God's Politics

God's Politics


Lydia Bean: Racial Injustice in Louisiana

posted by God's Politics

The Hebrew prophets warn us that when we don’t hold our laws to God’s standard of peace and justice, powerful people will use the law as a weapon to crush the poor and advance their own interests. I work with a faith-based organization called Friends of Justice, which organizes in poor communities across Texas and Louisiana to hold our criminal justice system accountable to our nation’s highest values. This week, we brought international media attention to a dramatic trial in Jena, Louisiana, to show what happens when our criminal justice system becomes a weapon in the hands of the powerful.

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.


Lydia Bean is a founding member of Friends of Justice and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard University. To get involved, you can visit the Friends of Justice blog, make a donation, and sign up for Action Updates. Hear a song about Jena, “Sitting on the Wall,” performed by Alan and Lydia Bean at the Pentecost 2007 conference. (Refresh your browser if the song doesn’t load correctly.)



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Eric

posted July 3, 2007 at 1:48 pm


Wow, from this account, this sounds awful. Lydia – keep up the good work helping these people.



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kevin s.

posted July 3, 2007 at 2:15 pm


Sad story. Not sure what it has to do with Iraq, but I suppose that is a concession for getting space on Sojo. That said, our justice system has some holes in it. My father is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and we’re all familiar with the transgressions of Mike Nifong (which was another racially motviated case).
The problem is that prosecutors are elected solely on their ability to make cases stick, and that we have juires of our “peers” who are intentionally pared down to the least intelligent or nuanced.



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Moderatelad

posted July 3, 2007 at 2:16 pm


This is awful! Good work.
Where was the Gov. of LA in this matter or the Mayor of NO? Why didn’t the Rev’s show up and help out? They didn’t have a problem getting to NC and the Lacross members.
In all seriousness – this is something that needs to be corrected. NBC-CBS-ABC-CNN can make headlines with Duke – why were they not here? Rev Jackson attends a walk in the park and CNN have their mic’s in his face – why wasn’t he involved?
I will follow this issue as it continues to progress over the next few months. Call CNN – you need to get this out there.
Have a great 4th –
.



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Wolverine

posted July 3, 2007 at 2:32 pm


I have to admit she makes a pretty strong case that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice here.
Wolverine



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Payshun

posted July 3, 2007 at 5:19 pm


I support those students completely. I wish I could agitate w/ them. It sounds like that entire school administration needs to be taken down.
Nooses in Louisiana, a black teen treated as less than a full citizen, sounds about right at least for that part of the country. I realize that many parts of the south are not as racist as they once were but this just proves that the south and our country has a long way to go before we deal w/ our brutal legacy.
I wish I could say that this surprises me but it really doesn’t.
p



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Doug7504

posted July 3, 2007 at 5:43 pm


Where is the outrage from Washington, from the streets of America, when a white millionaire is pardoned by the President only because he’s a political supporter and a friend, and a black male who assaulted another student is convicted of a crime far more serious than what he committed? Is it any wonder that the African-American community feels disenfranchised? Is it any wonder that our justice system has become a laughingstock, and that our new version of democracy is reviled as a sad joke around the world?
America is more and more the land of the “haves and the have-nots”…not too hard to figure out who’s who.
Peace.



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Peter Nichols

posted July 3, 2007 at 10:47 pm


Details of this injustice were posted at the Counterpunch website months ago. It’s hard to believe that the story hasn’t attracted more national attention and outrage.In the Greater Boston area where I live, should some vandals spray-paint a swastika in public, it’s on the 10:00 news that night.I guess poor black teens don’t account for much in our collective consciouses.



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kevin s.

posted July 4, 2007 at 12:22 am


I had heard of this case before. Perhaps the swastika incident got more play because it happened in the area? I am gravely concerned about anti-Semitism as well.



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Sara

posted July 4, 2007 at 9:07 am


Any ideas on what we can do? Who the best people/ newspaper editorials would be to write letters to? Give it enough national attention and this will have to get set to rights.
It does seem like it’s been out and people haven’t been listening. We as a nation don’t lik to be confronted our own sin. But there has to be some way, in a democratic republic, to address this kind of injustice.



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loretta larkin

posted July 4, 2007 at 10:08 am


This sounds like a case for the Southern Poverty Law Center and Morris Dees. Have you tried to contact them?



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Lydia Bean

posted July 4, 2007 at 1:22 pm


Hi, I’m the author of this post. To answer Loretta’s question: yes, Friends of Justice contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center months ago, but they wouldn’t get involved. They do good work with hate crimes and hate groups, but they aren’t prepared to get involved with this kind of abusive prosecution. But if things are going to change, groups like the SPLC are going to need to get involved. The face of racism has changed, and civil rights advocacy must change with it.
If you want, you can contact the SPLC and encourage them to help Friends of Justice organize an appeal or civil rights lawsuit in Jena.



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Shawn

posted July 6, 2007 at 8:54 pm


Lydia & friends,
The Southern Poverty Law Center has had its day. Like the ACLU, it has bigger aims than just helping people anymore, and unlike the ACLU, it’s got one filthy rich “rock-star” attorney, Morris Dees, who is more likely interested in suing hate groups who have MONEY. The SPLC does good work sometimes, but their finances are kept closely to the vest, and the general understanding is that any attempt to figure them out will result in you getting a lawsuit slapped down on you by Dees himself. In fact, I’d better check my mail now.
I feel of course, that this whole thing was wrong, but I’m left wondering why it happened–why adults let boys get so publicly out of hand. If boys get upset about where they can and can’t sit (and males below 19 ARE boys), they need to not lose their heads about it. Yes, the noose-tying committee should have been dealt with more harshly, but my God, the town was a so-called “powderkeg” already and blacks, if they wanted to be angry (and physically angry), only made up 12 percent of the population.
This reminds me in some small way of Rosa Parks, but it is different in this fundamental thing, I think. From what I have read, the tree sitting was less indignity than adolescent territoriality. Boys have always behaved that way, and I can remember my middle and high school days of bullies cliques and yes, gangs. A bully does not an international racial incident make. The prosecution–well, that may be.
While I too look with skepticism on some lily-white “freedom rider” (with perfectly straight hair) from Harvard, whose brief essay does not contain enough rigorous analysis to even appear objective, I hope the governor pardons the boys who were sent to prison. Hopefully, next time they will have learned that there are some things worth fighting (and dying for) than where someone says you can or can’t sit.
School principals can’t make rules that will abolish gangs, cliques or bullies. But school supers should be canned for failing to recognize and ameliorate the visceral threat of the nooses, which obviously crossed the line in a huge way.
Ms. Bean needs to get better connected politically or in the media. I can’t believe this didn’t appear on some pub or show–and I read a lot. For a Harvard gal, that should have been a piece of cake.



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Thomas - Pseudonym

posted September 5, 2007 at 2:46 pm


I just heard this story on a local radio (WGBH AM1200 Detroit) about 2 hrs ago. I went to my computer and ‘googled’ “convicted black students in Louisiana”. This story is all over the web.
The Rev.Sharpton (not a fan of his) is involved. My heart broke when I heard what happened. About 8 yrs ago, I went to court to support a friend of mine whose son was charged by retaliating on his attackers at a school-bus stop, this young man was the only black among his white peers. My friend had moved to a white suburb from Detroit after he was a victim of crime repeatedly. This experience gave me an exposure to our justice system.
I am black man, I have two boys and I can imagine how my world would collapse if this kind of thing should happen to us.
Please let us act in addition to the informed indignation I have seen on the various websites.
I have done 2 things to day which I recommend – please God knows my heart, I am not bragging:
1.I immediately filled a petition on colorofchange.org to the governor and the prosecutor
2. I made a contribution to their defense fund
AND
We will remember these folks and lift them up in prayer when we hold our family night devotion later in the day. Please do the same.



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John Strader

posted September 11, 2007 at 8:32 am


Equal justice is dead in America, especially when it comes to black America. It is especially dead when so many people of influence and power know about it and nothing is happening. There are lawyers in Jena, Louisiana fighting for the six black youth. Blacks in Jena are not safe, not protected, subject to random acts of violence and hatred by a white district attorney, worst yet an unchecked white power structure. However, few in America see it as what it really is; terrorism. Few high profile white and black politicians have not spoken out about this form of Jim Crow terrorism.
Many of my friends often ask me are thing better for blacks in America. I tell the yes and no. Individuals are working together so much better, but there are systems in place the keep black America in check. I have sent them information about the Jena Six; they are finally getting the message. What truly saddens me is that this is type of judicial terrorism quietly goes on across America. There was more national outrage when dogs are trained to fight, then were killed for not performing.
If not now, when? Now is the time to gather the forces and advocate for our brothers and sister living under a terroristic system in America. If we do not stand now, it will never happen. I am asking everyone to call their Senators and tell them they must take action against American terrorism.



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John Strader

posted September 11, 2007 at 8:32 am


Equal justice is dead in America, especially when it comes to black America. It is especially dead when so many people of influence and power know about it and nothing is happening. There are lawyers in Jena, Louisiana fighting for the six black youth. Blacks in Jena are not safe, not protected, subject to random acts of violence and hatred by a white district attorney, worst yet an unchecked white power structure. However, few in America see it as what it really is; terrorism. Few high profile white and black politicians have not spoken out about this form of Jim Crow terrorism.
Many of my friends often ask me are thing better for blacks in America. I tell the yes and no. Individuals are working together so much better, but there are systems in place the keep black America in check. I have sent them information about the Jena Six; they are finally getting the message. What truly saddens me is that this is type of judicial terrorism quietly goes on across America. There was more national outrage when dogs are trained to fight, then were killed for not performing.
If not now, when? Now is the time to gather the forces and advocate for our brothers and sister living under a terroristic system in America. If we do not stand now, it will never happen. I am asking everyone to call their Senators and tell them they must take action against American terrorism.



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Jacqueline Balyer

posted September 20, 2007 at 4:25 pm


District Attorney Reed Walters warned protest organizers that with a stroke of his pen he could take their lives away.
This district attorney could have handled this in a much better way. He is supposed to be the ‘adult’ who gives counsel to the students.
Both groups are guilty of crimes. I cannot defend one group over the other. Both were wrong. But, even worse is the fact that the ‘adults’ in the system did not use this as an apportunity to discuss the violence that hate brings to everyone. With proper guidance this episode could have been avoided.



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W Alan Griffin

posted September 20, 2007 at 10:05 pm


Most people don’t want to look at the problems, because then they must look at themselves. The federal government needs to step in and do the “right” thing. And the reason why is it is a civil rights issue. The rope thing in itself, is terrorism. We all know the symbolism of the rope. It is not just a “Jena” thing, it is a “global” thing , in as much as the rest of the world is watching. We want to tell China and Russia about their human rights record, but the reality is we need to look upon our own record.



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