[News] The Justice that Jena Demands

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 1 14:40:21 EDT 2007


The Justice that Jena Demands
by Xochitl Bervera; Families and Friends of 
Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) ; October 01, 2007

I want to tell you about Emmanuelle Narcisse.  He 
was a tall, slim, handsome young man who was 
killed by a guard at the Bridge City Correctional 
Center for Youth – a Louisiana juvenile prison – 
in 2003.  Apparently, he was "fussing" in line, 
talking back to a guard.  The guard punched him 
in the face, one blow, and Emmanuelle went down 
backwards, slamming his head on the concrete.  He 
took his last breath there behind the barbed wire 
of that state run facility.  The guard was 
suspended with pay during the investigation.  No 
indictment was ever filed against him.

There is also Tobias Kingsley,[1] sentenced when 
he was 15 to two years in juvenile prison for 
sneaking into a hotel swimming pool (his first 
offense). Tobias endured physical and sexual 
abuse inside the prison.  He said that guards 
traded sex with kids for drugs and cigarettes, 
and sometimes set kids up to fight one another, 
making cash bets on the winner.  His mama said he 
was never the same after he came home.  She said 
the nightmares, the violence, the paranoia 
persisted years after the private lawyers helped 
him come home early.  His battles with addiction 
and depression are not yet over.

And there is Shareef Cousin, who was tried as an 
adult and sent to death row in the state of 
Louisiana for a murder that he didn't 
commit.  Shareef spent from age 16 to age 26 
behind bars, the majority of those years isolated 
in Angola's Death Row, because an over zealous 
prosecutor didn't care that the evidence didn't 
really add up.  After all, it was only a young Black man's life on the line.

These are young Black men who have encountered 
Louisiana's criminal justice system who I know 
because their mothers have become proud members 
of Families and Friends of Louisiana's 
Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), the organization I 
have worked for over the last 7 years.  These 
stories are about young men who have experienced 
incredible injustice, not unlike the Jena 6, only 
the national spotlight has never shined on them.

There are hundreds more.  Thousands.  Every day 
in the state of Louisiana (and in most states in 
this nation), injustices of epic proportions are 
taking place in our criminal and juvenile justice 
systems.  We, those of us who live here, fight 
here, and organize here, know hundreds of 
families and young people – often our own - 
who've endured almost inconceivable levels of 
violence, abuse, neglect.  And despite efforts to 
get someone, anyone to care and to act, these 
young people most often end up statistics in 
somebody's dismal report, or an anecdote in an 
article just like this.  Because people don't 
care.  Because these young people are not just 
poor, they are not just Black, they are criminals.

Hallelujah, someone noticed!

So, Hallelujah!  Almost overnight it seems, the 
nation is looking deep into the heart of 
Louisiana's criminal justice system and seeing 
what we've been shouting about all these 
years!  The racism, the blatant and unaccountable 
abuse of power masquerading as "justice."  The 
slavery-like, Jim Crow-like, Bush-era prejudice 
and exploitation that has been the bedrock of 
white supremacy here and all over the Deep South 
for decades.  Young people of color and mothers 
across the country are rising up saying "We wont 
take it anymore!  We demand justice!"  The myth 
that the goal of the criminal justice system is 
protecting public safety is slowly unraveling as 
youth in Philadelphia, DC,   Oakland and mothers 
in Chicago, Jackson, and Birmingham make that 
most important of realizations, "that could have 
been me," "that could have been my child."

Many are asking, "why now?"  Why, of all the 
horrific incidents we've seen and exposed, is 
this the one that set off this fire of hope?  Our 
young people have been shot and killed by police 
in every city in this nation, left to die of 
dehydration in local jails, railroaded by white 
juries and judges into serving 20, 30, 40 years 
in the prison plantations we call Angola, Parchment, and Sing Sing...

Let me tell you what my heart tells me.  What 
really matters is not why, but what we plan to do 
with this moment now that it has arrived.  What 
will the leaders, the youth, the elders of our movement do now?

Demanding Justice for Us All

Of course we must relentlessly and persistently 
demand justice for the Jena 6.  But we must 
demand justice, not only in the form of dropping 
the charges against these specific youth, but in 
the systematic and thorough rooting out of racism 
from all wings of the criminal justice systems 
across the United States of America.

Justice in Jena requires justice for all the 
others as well – for all those who have suffered 
(and some who have died) silently behind bars and 
for their families who have fought without 
benefit of TV cameras and news reporters.  It 
requires understanding that we will not, we can 
not achieve racial justice in this country if we 
do not fight against the criminal justice system, 
not just in individual instances, but in its 
institutionalized, systemic form.  If we do not 
understand this – and understand it deeply – then 
this newly discovered energy, this tidal wave of 
outrage, this beautiful, intergenerational 
protesting isn't going to mean a damn thing past next week's news.

Justice in Jena requires all of us across the 
country to rise up against the racism and 
exploitation of the criminal justice system in 
all the places where we've come to see it and 
grown to accept it whether that's allowing for an 
abysmal public defender office in your county or 
turning away when you see a police officer 
trample the rights, and perhaps the body, of a 
fellow citizen.  We must cast off once and for 
all, the fundamental lie that the system has 
anything to do with criminals or justice or 
public safety.  We must not back down, as so many 
movements have, when we are "crime-baited," 
accused of defending rapists and murderers, 
accused of defending crime itself.  We must not 
make excuses for some parts of the system while 
protesting others.  Similar to opposing the war, 
the whole war, and not simply certain battles or 
certain strategies, we must oppose the system in 
its entirety.  We must dismiss, once and for all, 
the urge to discuss what's wrong with the system 
– what's broken and needs to be fixed.

There is nothing broken in this system.  In fact, 
usually (when it is not disrupted by 50,000 
protestors), it is quite efficient at doing 
precisely what it was created to do.  In the Deep 
South, the criminal justice system as we know it 
was built after the abolition of slavery, as part 
of the terror machine which destroyed the briefly 
federally protected Reconstruction era.  Without 
nuance or subtlety, the system was created by 
wealthy, land owning whites to keep Blacks "in 
line," on the plantation, and working for next to 
nothing.  Thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment 
which abolished slavery "except as a punishment 
for crime," laws and codes were invented that 
criminalized the very existence of Black people, 
police were hired to "enforce" those laws, and 
courts were mandated to send these newly created 
"criminals" to jail, or better yet, to be leased 
out to the very plantation owners they had been 
"freed" from just months before.  The "justice" 
that was once meted out by slave owners who were 
"masters" of their property, was now taken care 
of by the law.  The word "slave" was replaced by the word "criminal."

"Its not about race, it's about crime"

And yet, even with this history known, the stigma 
of criminality has remained so strong that our 
own movements have turned their backs on this 
issue over the years.  Too many of our movements 
today want to dismiss, minimize, or overlook the 
necessity for a racial justice movement to 
prioritize organizing around criminal 
justice.  Too often, our members meet others – 
even those who should be allies – who hold the 
entrenched belief that if a child is in prison, 
he must be "bad," he must have done something 
wrong.  Even in progressive circles, 
organizations prefer to focus on the school 
children who need an education, the families who 
want affordable housing, the victims of street 
violence and drive-by shootings.  These people 
are portrayed as "innocent" and deserving while 
currently and formerly incarcerated people are "guilty" - of something.

Of course, it's a false dichotomy.  Everyone 
knows that the same communities, the same people, 
who are most impacted by violence, the lack of 
health care, education, and housing are those 
most brutally impacted by policing and 
prisons.  But the idea of the dichotomy has been 
essential to maintaining the stigma which 
justifies the system.  And it's been a handy and 
effective tool to explain away a great deal of 
racial injustice in this country.

In Jena, when asked about the incident which led 
to the arrests of the Jena 6, a white librarian 
confidently explained to the NPR reporter, "It's 
not about race.  It's about crime."  Crime -- the 
ultimate proxy for race, the ultimate justification for racism.

What the future holds

I believe that this moment in history can be a 
pivotal one if we make it so.  Up to 50,000 
people marched in the streets of Jena yesterday – 
the majority of them Black, many were from the 
South.  All were outraged by the blatant racism 
evidenced by the criminal justice system.  This 
could be the beginning of the end for a system 
that should have been dismantled years ago.

But what we fight for and how we fight will make 
all the difference.  The most obvious principle 
is that we cannot fight for the system to expand 
– in any way.  Asking for the white kids who hung 
the nooses to be charged, calling for Hate Crime 
Legislation -- these "solutions" just strengthen 
the system and give the same players – the DA, 
the judge, the jury – more powers and more 
validation.  If we understand that the system, at 
its core, is not designed to promote justice, 
then why would we ask for anything that expands 
its reach or powers?  At the very least, we must 
only call for things which shrink the system – 
closing prisons, freeing prisoners, cutting 
correction budgets, eliminating the death penalty 
and Life Without Parole, prohibiting juvenile 
transfers, and implementing sentencing reform.

  We can also call for accountability from our 
elected officials.  DAs and judges who perpetuate 
injustice, state representatives who are in bed 
with the corrections department and private 
prison companies – these people should not be 
allowed to hold office.  They should be ousted 
whether by recall, regular elections, or public pressure to step down.

But we can – and should - also call for the 
redirection of funds into a real public safety 
system.  We must make it clear that the issue of 
public safety is fundamentally distinct from the 
issue of the criminal justice system.  The only 
thing they have in common is 
rhetoric.  Developing a public safety system 
which is prevention orientated, based on 
principles of restorative or transformative 
justice, prioritizes making the victim and 
community whole, and creatively resolving 
conflict is a powerful and noble goal and our 
communities should know more about these models 
and fight for them.  A public safety system 
includes community based programs, quality 
education and the elimination of racism.

The families of the Jena 6 are ahead of the crowd 
in the list of demands they have made public: 
1.  Drop (or fairly reduce) All Charges; 
2.  Reinstate School Credits; 3. No Juvenile 
Records; 4. Investigate "Noose" Incident of 
September 1, 2006; 5. Remove Reed Walters from 
the District Attorney's Office; 6.Conduct Undoing 
Racism Workshops for Staff, Faculty, 
Administrators, Students, Parents and Community Members.

These are good demands for Jena.  What will you 
demand in your hometown or city?

FFLIC is a membership based organization 
consisting primarily of mothers and 
grandmothers.  These mothers and grandmothers 
have seen all sides of the farce known as the 
criminal justice system.  They have been victims 
of sexual and physical violence who have either 
kept quiet or endured the humiliation and neglect 
of the DA's office and the so-called victim's 
advocates.  They have been forced to call the 
police on their children when mental illness or 
addiction has made them violent and no other 
services exist.  They have visited their children 
in prison and seen boot marks on their 
faces.  They have walked home alone through dark 
streets in poor neighborhoods where there are no 
programs, no services, no activities to keep 
young men busy and hopeful.  They have seen their 
children beat by police officers, by prison 
guards, sometimes even by judges and district attorneys.

Standing on both sides of the system, these 
mothers will tell you that justice exists nowhere 
in the vicinity.  It may sound radical, but its 
time we start listening to those who have been 
through it all and tear down the disgrace that is 
the U.S. criminal justice system.



Name has been changed for purposes of confidentiality


Xochitl Bervera is co-director of Families and 
Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children 
(<http://www.fflic.org>www.fflic.org).  She can 
be reached at <mailto:xochitl at fflic.org>xochitl at fflic.org.



New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) 
and Network of Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) have 
developed: Revealing Racist Roots: The 3 R's for 
Teaching About the Jena 6, a curriculum guide for 
teachers to address what's happening in 
Jena.   Download the resource guide in PDF 
Version or Word Version for free at: 
<http://www.nycore.org/>www.nycore.org OR  <http://www.t4sj.org/>www.t4sj.org.

Donate to support the legal defense fund:
Jena 6 Defense Committee
PO BOX 2798
Jena, LA 71342

Sign the petitions at: 

For more information or to offer concrete support, email:

The Jena Six and the School To Prison Pipeline: 

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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