Another travesty of justice in Jena
reports on the racist vendetta of authorities in a Louisiana town against Black residents who made history with their civil rights struggle for the Jena Six.
THE LOUISIANA town of Jena became known the world over as the site of a latter-day Jim Crow injustice--and as the spark for a huge civil rights struggle in 2007 that saved six young Black men from years in prison on trumped-up charges.
But Jena's racist authorities have been out for revenge ever since--and they're getting away with it.
The latest person to made an example of what happens when Black residents stand up to injustice is Catrina Wallace, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison at the start of June.
The official accusation against Wallace was three counts of distributing drugs. But there's no doubt that she is behind bars today because she helped lead the struggle to expose what happened to her brother, Robert Bailey, and five other African American youth when they were arrested and charged with attempted murder for being in a school fight.
The drug charges stem from a July 2009 raid, carried out with SWAT-team tactics by a force of some 150 police who stormed into Jena's Black community of some 300 residents. No drugs--none at all--were seized in the raid, but more than a dozen people were arrested and charged, based almost entirely on the testimony of a single police informant.
Ever since that day in July two years ago when cops burst into her home and held weapons on her children, Wallace has been behind bars. The prosecutor in hers and the other drug cases is La Salle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, the same man who prosecuted the Jena Six--and whose notorious comment to a room full of students that "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen" came to symbolize the entrenched racism that Blacks endure in rural Louisiana.
A jury that was all-white, save one African American member, handed down a guilty verdict in March, and this month, Wallace--who has never been even charged with a drug offense before--was given three five-year sentences, to be served consecutively.
"I've never seen a judge run anything consecutive, certainly not for drugs or a first offender," Louisiana attorney Miles Swanson told left-wing author and activist Jordan Flaherty. "In New Orleans, a case like this probably wouldn't even go to trial--they'd likely get offered probation."
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THE FACTS of the Jena Six case shocked people around the world: Six Black youths in a mostly white rural town in northwest Louisiana accused of starting a fight outside Jena High School--and facing attempted second-degree murder charges that could have landed them in prison for 30 years.
The fight was preceded by a series of racist incidents as the new school year began in fall 2006, starting with three white students who hung nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard--apparently in response to the fact that some Black students had asked for and received permission from an assistant principal to sit under the tree, which was "reserved" by tradition for whites only.
The superintendent of La Salle Parish schools, dismissed the nooses as a "prank." When Black students staged a sit-in under the tree, Reed Walters was called in to speak, and he likewise told the students to stop "fussing" over an "innocent prank"--right before he made his statement about ending their lives with his pen.
Tensions continued to escalate. Catrina Wallace's brother, Robert Bailey, was beaten up by a party attended by mainly whites, and police initially refused to let him make a complaint against his attacker. Some days later, a white student allegedly taunted Bailey. After lunch, the white student was knocked down, punched and kicked by a group of Black students.
Unlike the white "pranksters," there was instant retaliation for the six Black students accused of taking part in the fight--attempted murder charges and high bails.
In June 2007, the first of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, was put on trial--and convicted of reduced, but still serious, felony charges. Not only was the jury all-white, but the entire jury pool didn't contain a single African American.
By now, though--thanks at first to the efforts of Jena residents like Catrina Wallace and her mother, Caseptla Bailey--this new example of Jim Crow justice had been exposed to the world, and defenders of civil rights began organizing and protesting. New lawyers were able to get Bell's convictions overturned. The NAACP spotlighted the case of the Jena Six and in September 2007 sponsored a demonstration that brought 50,000 people, mobilized from across the South and beyond, to march in Jena. Ultimately, the charges were further reduced, and the six pled guilty or no contest, serving no time in prison.
As Flaherty--whose journalism helped bring the case to a national audience--points out, all of the Jena Six, instead of rotting in prison, are now in college or on their way.
But the local establishment wasn't about to accept this outcome. La Salle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin later told the Jena Times that he began planning his next move within months of the mass protest in Jena.
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THAT MOVE came in the early-morning hours of July 9, 2009, when Franklin gave the go-ahead order for "Operation Third Option"--a drug raid whose targets, in a town that is 85 percent white, were almost exclusively African Americans.
As Jordan Flaherty later reported, "Despite catching the accused residents by surprise with early morning raids, in which doors were battered down by SWAT teams while a helicopter hovered overhead, and then search teams were brought in to take houses and businesses apart, no drugs or other physical evidence were retrieved--other than small traces of marijuana at one house.
Nevertheless, a dozen people were arrested by the end of the raid--all on evidence provided by a police informant named Evan Brown, a 23-year-old convicted drug dealer.
As for Catrina Wallace, she was awakened to the sound of her door being broken down and a gun put to her head. Police pointed weapons at her three children, all under 10 years old, and refused to allow Wallace to comfort them. The cops found no evidence of drugs or any wrongdoing--but she was arrested anyway and held on a $150,000 cash-only bond. With bail set so high, she was never able to get out of jail before her trial earlier this year.
One by one, the victims of the Operation Third Option raid came to trial, were convicted and got sentences lasting years, if not decades, even for first-time offenders.
Jena's Black residents recognize this travesty of justice for what it is--the attempt of Sheriff Franklin and other local officials to reassert their power. "This is racially motivated," said Marcus Jones, the father of one of the Jena Six. "It's revenge."
White residents of Jena gloated over the arrest, according to a report by Flaherty published last year. "A white-owned store around the corner from the courthouse in downtown Jena sells t-shirts commemorating Operation Third Option, with a design of a person behind bars," Flaherty wrote. "Black residents of Jena say that an earlier version of the shirt featured a monkey behind bars."
But in the now-40-year-old war on drugs, this kind of racism and injustice is run of the mill. As Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said of Wallace's 15-year prison term: "Unfortunately, I'm not shocked by the sentence. We used to use prisons for the people who really caused problems, and made us concerned about public safety. Now we use them for the people we're mad at."
Saving the Jena Six from decades in prison on trumped-up charges was an important victory for civil rights in the not-so-new South. But victims are still being claimed in the aftermath of that battle--showing that the struggle against racism is as badly needed today as ever.