In the first installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Check back soon for Part 2 of this compelling story.
Thanks to ongoing work of justice advocates across the United States, we are increasingly aware of the devastating effects of our prison system on the millions of individuals who have been incarcerated.
In the land of freedom and liberty, we incarcerate more of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world. There has been a 500% increase in our prison population over the last 30 years, and more than one out of every 100 adults in the country is currently behind bars.
Angela Davis notes that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” Through a broken system of predatory profiling, mandatory sentencing, and profit mongering, millions of individuals are being “disappeared” from their communities, and from their families.
So what is it like to be on the outside while someone you love is on the inside?
PJ, Molly, Cheryl, and Kim share their stories.
“I grew up with siblings who were always in and out of jail,” PJ remembers. “Our family was constantly interrupted. I’ve never been in prison, but I have five siblings and they have all been in prison. It’s like they were caught in a cycle and they couldn’t get out. They weren’t out for even a year sometimes.”
The first time her older brother went to jail, he was nine.
PJ notes that a system that doesn’t repair what’s broken, just perpetuates the brokenness. “The prison system doesn’t fix anything, it just stalls it,” she notes. “My godbrother went in when his daughter was a baby, and came out when she was 18. So where is that whole relationship? Not only is it him who’s being institutionalized, but there’s her whose growing up without a father.”
By her own admission, Molly went to jail quite a bit when she was younger. “I was addicted and it really affected my kids, because I was not there,” she recalls. When she was inside, Molly’s mother took care of her children. She understands that when you’re locked up, “other people are having to hold up your end.” Each time she had to explain to her mother that she was once again locked up she knew it affected her mother emotionally.
Molly is usually the one that manages the household, which meant when she wasn’t around, others were left to handle things on their own. “It can make people feel abandoned, left behind, feeling somewhat at a lost as a result of my being locked up.”
“On the other hand,” Molly recalls, “my daughter’s father used to go in and out of jail a lot, and I actually felt relieved. He was abusive. When he was locked up I was happy because that meant he was out of my hair for a bit.”
Cheryl has two loved one’s currently in the system, one already sentenced, the other waiting to go through the process. “It’s almost like going through a loss, almost like a death,” she notes. “There’s a grieving process. There is a long adjustment.”
Kim’s youngest son has been locked away for awhile. She shares that “it’s hard even to gather as a family. He was the one who was always joking and laughing.” He has lost his support system, and they have lost him.
“He and his younger sister were real close. It’s been hard for her, not having him around her. We have a grandson that was his little buddy, and now he’s not around. They were babies when he left. Now they’re getting ready to graduate high school and go off to college”
PJ recalls going to visit her siblings in jail as a kid. “I hated how dingy and dark it was,” she says. “I hated talking to them through the glass on the phone. I remember having to be picked up to see them through the window.”
She now has a nephew that’s been inside for three years, even though he only just got sentenced a year ago. She is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to talk to him for a while.
Because he was arrested in another state, PJ and her nephew are nearly 2,000 miles apart from one another. “The prison does have video visits that you can buy,” she says. “But, you have to pay with a credit card, then you have to download software, then at the time assigned you have to log on with that software.”
PJ says the system works as long as you have access to things like credit cards, computers, reliable internet, and a webcam. But, it’s still a better situation than it used to be.
“When he first got there we had to write to him on a post card,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even write a letter. That was their rule. You had to communicate on a post card.”
Kim also struggled to overcome long distances to stay connected with her son during his incarceration. When she was, in fact, able to visit, it could be difficult. “He was very angry in the beginning, so visits were hard,” Kim recalls. “He would get mad and tell us not to visit. It took a long time for him to calm down and accept.”
However, for PJ it’s a no-win situation: “They cut you off and make you feel abandoned on both sides. The people on the outside feel abandoned, and the person doing time feels abandoned. Then you’re supposed to reunify that relationship afterward. But its already been traumatized.”
Visit our site next week for Part 2 of this story.
COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.
Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.
In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.
Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character
Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.
In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.
Catalyst for National Discussion
On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.
On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.
Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?
‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’
Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”
I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.
WE ARE TRAYVON: Thousands of protesters demanded justice for Trayvon Martin during the Million Hoodie March on March 21 in New York's Union Square. (Photo: Christopher Sadowski/Newscom)
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.
Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”
The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”
“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”
The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.
“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.
I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.
22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions
As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:
• To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)
• Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)
• Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)
• In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)
• Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)
• Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)
• More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)
• There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)
• Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)
• Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)
• Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)
• Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)
• Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)
• Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps. (p. 92)
• By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)
• “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)
• White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)
• In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)
• A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)
• States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)
• White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)
The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).
Continued on page 2.
PROBING A BROKEN SYSTEM: Author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander questions the lopsided number of black men in prison.
Forty years ago today, the United States government declared its legendary “War on Drugs,” and our nation has not been the same since—especially if you happen to be an urban male with dark skin.
The Jim Crow laws may have been officially struck down years ago, but author and scholar Michelle Alexander argues that a new racial caste system has grown in its place: the mass incarceration of minorities, particularly African American men.
It’s not a conclusion she reached lightly. As Alexander discusses in her critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it took years as a racial justice project director for the ACLU for Alexander to see the eerie similarities between the present U.S. criminal justice system and Jim Crow.
Namely, having a criminal or felony record means you face legal discrimination for the rest of your life. Depending on the type of crime, you can lose some of your rights—including the right to vote—and can be barred from housing, employment, financial aid and public benefits (see this report for details). These consequences have come down the hardest on low-income minority communities. As Alexander points out, law enforcement has unfairly targeted those neighborhoods for drug arrests, despite the fact that minorities do not use or sell drugs more than whites.
As a result, more African American men are in prisons, in jails, on probation or on parole today than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the Civil War. And an African-American child has less of a chance of being raised by both parents today than in the age of slavery, both according to Alexander’s book.
In an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith, Alexander called for people to create a major social movement against the new Jim Crow spurred by love for the imprisoned. She drew on Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Strength to Love to discuss the kind of love needed for this movement: a love that is, as King wrote, “not to be confused with sentimental outpouring” or “emotional bosh,” but rather a force that loves in spite of flaws or wrongdoings.
As a person of faith, Alexander said she believes every person is a “precious child of God, deserving of our care, compassion and concern, and to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s term, unsentimental love.” Part of our conversation with her is below.
URBAN FAITH: You say in your book that so few people realize that mass incarceration is a racial caste system. Why do you think that is?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The system of mass incarceration and how it operates much like racial caste system has lived invisibly in our society in large part because prisons themselves are out of sight, out of mind. In the days when there were whites-only signs, people of all races could not help but notice that a caste system was alive and well. Today, people who are sent to prison are shipped off and no longer a part of our consciousness, unless of course they’re a family member or a friend, someone we know well. The communities which are hardest hit are themselves segregated from mainstream society.
If you’re not directly touched by this system of control, it’s very easy to be seduced by the myths we are fed in mainstream media, propagated by shows like “Law and Order” and CNN and MSNBC shows that focus on the most heinous crimes. These media images and narratives reinforce the idea that most people doing time in prison are heinous people who we should be fearful of and have no care, compassion or concern for.
The colorblind rhetoric that has enveloped this system seems quite rational on the surface. The system is officially colorblind and we have been told by politicians, media pundits, even by some scholars, that the reason so many poor folks of color are cycling in and out of the criminal justice system is their own fault, due to their culture and their poor choices. And because it’s due to their individual choices, we need not care about the suffering that they may be experiencing.
Why do you think people should care?
I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’
Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.
And we have got to rethink our drug laws, which criminalize and stigmatize people who may well be suffering from drug abuse or addiction. We put them in a cage, brand them as criminals and felons and then subject them to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and social exclusion. Is that how we would want someone we cared about to be treated? I think the answer is no. It is possible for us to do things differently. In fact, we haven’t always incarcerated such an astonishing percentage of our people.
You say in your book that we need a major social movement in order to truly transform the criminal justice system. From what you’ve seen since you’ve written this book, do you have hope such a movement will start?
I do. I believe that a major movement is possible to end mass incarceration. There are many people who think otherwise. In fact, there were many people who believed in the mid-1950s that Jim Crow segregation in the South would never die, and that civil rights advocates committed to end the Jim Crow system were foolish.
One of the reasons I believe it will take nothing less than a large social movement to end mass incarceration is because, if we were to return to the rates of mass incarceration we had in the 1970s—before the War on Drugs and the ‘get tough’ movement kicked off—we’d have to release 4 out of 5 people in prison today. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our political, social and economic structure that it’s not going to just fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.
But I believe it’s possible. Just as racial justice advocates were able to bring Jim Crow to its knees in a relatively short period of time, it is possible to bring this system to an end as well. Once genuine care and concern are awakened for a population that has been so demonized and stigmatized for so long, the injustice of the legal system that has operated to keep them in their place will become readily apparent to all.
Do you see people having that personal awakening?
Yes, I do. In fact, there are a growing number of African-American churches that are answering the call to engage in movement building work to end mass incarceration. I’m working right now with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which is a network of progressive black churches across the country that has committed themselves to making ending mass incarceration a number one priority.
My own view is that the faith community has got to play a lead role in this movement, because what it’s going to take to end this system is a real awakening to care, compassion and concern for all of us, opportunities for redemption and pathways home. And people of faith have got to find their voices in this movement. I’m just delighted to see a growing number of people of faith and faith leaders answering the call and the challenge that this moment in history presents.
Lost in the din of the Michael Jackson coverage late last month was news that the racially charged Jena 6 saga had officially come to an end — at least from a legal standpoint. The six African American teens from Jena, Louisiana, made national headlines and inspired emotional protests when they were charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in 2006. Many considered the charges too severe, and a massive demonstration was staged in September 2007 to oppose the ruling. After nearly three years of dramatic twists and turns, the case quietly wrapped on June 26. Now the Jena 6, as well as Justin Barker (the white teen who was beaten in the infamous skirmish), are free to move on with their lives.
The terms of the plea agreement were revealed in the course of a two-hour court hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse. Mychal Bell, the defendant who was initially convicted as an adult for aggravated battery against Barker but later pled guilty to a reduced charge in juvenile court after the adult conviction was overturned, had been sentenced earlier to 18 months under state supervision. Each of the five remaining defendants in the case — Corwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw — pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of simple battery. Each was placed on non-supervised probation for one week and must pay a $500 fine and in most cases an additional $500 in court costs. In addition, a civil suit filed by the family of Justin Barker was settled when the Jena 6 defendants (including Bell) agreed to pay the Barker family an undisclosed settlement. Attorneys were not allowed to reveal the details of the settlement, but a reliable source has disclosed that the payment was approximately $24,000.
The Jena High School courtyard.
What lessons do we take away from the Jena 6 story? Six young men won’t be dragging a felony conviction into adult life. That’s reason for rejoicing, but as this saga approaches its third birthday, it’s fair to ask if we have learned anything.
“Jena 6” was briefly transformed into a popular movement that brought at least 30,000 people to the central Louisiana town of 3,000 in September of 2007.
Mass awareness of the Jena story was spread by the black blogosphere, radio personalities like Michael Baisden, internet-savvy organizations like Color of Change, and the brief but highly publicized involvement of civil rights celebrities like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Unfortunately, the movement that culminated with the September 20th march lacked an end game. Nobody knew what came next, so not much did.
Or so it seemed.
The huge turnout on September 20th placed enormous pressure on Jena officials, but the key to success was community organizing, savvy media outreach, and strategic legal work.
My organization, Friends of Justice, helped lead the way. We started with the goal of recreating the coalition of reform organizations and legal firms that overturned a corrupt drug sting in Tulia, Texas. Long before anyone from the outside had taken an interest in the Jena story, we were sifting through legal documents, reading local newspaper accounts, and conducting dozens of personal interviews. When the facts were clear, we circulated a six-page narrative account describing what happened, why it happened, and what justice would look like.
Our narrative called for Judge J.P. Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters to recuse themselves from the Jena 6 cases. We supported a change of venue, a Department of Justice investigation, and a program of diversity training in the public schools. We knew none of this could be accomplished without a huge groundswell of indignation, but our first step was to unite and organize the affected community. The families and friends of the defendants gradually learned to withstand the pressure of an outraged white community and to tell their personal stories with verve and enthusiasm.
The families and friends of the Jena 6 had been gathering at a local black church and holding demonstrations on the steps of the LaSalle Parish courthouse long before CNN, NPR, and the Chicago Tribune were on the scene.
Just as the mainstream media was picking up on Jena, independent journalists and bloggers were warming to the story. Color of Change started collecting signatures for a petition and soliciting donations to a legal defense fund. Across America young black men and women were asking how they could help the Jena 6. The student body of Howard University got into the action and the civil rights community eventually swung its weight behind the Jena justice movement.
When I talked to the folks who came to the massive rally on September 20th it was quickly apparent that the folks who rode the buses were a bit fuzzy about the most basic facts. The general impression was that some white kids had hung nooses in a tree at the high school and black kids had retaliated by beating up one of the noose hangers. There was little understanding that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th beat-down, hadn’t been directly involved in the noose hanging incident or that the two episodes were separated by three months.
Jena, Louisiana, on September 20, 2007.
The facts in Jena were of secondary importance to the bus riders. They were drawn to Jena by personal experience. People told me they were there for a son, a boyfriend, or a nephew who had received grossly disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. These people had no trouble relating to the plight of the Jena 6.
When the crowds left Jena, the movement quickly ran out of gas. It didn’t matter. By that time the five Jena defendants still awaiting adjudication were represented by some of the best legal talent in America. D.A. Terry McEachern had been no match for the legal “dream team” that rose to the defense of the Tulia 46, and I knew Reed Walters would fare no better against the legal firepower he was facing. The facts were all on the side of the defendants. Another trial would have established the link between the hanging of the nooses in September and the tragic events of December. Reed Walters and his supporters in Jena’s white community simply couldn’t allow that to happen.
Five of Six: (from left) Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones, and Robert Bailey on the LaSalle courthouse steps following the settlement on June 26.
The Jena phenomenon demonstrates the power and the limitations of public narrative. Jena happened because public officials like Reed Walters and school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt didn’t want to revert to the apartheid world they were raised in, but they deeply resented the civil rights movement that had swept it all away.
Therefore, when Kenneth Purvis asked the high school principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree in the school courtyard, these men froze. When white students sent a “hell no” message by hanging nooses in the school colors from that very tree, school officials insisted that the act was devoid of racial significance. When black students voiced their incredulity by gathering around the tree, Superintendent Breithhaupt called an emergency assembly in the school auditorium where D.A. Walters laid down the law. Turning to the black students who had been causing all the trouble, Walters reminded them that “with a stroke of my pen” he could make their lives disappear.
If Breithaupt and Walters had called a hate crime by its proper name, they would have validated the civil rights narrative they resented so deeply. So they resorted to threats. Nothing was going to change at Jena High School, and the black students would just have to suck it up.
Asked to explain his “stroke of my pen” remark at a pre-trial hearing, Walters admitted that he was angry with the students causing the unrest. The kids, he explained to the court, needed to “work out their problems on their own.”
Tragically, that’s precisely what happened.
Ultimately, Jena was a “Lord of the Flies” story about adolescent males functioning without adult guidance. If any of the remaining Jena cases had gone to trial, this version of the Jena story would have taken center stage. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), this was not the way the Jena narrative unfolded in popular culture.
In Jena two powerful narratives competed for dominance. A “thug narrative” was concocted for folks who resented the civil rights revolution. Jena was about six black thugs doing what comes naturally and a Bible-believing prosecutor gutsy enough to hold them accountable. The hero of the thug narrative is Reed Walters, the victim is Justin Barker, and the villains are six black misanthropes. In the thug narrative, the noose incident in September was utterly disconnected from the the “attempted murder” of Justin Barker in December.
The people behind the massive September 20th protest embraced a “noose narrative,” which contrasted the lenient discipline meted out to the noose hangers in September with the grotesque prosecutorial over-reaction following the “schoolyard fight” in December. Reed Walters was a racist, this narrative argued, because he was way too soft on white kids and way too hard on black kids. In the noose narrative, the noose hangers are the villains, the Jena 6 are the victims, and the folks rushing to their assistance are the heroes.
While the noose narrative reigned in the blogoshpere, the thug narrative showed up in publications like the Jena Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Weekly Standard.
The “objective” mainstream media fell back on a “town divided” storyline in which angry proponents of the two competing narratives were given 15 seconds of fame.
This kind of noncommittal reporting left both sides vulnerable to criticism. Thug narrative people sounded racially insensitive and parochial; noose narrative folk appeared callous when they minimized the seriousness of Justin Barker’s wounds.
Lost in all of this back and forth was a simple irony: Reed Walters’ “stroke of my pen” oratory unleashed a chain of violence that reached a violent crescendo in the December 4th altercation he was now trying to prosecute as attempted murder.
What are the implications of all of this for criminal justice reformers? Are we doomed to hawk simplistic morality tales to a tiny demographic of like-minded activists, or is honesty still the best policy?
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The goal isn’t just to get the facts straight or to rev up the faithful; we are trying to change public perception. Cases must be carefully selected. If we want to gain and hold an audience, even the most compelling stories must be pared to their essentials.
But even stripped-down narratives must comport with reality. Both sides in the Jena imbroglio wowed the faithful at the cost of losing credibility with the general public. If we are trying to change public perception, an ear for nuance is essential. America has changed dramatically from the day when a reformer like Fannie Lou Hamer could be beaten half to death in Winona, Mississippi, for advocating racial equality. “Nothing has changed” rhetoric appeals to impatient reformers, but it won’t get a hearing in middle America. Similarly, crude references to the depradations of “black thugs” may play well in the small-town southland, but this kind of talk doesn’t work in the wider world.
The public officials at the heart of the Jena story personify the southern dilemma. They were raised with one set of rules, then forced to adopt a new rule book. No one helped them negotiate these troubled waters; they simply had to make the best of a bewildering circumstance. No wonder they are confused-who wouldn’t be?
When Jena’s infamous tree gained iconic significance, the town fathers and mothers cut it down and built a new addition over the spot where the tree once stood. This was the most creative response they could muster.
This southern shadowland is most apparent in the criminal justice system. How can men and women who grew up attending Klan rallies be expected to dispense equal justice in the dawning days of the 21st century? How can people reared in segregated schools and workshops be expected to fight for cultural diversity? America is a work in progress. We ain’t where we need to be-not even close. But thank God Almighty, we ain’t where we used to be.
Ultimately, simplistic narratives change nothing. The Jena 6 aren’t heroes and they aren’t villains; they’re just ordinary small-town kids trying to make their way in a confusing world. Their attorneys won a smashing victory last month because they knew what they were up against and honed their message accordingly. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.