Bailey said he’s looking forward to catching footballs in the fall.

“I don’t plan on watching,” he said.

“I plan on being out there on the field.”

But Bailey doesn’t believe his future lies with athletics.

He plans to go law school after graduating from GSU.

“People always told me I was good at debating,” he said.

‘No choice but to succeed.’

Baton Rouge attorney Jim Boren, who served as Bailey’s lawyer, said his client has seized the opportunity to change his life.

“Robert has overcome it,” Boren said.

“He didn’t continue in a downward spiral. He picked himself up. He picked up his books and made a success of himself, and it’s just the beginning.”

Boren said Bailey is not the only member of the Jena Six to successfully move past the case.

“All the kids have left Jena and excelled,” he said.

“They haven’t gotten into any serious trouble. We’re all very proud of what they’ve done since then.”

Bailey said he still talks to all the other members of the group, and they encourage and motivate each other.

“Everybody’s started a new life,” he said.

“Everybody knows we got a second chance, and we know what we have to do. We’re grown now. You’re gonna have to be up at night studying for that final the next day. It’s what we’ve got to do. Work hard for your position in sports or whatever you choose to do.”

Bailey said the support he’s received throughout the world motivated him to continue on to GSU.

“I ain’t got no choice but to succeed in life,” he said.

“I can’t be on that negative end because I look at all the people that helped me out. They’re gonna be like, ‘Dang, we marched for nothing.'”

Additional Facts

jena six “” Where are they now?

¢ Robert Bailey Jr. is enrolled at Grambling State University and will attempt to walk on to the football team.

¢ Mychal Bell is enrolled at Southern University and will attempt to walk on to the football team.

¢ Jesse Ray Beard is finishing high school in Connecticut.

¢ Carwin Jones is planning to go to college in Texas starting in August.

¢ Bryant Purvis is enrolled at a community college in Texas and plays on the basketball team.

¢ Theo Shaw is enrolled at Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe and was elected vice president of the school’s student government association for the 2009-2010 school year.

Former Jena 6 student Robert Bailey Jr. is taking classes at GSU and will try to make the football team in the fall.

Teaching our racial history

Leonard Pitts uses a tragic story from Sarasota, FL to decry the growing influence of Neo-Confederate propaganda.  With commendable sensitivity, Pitts sifts through a story reminiscent of Jena.  There are no heroes and villains in this story, just victims.

Here’s the key insight: “If we were a people with the courage to teach our racial history fearlessly, and the foresight to inculcate in our children a reverence for civil liberties, this tragedy might never have happened.”

Grievance and rage combustible


A few days ago, a high school student in Sarasota failed history and another failed civics. As a result, the one wound up shot in the chest and the other jailed on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Here’s the story, as reported by The Sarasota Herald Tribune: On the last Friday in April, an 18-year-old white kid named Daniel Azeff and a friend went riding downtown in a pickup truck, yelling racially disparaging remarks and waving a Confederate battle flag. Azeff’s grandfather, Joseph Fischer, told the paper he has cautioned his grandson repeatedly about his fascination with that dirty banner. Azeff, he said, does not really understand what the flag means.

If so, he’s hardly alone in his ignorance. A generation of apologists for the wannabe nation symbolized by that flag has done an effective job of convincing the gullible and the willfully ignorant that neither the nation, the flag, nor the Civil War in which both were bloodily repudiated, has anything to do with slavery. It’s just ”heritage,” they say, as though heritage were a synonym for ”good.” As though Nazis, white South Africans and Rwandans did not have heritage, too.

For the record: In explaining its decision to secede, South Carolina cited ”an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Georgia noted its grievances against the North ”with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Mississippi said, ”Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” To which Confederate ”vice president” Alexander Stephens added: “Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

So the notion that the Confederacy and its symbols have nothing to with slavery is tiresome, silly and delusional. In choosing to adopt one of those symbols that night, David Azeff took a history test of sorts — and failed.

As noted, Michael Mitchell’s test was in civics. Police say Mitchell, who is 18, black and a student at Sarasota Military Academy, saw Azeff’s flag, took offense and, when the white kid parked and walked down the street, confronted him. Azeff denied being a racist; he was, he said, just exercising his First Amendment rights. Police say the argument escalated, until Mitchell pulled a gun and shot Azeff in the chest.

Thus did Mitchell fail his own test. This is America. Daniel Azeff has a perfect right to express virtually any opinion he chooses, no matter how asinine or provocative, without being shot for it.

Thankfully, Azeff is expected to make a full recovery. Meantime, Mitchell, said to be a good kid who has never been in trouble before, remains jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail. It is difficult not to see a certain symmetry.

That’s not an argument of moral equivalence: Mitchell allegedly pulled a gun, so the moral weight for what happened rests squarely upon his shoulders.

And yet it’s also true that each teenager had what the other lacked. One knew his rights, the other, his history. But neither realized that you cannot fully appreciate the one without understanding the other. So each young man fell into the other’s blind spot.

If we were a people with the courage to teach our racial history fearlessly, and the foresight to inculcate in our children a reverence for civil liberties, this tragedy might never have happened. We are not those people. And because we aren’t, these two boys hurtled toward collision, hopped up on grievances and rage they were ill-equipped to speak — or hear. They took a test that night in Sarasota, and let no one be surprised they failed.

They never had a chance.

Obama opens the door


Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint have been barnstorming the country ever since they released their diatribe against the Hip Hop generation, “Come on, People!”  They were on a panel at Howard University a week or two after the massive march on Jena.  Howard students were polite and defenential toward Cosby and Poussaint, but they were much more enthusiastic a few hours later when I joined several Jena 6 parents on stage.

This all started back in 2004 when Cosby addressed a Washington gala on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.  Instead of honoring the ground-breaking world of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund, Cosby lit into “the lower income folk” in the black community.  Black people needed to stop blaming white folks for all their problems, Cosby said.  The time had come to move beyond the victim mentality. 

Ted Shaw, the newly minted lead counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, followed the Coz to the podium.  Scrapping the polite speech he had prepared for the occasion, Shaw launched into an impromptu call for a modern civil rights movement.  As a case in point, he cited Tulia, Texas, where, he told the audience, 47 innocent black people were arrested on the word of a racist white police officer.  In other words, some poor black people really are victims.

When I ran into Ted Shaw in Jena last year, I reminded him of his run-in with Bill Cosby.  I could see the pain in his eyes.  No one enjoys mixing it up with a cultural icon.

That hasn’t protected Cosby from the wrath of the black intelligentsia, however.  He has been accused of selling out the civil rights movement, for blaming the victim, and for aiding and abetting white conservatives.  Michael Eric Dyson’s “Is Bill Cosby Right?  Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind” may have offered the most scorching critique. (more…)

The final word on Jena (and beyond)

Jena, Louisiana still crops up in the media from time-to-time, usually as shorthand for abiding racism.  Darryl Fears’ Washington Post feature on the decline of traditional civil rights groups tips the hat to the Jena phenomenon in its closing paragraphs. 

When six black teenagers in Jena, La., were being prosecuted as adults last year in the beating of a white classmate, the local branch of the NAACP played a small role in defending their rights, but it was Color of that secured their release.

Color of Change deserves the accolade.  Under the leadership of James Rucker, COC collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for a Jena petition and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the legal fight (every penny of which landed in the right hands). 

Unfortunately, no one has won the release of the Jena 6; Mychal Bell is serving the last few months of his sentence and the other five defendants still face trial.

Moreover, the “local branch of the NAACP” was formed a year ago through the efforts of Friends of Justice, Tory Pegram, then of the La. ACLU, and Jena 6 families led by Caseptla Bailey and Catrina Wallace. 

In late January of 2007, ten Jena 6 family members and Alan Bean of Friends of Justice drove to Baton Rouge, La. to meet with NAACP leaders.  After waiting for three hours, we finally got five minutes with president Ernest Johnson.  His message was simple: create an NAACP branch with 100 dues-paying members and we’ll be there for ya’ll.

We held up our end.  The state NAACP waited for the story to go viral on the internet and become a staple item in the mainstream media–then they took an interest.

Darryl Fears is right about the endgame–Color of Change and radio personality Michael Baisden had far more to do with bringing 30,000 people to Jena than old-guard icons like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  

But how did James Rucker of COC and Michael Baisden hear about Jena in the first place?  Rucker was invited to participate by Tory Pegram (now a Friends of Justice board member).  Pegram remembered the great work Color of Change had performed in the wake of Katrina and made the critical call.

Dallas-based Michael Baisden learned about Jena from reading the paper, watching television and surfing the net. 

I have no problem with high-profile, high-capacity folks riding to the aid of the grassroots folks who do the heavy lefting early on.  But I do have a problem with the self-promoting arrogance media celebrities commonly demonstrated in Jena. 

James Rucker is a blessed exception.  He came to town and worked with the grassroots people while the story was still catching fire. 

Michael Baisden and Al Sharpton rolled into Jena in flashy limousines, grabbed a few soundbites from a compliant media, then headed off to Alexandria for a fundraiser.  The next day, when concerned citizens from across the nation flocked to Jena, the big boys bickered backstage about who should command the premier venue.

Catrina Wallace, the brother of Jena 6 defendant Robert Bailey, had organized a Hip-Hop concert for local youth.  The La. NAACP, afraid that the rappers might go to cussin’, bumped Catrina’s concert to the sidelines.  Finally, the NAACP was dissed and dismissed by Baisden and Sharpton.  In the end, there were two rallies: one featuring Baisden, Sharpton and friends; the other highlighting Jesse Jackson and the La. NAACP. 

The folks who endured two nights on a bus to get to Jena found themselves wandering from one venue to the other, wondering what was going on.  In the end, it didn’t matter.  Few were aware of the internecine squabbling and a good time was had by all.

It was all good; but it could have been so much better.

Now, folks are wondering what happened to the Jena movement.  We all gathered for a big rally; the House Judiciary Committee held a highly-publicized hearing into the matter; then interest dropped like a rock.  What was that all about?

Any “movement” that owes its existence to the undeniable power of celebrity will eventually be done-in by celebrity’s impotent downside. 

Michael Baisden was flying by the seat of his pants.  He didn’t understand what Jena was all about and he never bothered to talk to those of us who had been living the story for half a year.  The story got under The Bad Boy’s skin.  He was outraged, and his passion translated powerfully to millions of listeners.  Baisden called his “family” to join him in Jena for a big rally.  The logistical ramifications were enormous.  No one had time to ask what came next. 

So nothing came next.

Al Sharpton doesn’t investigate civil rights abuses; he waits for other people to get the story to the media, then he swoops in wagging his finger at the evil doers.  But Sharpton never knew what Jena was all about.  Everything was reduced to his stock storyline: unequal justice for black folks. 

Sharpton concluded that the criminal justice system should either try to noose boys as hate criminals or turn the Jena 6 loose.  Like any good controversialist, Al doesn’t do nuance.

Because Sharpton is a media celebrity, his take on Jena became the last word.

Make no mistake; Jena is a story about unequal justice.  But what lies at the root of this inequality? 

Jena is a story about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.  Jena is about racial insensitivity translating into bizarre public policy.  Superintendent Roy Breithaupt should have known that nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree were a sign of fear and deep loathing.  Relations between the noose boys and certain black football players were bad and steadily worsening.  Everybody knew it.  The issues needed to be addressed. 

Trying the noose boys as hate criminals would have missed the point.  These were kids, after all.  They needed to be dealt with firmly, fairly and compassionately.  They were not responsible for the legacy of Jim Crow racism, but their minds and hearts had certainly been twisted by it.  Nothing short of a full program of education addressing all the historical, ethical, and relational issues the Jim Crow South has left in its weary wake would have been sufficient.

But Mr. Breithaupt wasn’t ready to confront Jena’s history, so he tossed his town’s dirty linen into the clothes hamper and hoped it would disappear.

When the noose incident was dismissed as a childish prank, the black community was outraged and the school was placed on lockdown.  Reed Walters was called to an emergency assembly.  This was another teachable moment, a second chance for someone in authority to address the key issue.  Like the superintendent, Mr. Walters dropped the ball. 

In a June hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse, Walters was asked if he had waved his pen in the air and told the students that he could make their lives disappear with a stroke of his pen.  Walters owned up to the remark without hesitation.  He thought the black students were overreacting to the handling of the noose incident and he wanted to give them a reality check.  Black and white students, Walters told the court, needed to “work things out by themselves.”

This is America’s problem–we are leaving the children to work things out for themselves.  When adolescent males are left to their own devices bones are broken and the blood flows freely.  Thus it has every been; thus it will ever be.  It’s the male code, and it will be followed with tragic inevitability unless the adults in the room step in and do some teaching.

That, Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Baisden, is what Jena is all about. 

The real Jena story could have sparked a productive national debate.  In fact, despite all the misplaced emphasis and the hollow theatrics, the real story has been told.  It could have been told better, no mistake.  But Jena has sparked a boistrous and sustained conversation about how we can break the chain of violence that eventually engulfed Justin Barker and Robert Bailey in Jena.

The most articulate response thus far has come from Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that’s asking the right questions and providing sane and workable answers.

So what’s next for Jena?

It all depends.  If Reed Walters takes even one of these cases to trial, Jena will be back in the news.  It might not make the front page, but the fires of controversy will be rekindled.

If Reed Walters agrees to a universal settlement involving no additional prison time, there will be a few passing references in the media and the story will quickly fade from view.

Frankly, I’m praying for the second solution because it is in the best interest of the Jena 6, the Barker family and the good people of Jena. 

What’s it to be, Mr. Walters?  The next move is yours.

But perhaps we are asking the wrong question.  Instead of asking “What’s next for Jena?”, we should be asking what’s next for the criminal justice movement.  Jena’s name is legion. 

Friends of Justice continues to monitor the situation in Jena, but we have moved on.  We’re working in Bunkie, Lousiana.  We’re playing a bit part in a large coalition working for justice for the Angola 3.  And we’re currently researching a case in Little Rock, Arkansas that cuts to the heart of America’s prison problem. 

Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentleman, we’re in for a bumpy ride!

Alan Bean

Friends of Justice