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.)