Category: Race

Jena, O.J. and the Jailing of Black America

Check out this piece by Orlando Patterson in the New York Times:

Americans needs to talk.  We need to talk about race, poverty and mass incarceration.  In particular, we need to shift our primary focus from Mississippi Burning-Rosa Parks racism to the new reality: Jena-Mychal Bell racism–what we call “the New Jim Crow.”

I just got back from a Children’s Defense Fund sponsored conference at Howard University dedicated to “dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline”.  The conversation swirled around three topics: institutional racism (the New Jim Crow) and the relationship between poverty and dysfunctional behavior.

On Tuesday, Bill Cosby, Juan Williams (NPR) and Morehouse President, Robert Michael Franklin, talked about the need for personal and community responsibility.  A large audience, swelled by hundreds of Howard University students, applauded Cosby, Williams and Franklin as they lamented the breakdown of family values.  The next night, the same audience roared its support for the Jena 6 (I was on a panel that included four relatives of Jena 6 defendants).  A week before the historic, September 20th rally for justice in Jena, 2500 Howard students crammed into Cramton Auditorium for a rally in support of Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Bryant Purvis, Jesse Ray Beard, and Carwin Jones.

The Cradle to Prison Pipeline conference demonstrated that America’s sharpest African American students love Bill Cosby as much as they love the Jena 6.  They don’t have to choose between criminal justice reform and personal responsibility, and they don’t.

Orlando Patterson teaches sociology at Harvard University.  I spent half an hour with him last year talking about the mission of Friends of Justice.  Patterson thinks that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are stuck in what I call the Old Jim Crow paradigm.  His criticism is practical rather than personal.

I endorse Patternson’s critique.  Initially, I was pleased to see America’s most famous black “reverends” entering the lists on behalf of the Jena 6.  Tens of thousands of people weren’t going to make the pilgrimaget to isolated Jena, Lousiana because the Rev. Al Bean issued the invitation.  The Rev. Al Sharpton, working through a long list of radio talk jocks, got the job done.  Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III helped out as well.  They deserve credit for a remarkable accomplishment.

But there’s a problem–the message is out of focus.  Like everyone (including Orlando Patterson), the reverends are using Jena to advance their agenda.  It’s an agenda that hasn’t changed much in the past forty years, and it needs to change.  How?  Ask the students at Howard University.

L.A. Times on Mychal Bell’s release on bail

This L.A. Times article gives us a rare sympathetic image of a young black defendant, Mychal Bell, smiling bashfully for the cameras as he goes home to his relieved parents. Yes, jail is a bad place to raise a teenager, whether they’re black or white, rich or poor. It also quotes Reed Walter’s bizarre statement that only intervention by the Lord Jesus Christ prevented the protesters from erupting into violence.

It’s interesting that Walters fails to notice that most of the protesters were devoted Christians, who felt the Lord Jesus Christ was the one who compelled them to be there in the first place. Maybe he should watch that video we posted last week, filmed by a Jena protester, who declared that God was with them, and that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Or shoot, Reed Walters could read what the Bible has to say to government leaders about upholding justice for the poor and marginalized. Friends of Justice is quoted at the end of this article:,1,5340911.story?coll=la-news-a_section&ctrack=1&cset=true

Christian Broadcasting Network takes on race, inequality and power

Christian Broadcasting Network filmed this interview with Friends of Justice’s Executive Director, Alan Bean. (You may know CBN as the network built by Pat Robertson of the 700 Club.) Notice that the Christian Broadcasting Network gave us the space to talk honestly about the problem of race, inequality, and power in America today. Contrast this with the lukewarm coverage of the allegedly “liberal” New York Times, which ignored the Jena story entirely and then let D.A. Reed Walters write an Op-Ed.

So we’ve got the conservative Christian media letting us talk openly about race, inequality, and power, while the New York Times sticks their fingers in their ears and focuses on “important” news (like, uh, the buzz around Guiliani’s effort to rebrand himself since 9/11.) Congratulations to CBN for stepping up to the plate–shame on the New York Times.

Clarence Page takes a few determined steps toward a new civil rights strategy in this probing column. We need to get the churches and college students into the fight while minimizing the role of self aggrandizing shock jocks and polarizing prima donnas. The release of Mychal Bell will be a Pyrrhic victory if we can’t swing the support of Middle America behind the Jena 6. Question: can we organize an effective civil rights movement void of celebrities? Could we win justice for the Jena 6 without the support of folks like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Yes, but only if we create a new advocacy model from the ground up. As Clarence Page suggests, we need to stress the principle of equal justice and we need to be racially inclusive. Morally, this is the right approach. Pragmatically, it is the only strategy capable of producing a profound cultural shift.,0,2383627.story

Last week, Friends of Justice spoke at a conference in Washington D.C. on the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund:

Give us Rosa!

If the New York Times had its way, no one would know about the Jena 6. It’s not the kind of story they like to cover. “Give us Rosa Parks,” the editors say, “we aren’t comfortable with Mychal Bell.”

Rosa Parks is doing just fine these days. Although the literal Rosa has gone to her reward, her respectable, upwardly mobile sisters are reaping the benefits of the civil rights movement. They don’t live in a perfect world; but things are a whole lot better for America’s black middle class. You don’t find Rosa Parks in jail these days, nor do you find many of her sons. Rosa’s boys get pulled over a lot more than their white counterparts; but a quick flash of middle class credentials and they are back on the road.

Mychal Bell is another story. Mychal grew up poor. He grew up without a father in the home. He grew up angry, and his success on the football field did little to quench the flames. As Reed Walters never tires of reminding the media, Mychal Bell has issues.

He may also be entirely innocent of the charges filed against him.

But the Times isn’t satisfied with a maybe, so they aren’t satisfied with Mychal—they want Rosa.

Mr. Walters tells us that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th assault, should be the center of media attention. “As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell.”

Mr. Walters doesn’t tell us that several white students insist that Mychal didn’t throw the punch that separated Justin Barker from his senses. Even more significant, a football coach who insists he witnessed the attack from close range, says Mychal didn’t throw the punch.

When Mychal Bell’s attorneys emerged from the LaSalle Parish courtroom last Friday they had no comment. Since this was now a juvenile case, they explained, they couldn’t discuss the details with the media.

Mr. Walters feels no similar compunction. The knockout punch was “thrown by Mychal Bell.”

The mere accusation is enough to make white progressives run for the exits.

This afternoon, Mychal Bell will walk free—on Al Sharpton’s arm no less. At a press conference a few hours ago, Reed Walters was asked if this fight is stressing him.

“I’m not going to say that I haven’t been stressed by this,” Walters replied. “But let me say this. The only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community. I firmly believe that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened.”

Then, asked why the protestors had been so peaceful on September 20th, Walters explained that “the Lord Jesus Christ” put his influence on those people and they responded accordingly.

How will America respond to the freeing of Mychal Bell? There is a growing tendency to view Mr. Bell as a thug. As such, the reasoning seems to go, he has no right to due process. This soap opera ain’t over folks—we haven’t even gotten to the first commercial

After ignoring Jena, NYTimes gives Reed Walters a pulpit

The New York Times didn’t cover the Jena story until they were faced with a protest so big that they had to put it on the front page. But now, apparently they can find the space for this disingenuous screed from Reed Walters, the D.A. responsible for the Jena debacle.

Reed Walters complains that hanging nooses is no excuse to jump a white boy. But he conveniently leaves out his own shameful role in fanning the flames of racial unrest in Jena. He neglects to tell America how he also refused to protect Jena’s black youth from a series of attacks by white youth, in the days leading up to the attack on Justin Barker. He neglects to mention how a black youth was assaulted by a gang of white youth at a party, and how another white high school graduate threatened black youth with a shotgun outside a convenience store. This is the critical information we need to understand the attack on Justin Barker–it was the mirror image of a similar attack by white youth on a single, defenseless black youth that weekend. Except Reed Walters didn’t punish all the participants in that attack. Apparently some young people are worth more than others.

New York Times, now you need to publish a rebuttal from Friends of Justice that holds Reed Walters responsible for Jena’s racial unrest.

Also in the New York Times is an interesting commentary by Paul Krugman, connecting Jena to the Republican’s problem with race–i.e., having built their power by scapegoating people of color, they are now having trouble meaningfully campaigning for the vote of all Americans, especially our country’s growing ranks of Hispanic voters. Interesting…although Krugman is wrong to associate Jena only with the vestiges of Old Southern racism. Black youth are denied due process across America, not just in small Southern towns like Jena. So the problem is just as bad in Boston, MA as it is in Jena, Louisiana or Tulia, Texas. Talking from friends who minister in low-income black communities in Boston, it’s painfully obvious that the New Jim Crow is a national problem. That’s why Friends of Justice sticks to our guns on this point: Jena is America.

White supremacist backlash builds over Jena case

This is scary stuff.  Please pray for Jena, our country, and the sick people who are calling for attacks on the six black youth in Jena.,0,4477421.story?coll=chi_tab01_layout

White supremacist backlash builds over Jena case

By Howard Witt

Tribune senior correspondent

6:59 PM CDT, September 24, 2007


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No sooner did tens of thousands of African-American demonstrators depart the racially tense town of Jena, La., last week after protesting perceived injustices than white supremacists flooded in behind them.

First a neo-Nazi Web site posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of some of the six black teenagers and their families at the center of the Jena 6 case and urged followers to find them and “drag them out of the house,” prompting an investigation by the FBI.

The closest thing to being there…

This Youtube video does a great job of capturing what it was like to be in Jena, Louisiana for the protest this Sept. 20th. The video also conveys the deep faith that motivated so many people there to stand up for justice. The film ends with the words, “9-20-07. Today we made history and God was there…Victory has been declared…We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” Thank you to ManofGod Productions for making this film: ( and thanks to Glittering Generalities for alerting me to this video.

In other news, I guest-blogged on Jena for tpmcafe this afternoon: “A new Civil Rights movement is born in Jena, LA?”  Which means I have to eat crow now, because just this morning I posted on Foresight to complain that so many progressive blogs missed the boat on the Jena story.


Lydia Bean

Jena 6 Prosecutor counting on white public to be complicit

Some of the best commentary on the Jena 6 situation can be found on the BlackAmericaWeb.  Tonyaa Weathersbee asks how District Attorney’s like Reed Walters have such an easy time painting young black males as dangerous thugs. Her answer may surprise you.

Alan Bean

Commentary: Jena Six Prosecutor Counting on White Public to Be Complicit in the Racism at the Case’s Root

Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2007

By: Tonyaa Weathersbee,

The Jena Six outrage has been in the making for some time. Since the late 1980s, at least.  That was about the time when the crack cocaine trade and its accompanying violence consumed black neighborhoods, nightly news broadcasts and white people’s collective fears — fears in which all young black males were cast as super-predators in waiting. Give them a chance, the fear-driven reasoning goes, and they’ll kill someone.

This toxic atmosphere is what gives a prosecutor like LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters the nerve to believe that he can get away with doing the sort of thing that would make Atticus Finch shudder, that he can charge six black teenagers for attempted murder and possibly get them locked up for most of their lives for a schoolyard beatdown.

The brawl, of course, was the culmination of racial tensions that had been building at the teenagers’ high school in Jena, Louisiana for some time.

Basically, black students sat beneath a tree where whites congregated, only to be greeted by nooses.

Not surprisingly, a series of scuffles and confrontations followed. One white student was beaten up. He walked out of a hospital after a couple of hours of being treated for a black eye and a concussion.

But the six blacks who beat him up — apparently after he had been taunting them with racial slurs — won’t be walking out of jail as easily. They may, in fact, face decades in prison.

Even though the attempted murder charge against Mychal Bell, the first defendant to be tried, was reduced to aggravated second degree battery, he still could face 15 years in prison.

That’s because Walters managed to convince an all-white jury that the sneakers that Bell kicked the white teenager with was a deadly weapon.

What kind of racist reaching is that?

Now, I’m not surprised that backwoods Louisiana racism still lives on today, or that an all-white jury will convict black people on exaggerated, science-fiction charges.

What’s scary is how white prosecutors such as Walters have come to believe they can get away with that kind of crap; that people will be more inclined to acquiesce, rather than become outraged, at the obvious fact that the punishment being faced by the Jena Six obviously doesn’t fit the crime.

Or that people will be quicker to see six black youths — youths who had no criminal records — as troublemakers rather than as victims. They were, after all, black kids who were driven to react to the racial harassment that school officials believed they could fix with denial rather than action.

But nowadays, men like Walters count on the public to see Bell and his friends solely through the prism of criminality. And over the past two decades, he’s had a lot of help.

He’s had help from the War on Drugs, which has turned black communities into battlegrounds for police officers and drug dealers alike. The police officers often easily snag a few low-level dealers and users, who tend to be black, for the perp walk and for the cameras.

No matter that if the cops conducted drug stings say, in Lindsay Lohan’s neighborhood, the face of drugs and crime would lighten considerably.

Walters has also had help from the media, which for years has stoked viewers’ and readers’ fears with shallow, non-contextualized coverage of crime in mostly-black neighborhoods; places where crime has moved in because jobs have moved out. Places where black males get caught up in a drug trade in which violence tends to be the cost of doing business.

No matter that whites use the majority of drugs in this country. No matter that when it comes to crime, whites make up more than two-thirds of those arrested, but just a third of those who go to jail or prison.

Walters has also had help from conservative pundits like Bill Bennett, who two years ago suggested on his radio show that the United States could bring down its crime rate by aborting black babies.

Seeing that it’s too late to abort the Jena Six, Walters is going for the next best thing. He wants to put them away for virtually all of their lives.

Hopefully, national outrage will continue to build so that he doesn’t get away with that. But our outrage shouldn’t just stop there.

We should also be outraged at those circumstances that have brushed all black males with the criminality brush. We should be outraged that some prosecutors now count on a white public, whose fears of young blacks have been stoked by the drug war and other kinds of distortions, to be complicit with them in the kind of racism that is at the root of the ordeal of the Jena Six.

And do our best to root it out wherever it exists.

We Need to Talk

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

This well-written article brings the Jena story to millions of new readers. Like many reporters, Scott Michels has left out several salient items: Mr. Walters and his “with a stroke of my pen” remark; the fire at the Jena High that stoked tensions in the community at the end of November, 2006; the assault on Jena 6 defendant Robert Bailey at the Fair Barn the day after the fire; and the young white man pulling a shotgun on Robert and his friends at the Gotta Go convenience store the morning after Robert was attacked. Leave all of that out and (a) you don’t understand why these kids can’t get justice in LaSalle Parish, and (b) you don’t understand the fury at the high school on December 4th.

When important details are eliminated from this story you are left with a dumb-ass argument about which is worse: nooses in a tree, or a six-on-one attack on a defenseless student. For an excellent illustration of the problem click the link below and check out the comments at the end of Mr. Michels’ piece. You can see a huge black-white perception gap in how Americans perceive the criminal justice system.

I have no beef with Scott Michels or any other mainstream journalist. These men and women work within very narrow constraints: “We’re giving you two minutes”, or “we’ve got room for 500 words, do the best you can.” You can’t do justice to the injustice in two minutes or 500 words.

Still, the responses at the end of Mr. Michels article are all the more revealing because the details in the article are so spare. All respondents were exposed to exactly the same article, and that’s all most of these people know about this story. Yet some readers call what happened in Jena an atrocity while others are asking what the big deal is about. One reader suggested that blacks don’t get justice in America because they always push too hard.

What? (more…)