[News] Race and Politics in a Rural Louisiana Town

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 25 12:23:00 EDT 2011

March 25 - 27, 2011

The Black Mayor of Waterproof, LA Has Spent 
Nearly a Year Behind Bars Without Bail

Race and Politics in a Rural Louisiana Town


A legal dispute in the rural Louisiana town of 
Waterproof has attracted the attention of 
national civil rights organizations and 
activists. Color Of Change, an online activist 
group that helped garner national attention for 
the Jena Six Case, recently rallied their members 
in support of Waterproof mayor Bobby 
Higginbotham, who has been held without bail 
since May of 2010. Advocates say the town's mayor 
and police chief, both African American, were 
targeted by an entrenched white power structure, 
including a Parish Sheriff and District Attorney, 
who were threatened by newly empowered Black 
political power in the town and are seeking to 
use the court system to undo an election.

While the mayor and police chief were both found 
guilty last year, their defenders say the trials 
have not resolved the conflict. Rachel Conner, a 
lawyer representing Higginbotham in his appeal, 
says she has never seen a case with so many 
flaws. "Essentially, every single thing that you 
can do to violate someone's constitutional rights 
from beginning to end happened in his case," she says.

The charges and counter charges are difficult to 
untangle. At the center of the case is a state 
audit of Waterproof that found irregularities in 
the town's record keeping. The Parish District 
Attorney says the audit shows mayoral corruption. 
The mayor says the problems pre-date his term, 
and he had taken steps to correct the issues. The 
mayor's opponents claim he stole from the town by 
illegally increasing his salary. His supporters 
say he received a raise that was voted on by the 
town aldermen. The mayor initially faced 44 
charges; all but two were dropped before the 
trial began. Those charges - malfeasance in 
office and felony theft – were related to the 
disputed raise and use of the town's credit card. 
Miles Jenkins, the police chief, faced charges 
related to his enforcement of traffic tickets.

The mayor was quickly convicted of both charges 
but lawyers have raised challenges to the 
convictions, bringing a number of legal 
complaints. For example: in a town that is 60% 
African-American, Mayor Higginbotham had only one 
Black juror. Higginbotham's counsel was 
disqualified by the DA, and the public defender 
had a conflict of interest, leaving the mayor 
with no lawyer. Two days before trial began, the 
DA gave Higginbotham 10 boxes of files related to 
his case. Higginbotham's request for an extension 
to get an attorney and to examine the files was denied.

There's more: during jury selection, when 
Higginbotham - forced to act as his own lawyer - 
tried to strike one juror who had relationships 
with several of the witnesses, he was told he 
could not, even though he had challenges 
remaining. There was also a problem with a sound 
recorder that the court reporter was using, and 
as a result there is no transcript at all for at 
least two witness' testimony. Finally, during 
deliberation, the judge gave the jury polling 
slips that had "guilty" pre-selected, and then later hid the slips.

When Higginbotham was convicted, the judge 
refused to set bail in any amount. Although a 
possible sentence for the crime was probation, 
and despite former mayor's obvious ties to the 
community, Higginbotham has spent the last ten 
months in jail while his lawyers have worked on 
his appeal. "He's not a flight risk," says 
Conner. "He's tied to Waterproof and he's got a 
vested interest in clearing his name."

Civil Rights and Black Political Power

Waterproof, Louisiana is a rural town near the 
Mississippi border best known for holding an 
immigration detention center. The town - 
population approximately 800 - sits in Tensas 
Parish, a mostly agrarian region of the state. 
Community members say the civil rights movement 
came late to Tensas – it was the last parish in 
the state where Black residents were able to 
register to vote, and the Klan was active until late in the 20th century.

The current troubles began in September of 2006, 
when Higginbotham was elected mayor of 
Waterproof. Soon after, he appointed his 
associate Miles Jenkins as chief of police. 
Jenkins, who served in the US military for 30 
years and earned a master's degree in public 
administration from Troy University in Alabama, 
immediately began the work of professionalizing a 
small town police department that had previously 
been mostly inactive. While both Jenkins and 
Higginbotham are from Waterproof, both had also 
spent much of their adult lives working in other 
places, and brought a professional background to 
their new positions. Allies of Higginbotham and 
Jenkins say this threatened Parish Sheriff Ricky 
Jones and DA James Paxton. Annie Watson, a school 
board member and former volunteer for the mayor, 
says officers working for Jones told her, "As 
soon as you people learn that the sheriff 
controls Tensas Parish, the better off you'll be."

The charges against Higginbotham come in a 
context where many African Americans in Louisiana 
feel that Black political power in the state – 
and in the country - is under attack. Tens of 
thousands of African-American, mostly Democratic, 
voters remain displaced from the state 
post-Katrina. For the first time since the 
post-civil war era, both houses of the 
legislature have Republican majorities, and every 
statewide elected official is Republican. The 
newly-dominant Republican majority will oversee 
the state's legislative redistricting, as well as 
passage of Governor Bobby Jindal's agenda, which 
includes large cuts to public education and other 
services, including the elimination of Southern 
University of New Orleans, a historically Black state university.

The allegations also come at a time of corruption 
investigations around the state that many civil 
rights activists say have disproportionately 
targeted Black elected officials. Tommy Nelson, 
the Black mayor of the Louisiana town of New 
Roads, recently filed a motion in US district 
court that accuses government investigators of 
exclusive targeting Black elected officials, 
beginning with a National Conference of Black 
Mayors gathering in New Orleans in June 2008. The 
investigation Nelson refers to resulted in 
racketeering charges against him, as well as 
Black elected officials in the Louisiana towns of 
White Castle and Port Allen. While the Waterproof 
case is not connected to these other corruption 
investigations, the cases add context to the 
charges from allies of Higginbotham that Black 
political power is the real target of the investigations.

For Conner, the fact that the former mayor 
remains locked in jail awaiting appeal is the 
most shocking part of this case. "The 
vindictiveness, and whatever else is going on 
under the surface, I think that's where it shows 
itself," she says. Pointing to much more 
high-profile cases, with much more money 
involved, Conner asks why Higginbotham is still 
locked up. "William Jefferson is out on bail, Tom 
Delay is out," she says. "And then you've got a 
guy with errors in his trial from A to Z. They 
didn't even set three million dollars as his bond. They set no bond."

The mayor and his allies have filed legal 
appeals, and are hoping for the US Department of 
Justice to investigate, or for national media to 
come in. Tens of thousands of people have signed 
a petition, initiated by Color Of Change, asking 
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to intervene. 
Chief Jenkins, who still has pending charges, 
believes that once word gets out, justice will 
come to Waterproof. "People need to see exactly 
what is going on in these little southern towns around here," he says.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New 
Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine.  He 
can be reached at <mailto:neworleans at leftturn.org>neworleans at leftturn.org.

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