Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and talk-show hosts certainly feasted on the racial unrest in this tiny central Louisiana town.
But it would be unfair to claim they threw the match that ignited the Jena Six case into a global blaze of hostility and misinformation.
That distinction belongs to Alan Bean, a 54-year-old white, self-proclaimed Baptist minister from Tulia, Texas.
“Do I know him?” was LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters’ sarcastic and dismissive response when I asked about Bean during a 45-minute interview.
“People are reluctant to say it,” said Craig Franklin, editor of the Jena Times, “but there is no doubt that Alan Bean created all of this.”
Bean—the creator of Friends of Justice, an organization primarily dedicated to helping poor minorities victimized by our justice system—had warned prominent members of the Jena community as early as January that the town would be painted as racist by the national media if Walters didn’t back down.
“I told them I was going to bring media attention to this situation, and it was likely the same thing would happen to them that happened to my little hometown,” Bean said by phone on Friday. “Tulia got a bad rap, a rap it probably didn’t deserve. But the media doesn’t do its job. It’s in the entertainment business.”
A lawyer in New Orleans put Bean and parents of the Jena Six in contact with each other in December. Within three months, Bean had researched Jena and the events surrounding the assault, and published a 5,400-word narrative titled “The Making of a Myth in Jena, Louisiana” and a 2,400-word, media-friendly narrative titled “Responding to the Crisis in Jena, Louisiana.”
These two pro-defense narratives form the outline for most of the world’s understanding of the case. Bean connected the December assault on Justin Barker to the September noose hangings, to Reed Walters’ infamous “I can ruin your life with the stroke of a pen” statement at a hastily called school assembly, and to separate off-campus confrontations between Robert Bailey and white men on the Friday and Saturday before the attack on Barker.
Walters said Wednesday he’d never heard that the attack on Barker had anything to do with the noose hangings until the defense filed motions in the spring to recuse him from the case.
Bean said he first spoon-fed his narratives to Tom Mangold of the BBC because Mangold had worked with Bean on the Tulia drug cases. The BBC filmed a documentary on the Jena Six titled “Race Hate in Louisiana.” Bean said he then gave the Jena Six story to newspaper reporter Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune, which published a similar story on May 20.
“I put it in the hands of people I knew would do a good job with the story,” Bean said.
Bean also gave his story to a blogger, Jordan Flaherty, and a law professor, Bill Quigley. From all of these sources the story mushroomed and became fact.
The Jena Six beat up Justin Barker because they were still angry about the lack of sufficient punishment given to white kids who hung nooses on a whites-only shade tree, and the six were railroaded by an overzealous district attorney who failed to properly prosecute white men who viciously assaulted Robert Bailey and later pulled a shotgun on Bailey and two others at a convenience store.
Walters, police investigators, school officials and some Jena residents say Bean’s story is hogwash. There is at least some legitimacy to those claims. Bean’s story and subsequent posts on his Web site contain factual errors.
But more than the factual errors, Bean’s story is framed—by his own admission—as an indictment of the criminal justice system and the people in power in Jena and, therefore, the story is unfairly biased. Bean never examined the other forces at work that contributed to the Jena Six assault and Walters’ heavy-handed approach to justice as it relates to the alleged perpetrators.
“I didn’t know,” Bean said when asked whether he knew of defendant Mychal Bell’s violent juvenile history when he was crafting his narratives. “I never talked to Mychal’s family, and I never talked to Mychal. He was in jail. I knew he had a history for getting into trouble. I knew he was a kid at a crossroads.”
Bean also didn’t know that in fall 2006, Bell, who 16 at the time, was living with his then-18-year-old best friend John McPherson and McPherson’s then-16-year-old wife, Ashley, in a three-bedroom trailer. The McPhersons are white. Bell is the godfather to their 18-month-old daughter.
Bean has a very idealistic view of the Jena defendants.
“These are fun-loving, impetuous, athletically gifted black males that don’t drink and don’t smoke, and they go to church as well,” he told me.
The church-going contention flies in the face of what Rev. Jimmy Ray Young, pastor at L&A Baptist Church, said Wednesday.
“None of these boys have been in church except when Al Sharpton was in town,” Young complained. “I’ve told the ministers we need to get these boys back in church.”
Flanked by Arbogast and Smith, Walters addressed the entire student body. He said he began by telling the students about an aggravated rape case (possible death penalty) that he was considering.
Walters recalls saying: “‘I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. With the stroke of a pen I can make life miserable on you or ruin your life. So I want you to call me before you do something stupid.’ That last part doesn’t get reported. It doesn’t make good press.”
Bean also wrote that three days before the Jena Six assault a white man, Matt Windham, pulled a shotgun on Bailey and two others. He wrote that they wrestled the gun away from the man and ran off, and that Walters charged them with a crime rather than the white man.
The police contend that Windham—not the boys—called the police, claimed the boys threatened him, chased him back to his vehicle and wrestled his gun away. The police also say that two uninvolved female witnesses backed Windham, and that’s why the boys were charged.
Bean also mischaracterized the simple battery that Bailey suffered at the Fair Barn party four days before the attack on Barker, according to Walters, police, several witnesses and Bailey’s statements to police.
“Robert Bailey Jr. was attacked by a savage white mob at a local dance,” Bean wrote. “True, he wasn’t knocked unconscious—but that is just a matter of aim and good fortune. He was punched, he was kicked, and he was smacked over the head with a beer bottle (and he’s got the scars to prove it).”
Walters, who prosecuted Bailey’s lone attacker (Justin Sloan), said there was no mob attack. It was simply a dispute at the door of a mixed-race, invitation-only party that Bailey was denied access to.
Ironically, Bean is now growing frustrated with the way the case has turned, particularly since Jackson and Sharpton got involved. He said they wouldn’t return his calls. He indicated there was a riff between the Bailey (Bean camp) and Bell (Sharpton camp) families.
People in Jena say the feud is over money. The families are handling the donations to the Jena Six defense fund. Robert Bailey recently posted and took down MySpace photos of himself and another Jena Six defendant with wads of $100 bills stuffed in their mouths and splashed across their bodies.
“I’m not at all comfortable with the way this has been handled by the Jackson and Sharpton folks,” Bean said. “What’s wrong is that Jesse and Al have tried to turn this into an old civil-rights story in which Mychal Bell emerges like Rosa Parks, and that’s not right. These guys (Jackson and Sharpton) have lost their gravitas, lost their credibility. People are really tired of the same old 1960s shtick.”
Based on the crowds in Jena on Sept. 20, I’m not so sure.