Jena 6: Bell’s Sentencing Delayed

Mychal Bell’s sentencing on July 31 has been delayed until September 20. The reasons are not especially clear, although Bell has taken on new counsel provided pro bono by Louis Scott, a lawyer based in Monroe, La. This was taken as a relatively good sign by the families and their close allies. They now have time to build even more support for Bell.

There were plans for a rally and march on July 31 to coincide with Bell’s sentencing, and since so many national allies and supporters committed to coming into Jena (by planes, buses, etc.), the families decided to have an event anyway–starting at the courthouse and then retiring for a get-to-know-each-other afternoon lunch at the local ballpark, one of the only places where blacks can publicly congregate in Jena.

Originally, the rally and march in front of the courthouse was also intended to be a demonstration against a new-found city ordinance, which made the freedom of assembly illegal during trials or hearings. This infringement on first amendment rights is being taken up by legal advocates close to the situation.

Today, the US Department of Justice Community Relations Services is convening a forum in Jena to be a “peacemaker” as tensions rise in the town with the cases going to trial. Many families voted not to attend the event, which they believed was also being hosted by the FBI, because it seemed to smell of information gathering. Some families may end up attending, like one mother states in the Town Talk‘s article. Yet, everyone would rather see the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice get involved rather than the public relations branch.

Published in: on July 26, 2007 at 5:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Rising Tide Blogger Conference

On August 24-26 the second Rising Tide Conference will bring together bloggers from across the city to discuss the realities of recovery in the city and how the blogosphere can better develop a dialogue on these issues.


As their website suggests:

“We will come together to dispel myths, promote facts, share personal testimonies, highlight progress and regress, discuss recovery ideas, and promote sound policies at all levels. We aim to be a “real life” demonstration of internet activism as the nation prepares to mark the two year anniversary of a massive natural disaster followed by governmental failures on a similar scale.”


Published in: on July 26, 2007 at 4:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth

Having not read Invisible Man, this review may be premature, as with anything lacking the proper context of the preceding history and foundation. Because of this, I’ll try to stick to talking just about his second book.

Juneteenth, as the introduction and preface make clear, is not a complete work. Published five years after Ralph Ellison’s death in 1994, a friend and editor was given permission by Ellison’s wife to pare down the 2,000-plus pages of manuscripts and notes compiled on the characters over forty years into one cohesive novel. Easier said than done.

The central storyline is compelling: a white boy, Bliss, is orphaned and left in the care of a black man, Reverend Hickman, but despite the love and care with which Hickman and the community share, Bliss becomes a prominent white racist US Senator and this is where much of the mystery of the novel lies and what the flashbacks reveal. We pick up the story as Hickman and friends visit the Senator’s office, trying to reach out to him one last time, to allow him the opportunity to confront the childhood he has denied. Unsuccessful, cast aside by a secretary, the senator never even hears that they came.

“We came when we sense the circle was closing in upon him. Poor Bliss, he had wrapped up his heart in steel, stainless steel, and I guess he’d put his memory down there in Fort Knox with all that gold. He wouldn’t see us and he only had to remember us as we were and as he was to know that we didn’t come here to rebuke him, his own heart would do enough of that, considering the line he’s been taking against our people all these years. . .I told him way back when he seemed bent on leaving us that I would live a long time and that I would arrive in his presence when he was in sore need. So why’d we come, why’d we hold on so hard to hope? Is this one more test of faith put to us in our old days, or just our own foolishness, just some knotted strings of slavery-time weakness still clinging to us? . . .Maybe we’ve been following the wrong man all this time. Naw, it’s him and there lies the nation on its groaning bed.  I lied and denied so he could climb higher into the hills of power hoping that he’d find security and in his security and power he’d find his memory and with memory use his power for the good of everyone.” [316]

The next day, the family sits in the balcony as the Senator is giving a speech on the Senate floor, when he is suddenly assassinated. Hickman descends to the floor, to his son’s side.

The novel becomes an unraveling of memories and flashbacks to Bliss’ childhood and his origins from both Hickman’s verbose lucid sentimentality and the Senator’s jumbled thoughts as he phases in and out of consciousness while in a hospital bed.

In real time, we (and Hickman) never leave the Senator’s bedside, but instead are taken to a specific past before the Civil Rights Movement in the south in which consequences for even the simplest interracial relations could be grave.

An example of Ellison’s style, often called jazzy, rhythmic like poetics with unending momentum:

Walking her along Fifth Avenue with a ll the eyes reacting and she no flapper but something more formed, more realized, more magically achieved, and the crowds’ imagination whirling like these blossoms tossed in a whirlwind and blown in the million directions of their hopes, hates, fancies, dreams, and we, she and I, become all things to all minds, drawing out their very souls, their potentialities set athrob by the passage of our forms through their atmostphere, sending them ever seeking for some finer thing. (p.72)

This excerpt about slaves traveling in the underbellies of ships crossing the Atlantic reminded me, cryptically, of the federal flood in New Orleans:

Worse than old Jonah, Rev. Hickman?

Worse than Jonah slicked all over with whale puke and gasping on the shore. We went down into hell on those floating coffins and don’t you youngsters forget it! Mothers and babies, men and women, the living and the dead and the dying–all chained together. And yet, praise God, most of us arrived here in this land. The strongest came through. Thank God… [121]

The book’s compelling characters tend to be overbearing as we never get respite or an objective position; each paragraph is a memory from either Hickman or Bliss subject to scrutiny and connected the sentimentalizing and dramatizing of the past.  However, because of what was at stake in this sort of growing up, and the societal pressures brought to bear for a black man to raise a white boy in the pre-Civil Rights Era, the memories remain vivid in Hickman’s accounts, but confusing and scattered in Bliss’s.  This seems to be due to Hickman being an adult, fully formed and informed, while Bliss was still only a child.  Not knowing how to handle or react to drastic events as a child can play out for the rest of one’s life, which is what Bliss rejects, until the end as the recurring psychological consequences take such a toll.  On his death bed the Senator no longer has the defenses to stop the reminiscences from resurfacing in a tactile blur.

For Hickman, his hope forever remained that Bliss would find the way, use his teachings and love and nurturing to further love

“Yes, and sometimes that man gets hold of the idea of what he’s supposed to do in this world and he gets an idea of what it is possible for him to do, and that man lets that idea guide him as he grows and struggles and stumbles and sorrows until finally he comes into his own God-given shape and achieves his own individual and lonely place in this world. It don’t happen often, oh no; but when it does, then even the stones will cry out in witness to his vision and the hills and towers shall echo his words and deeds and his example will live in the hearts of men forever

…That kind of man loves the truth even more than he loves his life, or his wife, or his children, because he’s been designated and set aside to do the hard tasks that have to be done. That kind of man will do what he sees as justice even if the earth yawns and swallows him down, and even then his deeds will survive and persist in the land forever…And in the words my slavery-born granddaddy taught me when I was a child:

Ole Abe Lincoln digging in the sand/Swore he was nothing but a natural man./Ole Abe Lincoln chopping on a tree/Swore a mighty oath he’d let the slaves go free./And he did!

So let us pray, not for him but for ourselves and for all those whose job it is to wear those great big shoes he left htis nation to fill…”

And to think, Hickman thought, stirring suddenly in his chair, we had hoped to raise ourselves that kind of man . . .” [282-283]

Published in: on July 18, 2007 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jena 6: a brief timeline

In a small central Louisianan town of 3,000 (about 85 percent white) there have been several egregious racist incidents and official responses from the District Attorney and the community since September 2006 that have allowed six black teens from ages 15 to 17 to be tried as adults. UPDATES IN BOLD.

Here is a brief timeline:

August 31, 2006: A black student asks the school administration if one can sit under the tree in front of the school. The administrators say do whatever you want. The student sits under the tree. The student asked this question of the vice principal at the annual assembly that starts the school year.

September 1: The next morning three nooses in school colors are found hanging from the trees. The administration conducts an investigation and finds the three white male students who were responsible. The principal recommends expulsion for such a hate crime. Instead, the school board and superintendent overrule and approve short in-school suspensions (which also meant that their parents didn’t have to be notified). Many in the community dismiss the actions as a “prank” and that they did not constitute racism.

September 6: Shortly after the suspensions were issued, black teens (including the student-athletes later charged with second-degree attempted murder) responded to what they felt was inadequate justice by “organizing” a spontaneous protest by sitting under the tree. A school assembly was called shortly thereafter in which Reed Walters, Jena’s District Attorney, accompanied by armed police spoke and threatened students who were protesting and exercising their rights to assemble and freely speak: “I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” As the black teens sat under the tree, strong words were exchanged between some black and white students, which prompted the school to call the assembly. Police officers were asked to come to the assembly first and invited Reed Walters afterward. Apparently Walters was not happy about being called from work, where he was readying for an aggravated rape case. Walters was also holding the pen as he made this statement. A teacher testified to this effect (though not called at Bell’s trial).

December 1: At a nearly all-white party, a couple of blacks students (invited by some of their white friends) tried to enter, but people at the door prevented their entry and a 22-year-old white man unexpectedly punched Robert Bailey as other whites on the scene also threw punches, kicks and allegedly threw beer bottles, which forced the luckily still-conscious Bailey and his friends to leave. Though Bailey had injuries worthy of medical attention, he went directly home. Therefore, there was no medical record to verify the extent of the injuries. Police arrived, arrested the 22-year-old and charged him with simple battery. He has since plead guilty. Sentence: probation.

December 2: One of the men who participated in the attack on Bailey the previous night stopped at Gotta Go Convenience store alone. As he was about to enter, he saw Bailey and two of his friends inside. Due to contradicting stories, it is not known whether Bailey and the man exchanged words outside the Gotta Go. Fearing retaliation, the man went back to his truck and pulled out a shotgun as the three black youths exited the store. They wrestled the shotgun away from the man and then fled the scene. However, the three youths attacked were charged with assault and theft while acting in self-defense. (The logic against this is obvious. The man who pulled a shotgun should have just left the convenience store and come back another time if he feared owning up to his attack the previous night.)

December 4: On the first monday after the fight at the party, Justin Barker taunted Bailey and others about getting beat up; several witnesses say he used racial epithets to provoke Bailey. As Barker left the gym and went into the hallway, one person allegedly ran after him and threw a punch that hit Barker in the back of the head. He fell down immediately, and whether from the punch, falling onto a bench or upon hitting the floor, became unconscious. Though it’s not known to what extent his unconsciousness was apparent to the people surrounding Barker, including the youths who had been kicking him after he fell. There is also gray area as to whether the kicks were intended to severely harm or were simply provocations to have Barker get up and fight. Barker was conscious by the time the ambulance arrived. He was never officially “hospitalized,” though media reports cite two hours of treatment.

Barker, who was taken to the hospital for stitches and as a precautionary measure, actually went out to a school function that night.

Six black youths were arrested and charged. All six had been involved in the earlier protest in early September. Their bonds ranged from $70,000 to $138,000. Several families could not afford these outrageous amounts and their sons remain in jail awaiting trial. All but Mychal Bell are now out on bail. The last one was released in the third week of July.

The charges were initially second-degree attempted murder (a shoe being the potentially murderous weapon), but after national and international outcry, the charges were changed to second-degree assault in addition to conspiracy charges. Further, each individual is implicated to have played an equal share in the assault on Barker when it is obvious that Barker was only punched once – a clear lack of due process. Walters’ charged Bell with attempted murder as a pre-text for getting Bell tried as an adult instead of a minor. As Louis Scott, Bell’s new counsel from Monroe, La., said: Bell would have been sent back to the juvenile court system if the initial charges had been second-degree assault. In my opinion, it was a racist legal ploy by Walters to get these black teens into adult court with little to no evidence where they could get up to 22 years even if he had to LOWER the charges to assault instead of attempted murder.

June 28: Mychal Bell, 17, convicted of second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit such despite contradictory written statements by students right after the Dec. 4 incident. No witnesses called by defense against many white witnesses called by the DA in front of an all-white jury and white judge. Bell has new counsel: Louis Scott of Monroe and three co-counsel. The Louisiana ACLU is supporting the coordination of legal efforts, though not handling any legal counsel directly.

Friends of Justice: analysis of Mychal Bell’s trial and ineffective counsel. This is by far the most comprehensive legal analysis of Bell’s case so far. It provides context of how Jena’s racial tensions have played out in the courts. From reading this document, there is much to gain to support the work and understanding for the other upcoming trials.

July 31: Bell’s jail sentence to be announced. Appeals hopefully will be issued prior to or concurrently with such injustice. A march and rally were still held with estimates of 200 to 300 supporters present at the La Salle Parish Courthouse.

Sentencing of Mychal Bell has been changed to September 20. Read future posts for updates.

Important Writings:

Justice In Jena, by Jordan Flaherty, an editor of Left Turn Magazine

Injustice in Jena: The “White” Tree, by Bill Quigley

NPR: Searching for Justice in Jena 6 Case (streaming audio)

The Perpetrator becomes the Prosecutor (and other related entries)

Democracy Now! – The case of the Jena Six …

While Seated: Jena Six

Nooses, attacks and jail for black students in Jena Louisiana

‘Stealth racism’ stalks deep South

Published in: on July 18, 2007 at 4:09 pm  Comments (23)  

Levees: a response to a USSF Katrina Plenary Article

I posted a comment to a DC Indymedia article on the Katrina Plenary at the US Social Forum to correct and ground some of the talk about levees in both the article itself (in what quotes it prioritized) and the well-intentioned commentors trying to figure out, like myself, what actually happened–how did the levee breach in the lower 9th ward.

“Comment on the Levees”

First off, I am not from New Orleans. I moved here post-storm and have lived here for the last year. However, as an independent reporter I’ve talked to many people and reviewed local media concerning the levee breaches. This only represents my own opinion, my own deductions.

A large barge left in the Industrial Canal, just west of the lower ninth ward, is likely the only culprit in the levee breach (other than the weakness of the levees through Federal neglect). To those that are not familiar with barges, this particular barge could hold almost two thousand tons of cargo and is the size of several modest homes (see the barge in the lower ninth and a description of varying accounts here: A barge of such a size pulled off of its moorings by the extreme water pressure and velocity in the canal(I was told it was very possible by a pile driver who works on the industrial canal), and sent headfirst across the canal into the eastern levee wall would likely sound like an explosion. And if it repeatedly hit the levee before breaking it, then that would account for some survivors’ testimonies that they heard multiple explosion-like sounds.

In addition, LSU researchers hold that the industrial canal was not overtopped by the flood waters coming from the Gulf, and therefore the soil holding the levees did not collapse as happened in other places during Katrina. As such, only the force of something like an explosion could account for the breach.

However the size of the levee breach is much wider than the barge, which begs some scientific answers as to whether, after the initial break, the levee could have become unstable on each side. In essence, a domino or ripple effect that brought down further sections of the levee.

We may never know all that happened exactly, but I just wanted to situate some of the previous comments into a grounded context.

Is it possible that the government blew the levees? Of course. Until there is verifiable evidence–video, satellite photos, etc.–no absolute truth can be attained. However, witnesses to the sound or sights of the levee breach deserve the right and dignity to speak on their experiences. And hopefully can respond persuasively to doubters.

Further, in 1927 New Orleans politicos and big business announced a Mississippi River levee explosion in St. Bernard Parish, a county of mostly poor white folks (see John Barry’s excellent history “Rising Tide”). Perhaps in today’s political climate they couldn’t say the same, but looking at the poor planning of everything else in the evacuation and recovery it is hard to know whether they could’ve pulled together even such a disgusting proposition.

Published in: on July 6, 2007 at 8:50 pm  Leave a Comment