Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tulia Friends of Justice publicizing student civil rights struggle in rural Louisiana

Now John T. Ford was workin' for the Ku Klux Klan.
At six foot five John T was a helluva man.
Made a lot of money selling sheets on the family plan.
- Willie Nelson, Shotgun Willie

Normally I rigorously try to restrict Grits coverage to Texas topics because, with 23+ million people, more than 2,500 separate law enforcement agencies, 254 counties and three of the ten largest US metropolae, I can't do a remotely thorough job of tracking what's going on here in the Lone Star State.

But our friend and former Grits guest blogger Rev. Alan Bean and his wife Nancy have been doing outstanding work through their group Friends of Justice, traveling from Tulia to Jena, Louisiana to publicize a case that's drawing international attention. And when my brother forwarded an article about their work in Louisiana (he's a minister in Shreveport), I knew it'd reached a pretty deep saturation level and I'd better get something up about the case on Grits!

If you haven't followed what's been happening in Jena, the Friends of Justice blog is a great place to start. And if Alan and Nancy's family commitment wasn't enough, their lovely and talented daugher Lydia, who just between us is probably the sharpest of the bunch, just had a terrific column published on Beliefnet that gives a fine one-stop overview of the case. Here's an excerpt from Lydia's column that gives a taste of the distasteful situation brewing in Jena:

It all started in Jena, Louisiana when white students hung three nooses in a tree at the high school courtyard, to warn black students that only white kids got to sit under the shade of that tree. The nooses appeared after several black students asked a school administrator if they could sit underneath that tree, and the administrator had given them the only answer he could legally give: that they could sit wherever they wanted. But it became obvious where the school administration's sympathies lay. They dismissed the noose incident as an innocent prank and a discipline committee meted out a few days of in-school suspension to the young white men who had taken credit.

The following day, black students staged a spontaneous protest rally under the tree where the nooses had been discovered. Six black male athletes took the lead in this protest. Immediately, the school held an emergency school assembly to address their problem…no, their problem wasn't the hate crime, it was black students protesting the hate crime. With a dozen fully uniformed police officers in the auditorium, the town's District Attorney Reed Walters warned protest organizers that with a stroke of his pen he could take their lives away. After the demonstration under the tree, white teachers branded these six leaders of the protest as "troublemakers": Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Mychal Bell, Theodore Shaw, Jesse Beard and Bryant Ray Purvis. Over the next few months, white teachers looked for any reason to crack down on them and brand them as bad kids.

At the end of November, the central academic wing of Jena High School was destroyed by fire (the smoke damage is evident in the picture above). Over the weekend, a stream of white-initiated racial violence swept over the tiny community, adding to the trauma and tension. The following Monday, a white student was punched and kicked following a lunch-hour taunting match. Six black athletes were arrested and charged with conspiracy to attempt second-degree murder—for a schoolyard fight in which no one was seriously injured. After Friends of Justice attracted international media attention to the "Jena 6," the district attorney was forced to lower the charges, but not by much. D.A. Walters was confident that he could get an all-white jury to convict these young men, no matter what the evidence.

He was right. Last Thursday, June 28, 2007, Mychal Bell was convicted of aggravated second degree assault and conspiracy to commit secondary degree aggravated assault. The alleged assault was "aggravated" because a dangerous weapon was used—namely tennis shoes. Mychal is a strong student who planned to go to college, but he could be 40 before he gets out of prison.

Mychal's defense attorney didn't even try to mount a defense. He could have called reliable witnesses to the stand to testify that Mychal didn't throw a punch in this fight. Most of the prosecution's witnesses who fingered Mychal as a "ring leader" in this fight had changed their stories in recent weeks: When they were first interviewed, none of them could even remember if Mychal had even been present at the fight. They only remembered that a bunch of "black kids" were there. But after the town's white community identified Mychal as a "troublemaker" for protesting the hate crime, these witnesses "remembered" that Mychal was the instigator in the fight. Psychologists tell us that memory is notoriously unreliable, and that social pressure motivates people to "remember" what suits them.

All over our country, young black males have been so demonized by our culture that it is almost impossible for them to get a fair trial. We know that our criminal justice system defies God's purposes when young black men are prosecuted for attempted murder for a school fight while their town stands behind the perpetrators of a hate crime. In Jena—as in Iraq—our nation is learning the hard way that true peace only flows from justice.

But politicians will never stand up for poor black teenagers like Mychal Bell unless people of faith embarrass them into doing the right thing. The church must witness to God's purposes for the criminal justice system. Our God is a God of justice, who holds judges and rulers to account when they crush people who are made in God's image. If we want to be the people of God, we must defend equal justice for the poor. If Christians hold out this prophetic vision, we will inspire Americans from all traditions to hold our government to a higher standard.

You might also be interested in reading an account by a New Orleans civil rights attorney on this disturbing case. Bully for the Bean clan and everyone they're working with in Jena and elsewhere to bring these injustices to light.


Anonymous said...

Wow. You have managed to completely twist and misrepresent what actually happened to the point that I'm not certain if you are actually evil or just stupid. I'm leaning toward evil, but we'll see . . .

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So give us the real scoop, or point to somebody who does. If you know more than the writer, what's the real story?

Anonymous said...

I don't have the time or desire to correct all of this blather, but I'll make a few. Feel free to check up on me if you wish.

For starters, the school administration (and the majority of the faculty) wanted to expell the noose-hangers. They were overridden by the superintendent.

Odd how your "dozen fully-uniformed" cops was actually two, plus the non-uniformed sheriff.

I'd like to see your evidence for the libelous accusation that "white teachers" were looking for any reason to "get" the "six." I'd like to see it just like I'd like to see other imaginary stuff, like unicorns and Iraqi WMD's.

True, two "witnesses" tried to exonerate Mychal. Except that, upon investigation, it was discovered that they were not there. One wasn't even ON CAMPUS.

Interesting that you point out the "stream of racial violence". Check your facts. Robert Bailey started both weekend fights, and, last time I checked, he's black. (And one of the "six" . . . hmmm.)

Each and every one of the "six" was identified multiple times that day, both by students and faculty. Not every witness statement contained all six names, but that was because the witnesses didn't KNOW the names of all six.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lydia's article said the school administration dismissed the incident, and the superintendent's decision is what counts as the administration's position, not what underlings later say they wanted.

Plus, you don't seem to dispute that the DA threatened protesters, just how large his security detail was. Or am I missing something? It sounds like you were there. Why does that detail matter to you more than the substance of his comments, which on their face are an abuse of power? Focus, please.

I can't speak to anyone's motivations, teachers or otherwise, and I'm sure Lydia, Alan or Nancy may have more to say in response. But on those two points you sound like you're engaging in defensive avoidance. The superintendent's actions were identical with "the administration." And you don't dispute the DA made threats to protesters.

As to the rest, I've only seen a few secondary source reports and can't speak to specifics, but those two discrepancies in your comments stood out even to somebody who doesn't know the case. best,

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you do it in Texas, but here a Superintendent is over the whole district, in this case LaSalle Parish. The superintendent decided in this case against the wishes of the administration. I hope I've cleared that up for you.

I don't dispute that the DA said stupid things. He says a lot of stupid things. In point of fact, he threatened the entire student body.

I personally find it interesting that this is all you have to grasp at rather than attempting to defend the blatant lies that you have posted as the gospel.

Defensive avoidance? You accuse the entire staff of being racist and then all you can defend yourself with is "defensive avoidance"? Don't try to weasel out of it. You posted an accusation that you can't in any way, shape, or fashion support.

Lydia has no more factual support for her accusations than you do. Someone went looking for suckers to believe a sob story, and they found a plethora.

Want the truth? try dropping by Jena some time. Despite the negative press, it's a still a nice place. We're just learning to avoid reporters because we've been misrepresented so many times.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Funny you should say I published this as "gospel." These aren't my words. This was published on Beliefnet!! I'm not "weaseling out" of anything. I personally made no accusations; I excerpted an article that's getting wide play in many places. I also gave anyone who wants to, like you, a chance to dispute it. I don't have access to primary sources and have said so. But you sound as one-sided and accusatory as you say the Beans are, and so it's hard to take your anonymous (i.e., unaccountable), highly defensive comments as "gospel," either.

I'm sure Jena is a nice place. Tulia is a nice place. That doesn't justify abuse of power by local officials, does it?

nandabean said...

I will try to address your issues in order. It is true that the school principal recommended that the noose hangers be expelled, but he was overruled by the superintendent AND the entire disciplinary committee. More importantly, when black athletes took the lead in staging an impromptu sit-in to protest this ruling, the principal called an emergency assembly and brought in the District Attorney.

At a public hearing on June 13th, several witnesses were asked how many officers were present in the auditorium and if they were uniformed. The DA and the Superintendent had a hard time remembering anything about the incident, but every student I have spoken with assures me that every officer in town was on hand in full regalia. These descriptions are highly detailed and trustworthy.

The important point here is that the District Attorney was confronted with a controversy featuring two sides: the three white boys who hung the nooses and several black athletes who led the protest moments before. There was only one professional and acceptable statement to be made on such an occasion: "I want you to know that this is a fully integrated campus, and any suggestion to the contrary is to be rejected and condemned."

But that's not what the DA said. He said (and this is now a matter of public record) that he could be the best friend or the worst enemy of the students who had staged the protest. He then pulled a pen from his pocket, waived it in the air, and told the black athletes, "with a stroke of my pen I can make your life disappear."

The message wasn't subtle. The DA was saying that any future conflict between the black athletes and the friends of the boys who hung the nooses would result in the severest criminal charges the DA could file.

At the June 13th hearing, DA Reed Walters explained that he made this threat because he was in the middle of an aggravated rape case (a serious matter) and he considered the uproar over the nooses to be an inconsequential issue. In fact, Walters resented being called to the assembly because the students ought to be able to take care of the issue themselves.

And I guess they did, didn't they. In short, Mr. Walters gave the black athletes two choices: they could stifle their anger for fear of being targeted by the criminal justice system, or they could continue to voice their outrage and face the legal consequences.

It must be understood that when you leave white adolescents who grew up in all-white schools and black athletes to work out their differences you will not get a principled debate or a rigorous exchange of opposing views--you will get a fight. A fight, moreover, that was almost assured to end badly for the white boys.

It is important to understand that these two groups engaged in a series of running conflicts throughout the fall semester--most of them inconsequential. Gradually, the tension eased. Then somebody burned down the academic building at the high school. Suddenly, all the unresolved (and, irresolvable) anger rose to the surface.

You seem convinced that Robert Bailey is responsible for all the violence during the weekend. Not so. He attended a party held by white students at the Fair Barn because he had been invited. A white adult granted him admission. The moment he was inside a white 22 year-old asked him if he was Robert Bailey. Then, without waiting for an answer, the young man smacked Robert on the jaw, full force. Seconds later, Robert was dodging punches and kicks. Someone smacked him over the head with a beer bottle.

If Robert was the instigator, why was his assailant convicted on charges of simple battery?

The next morning, one of the boys involved in the assault at the Fair Barn was approaching the Gotta Go convenience store when he saw Robert Bailey and two black friends exiting the store. The young man retreated to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip, pump-action shotgun that looks like something the Terminator would have wielded. Robert was too close to dive for cover so he grabbed hold of the gun and the two boys wrestled for control. When Robert's friends came to his aid, the weapon was taken from the white boy. Not sure what to do next, Robert and his two friends ran off with the weapon.

This means that the first day back to school after the fire, white students were crowing about Robert Bailey getting his "butt kicked" at the Fair Barn. This is clear from the eyewitness accounts filed at the LaSalle Parish courthouse.

I don't know if you attended Mychal's trial. I did. All the students who testified that Mychal hit Justin Barker were Justin's friends. Even so, many of them said Mychal wasn't the initial assailant or they weren't sure who hit Justin.

One girl said she was sure Mychal punched and kicked Justin. But when she was asked about the altercation the day after the fight she couldn't name any names.

Several witnesses said the assailant was a guy in a green jacket. They couldn't name this mystery figure, but they were sure it wasn't Mykal.

The eyewitness statements also contain two accounts of the assault from a football coach who saw it unfold. This coach insisted the hitter was another black student. The coach wasn't called to testify because the DA knew his testimony would mess up his case and the court appointed attorney was too lazy to do the requisite research.

Finally, is it simply a coincidence that the six boys arrested in the wake of the attack at the school were the same students that Reed Walters threatened with his pen? I don't think it was. Read the eyewitness accounts. Most of the kids simply refer to "a bunch of black kids". Some give a name or two or three, but most are remarkably vague. The only witness who can rattle the names off from memory asked another teacher to provide her with a list of boys who had been talking loudly during the lunch hour.

District Attorney Reed Walters has never denied issuing the threat to the black students. He and the Mr. Breitupt, the superintendent, are on record as believing that the fuss about the nooses was unjustified. Friends of Justice holds the position that Mr. Walters virtually stage directed the tension between the black and white boys that ended tragically for everyone involved. For this reason, Mr. Walters has surrendered the moral authority to prosecute these cases. Walters should be recused and the remaining trials should be transferred to another venue.

Finally, the Jena 6 are desperately in need of legal assistance. You can help with the defendants defense by mailing a contribution to the Jena 6 Committee: PO Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342.

Also, you can help keep Tory Pegram of the La. ACLU and Alan Bean of Friends of Justice involved by sending contributions to their organizations:
Friends of Justice:
ACLU of Louisiana: PO Box 56157, New Orleans, LA 70156


Alan Bean
Friends of Justice

Anonymous said...

Has everyone lost their minds???

A young man's life is ruined from a schoolyard fight and you all are arguing the details?? Give me a break! I could care less what color the participants are. If Mychal was white, my view would not be any different. This is abuse of political power no matter which way you look at it and it should be acted upon by the appropriate agencies in Oklahoma.

It is ridiculous and terrifying that these types of unjustices continue to occur in this country. Looks like we are not as "evolved" as we think we are if no one else is as appalled as me. Hopefully this is not the case...not only for me, but for the future generations! Good day!

a friend of justice said...

To Appalled Anonymous:

Get your facts straight. This case is in Louisiana. It's hardly likely that the authorities in Oklahoma are goign to do anything about it.

I don't know how to measure being appalled. But action/involvement measures concern. Dr. Alan Bean, who commented previously on this blog, has traveled from Tulia, TX to Jena, LA some ten times working on behalf of the defendants in this case, on his own time and largely on his own dime. I would say Dr. Bean is quite concerned, and if he had not been appalled he would not have gotten involved.

If you are concerned as well as appalled, let me suggest you go to the website of Friends of Justice, given previously in this blog, and make a generous donation, say enough to defray the expenses of just one of Dr. Bean's trips to Jena. Five hundred dollars should cover it!

Charles Kiker
a friend from Tulia