Howard Witt leaves Chicago Tribune after quarter century of reporting

Award winning journalist Howard Witt announced that he has left the Chicago Tribune.  Witt came to national prominence for his reporting of race related stories in Paris, Texas and Jena, Louisiana in 2007.

The Pulitzer Prize nominated Witt says that he is moving in a new direction.  ”After a quarter-century run at the Chicago Tribune as a reporter, correspondent and editor,” Witt says, “I recently left the paper to take up a new challenge as the Senior Managing Editor at Stars and Stripes, the editorially-independent newspaper serving America’s military men and women and their families overseas.”

I have developed a good working relationship with Mr. Witt over the years after he became one of the first newspaper reporters to bring national attention to African-American activism online.  My family and I even met Howard out for dinner last fall.  

His reporting of ShaQuanda Cotton and the Jena 6 made the entire media industry reevaluate the way they were covering people of color.  He maintained a relationship with the black blogosphere after those stories, a lesson that black media members and outlets could learn from.

I’m sure Howard will do well in his future endeavors.  I pray that all goes well for he and his family in this transition.

James Rucker, Color of Change: The Jena 6 are Free, How we made it Possible

I wanted to share the contents of an email sent out by Color of Change Director of Grassroots Mobilization, James Rucker, to their massive member list regarding the plea of “No Contest” by the defendants in the “Jena 6″ case late last week. Color of Change was at the forefront of the internet movement to secure justice for the young men back in 2007.

I’ve had a chance to correspond with James and meet some of the Color of Change staff.  They are utilizing 21st century tools to combat injustices that have persisted for generations.  It’s cool to see that they haven’t just rested on their involvement in Hurricane Katrina justice and with the Jena 6, but continue to stay engaged, even taking the fight to Fox News.  They remain relevant and functional as many such organizations have the tendency to fall off into the abyss of irrelevancy.  Kudos to C of C.

Dear Shawn,

Friday, nearly two years after more than 320,000 of you stood up to protect them from Jim Crow justice, the Jena 6–Jesse Ray Beard, Carwin Jones, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Bryant Purvis and Mychal Bell–are all now free to move ahead with their lives. We should all be proud.

The five remaining Jena 6 cases were brought to conclusion on Friday1 when Jesse Ray, Carwin, Robert, Theo, and Bryant pleaded “no contest” to misdemeanor simple battery charges.2 They will spend no time in jail, serve seven days of probation, and pay relatively minor fines and court fees.


It’s an incredible outcome given that the young men were originally charged with attempted murder in small-town Louisiana and had neither the funds nor the connections to get high-quality representation or attention for their cases.

Luckily for the Jena 6, hundreds of thousands of you got involved, and the power of your participation changed the game. An amazing team of lawyers worked tirelessly to achieve Friday’s outcome. Our staff helped recruit them, and your financial contributions–over $275,000–provided the bulk of the funds for their work. Jim Boren, the coordinating attorney, said this about ColorOfChange members’ contribution: “None of this would have happened without you.”

But it wasn’t just lawyers and money. Over 300,000 of you wrote to Governor Blanco and District Attorney Reed Walters. On September 20th, 2007, more than 10,000 of you went to Jena. Members who couldn’t make it to Jena held more than 150 rallies and vigils across the country, and made more than 6,000 phone calls to elected officials in Louisiana. And a few weeks later, ColorOfChange members sent almost 4,000 complaints demanding an inquiry into the DA’s actions.

Your actions offline and online helped put Jena on the map and resulted in critical coverage in every mainstream news outlet. You started a movement that made it impossible for Louisiana officials to support the status quo.

Today we offer congratulations to these young men and their families, and we say thank you to the entire ColorOfChange.org community. We’re also so thankful to the attorneys who took these cases but chose to stay out of the limelight. They and several others3 are the unsung heroes of this story.

As the young men of the Jena 6 close this chapter of their lives, we wanted to give you an opportunity to wish them well. Click the link below to leave a personal statement for the young men of the Jena 6, or to listen to the voicemail from Jim Boren thanking the ColorOfChange community for our work:

While this is a great moment, it’s important to remember that if it were not for the extreme nature of this case, most of us wouldn’t have known about it or gotten involved. The reality is that there are countless Jena 6′s: young people–often Black and male–who are overcharged or unduly criminalized, and whose plight is unknown to most of the outside world.

Even in the case of the Jena 6, we need to take stock of what did not happen. While Judge JP Mauffray was taken off the case due to the appearance of bias (a pivotal moment for the cases), District Attorney Reed Walters–the person largely responsible for the problems in the first place–still has his job.

It’s the reason our work cannot just be about identifying and fighting for individuals railroaded by the system, but about creating systemic change in criminal justice in America. We are truly grateful to have the chance to do this work with you, and we’re hoping for your continued engagement and support.

Thanks and Peace,

– James, Gabriel, William, Dani and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
June 28, 2009

Help support our work. ColorOfChange.org is powered by YOU — your energy and dollars. We take no money from lobbyists or large corporations that don’t share our values, and our tiny staff ensures your contributions go a long way. You can contribute here:

References:

1. “Plea Bargain Wraps Up ‘Jena 6′ Case,” 9-26-09
2. The sixth teenager charged, Mychal Bell, pleaded guilty to battery in juvenile court on December 3rd, 2007.

3. Thanks are due to Alan Bean, Tory Pegram, and King Downing, who dedicated months to working with the families and getting the story out, and to our friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center who played a central role in putting together and supporting the legal teams. Without any one of them, our work would have been hampered, or in some cases not possible at all.

Mychal Bell, Jena 6 defendent, charged with shoplifting, resisting arrest in Monroe Louisiana

I received a text message out of Louisiana today late this afternoon:

Mychal Bell arrested for shoplifting and assault for hitting a security guard with his elbow trying to get away.

A quick check of the net proved my source was right on it.  According to the News-Star out of Monroe, Louisiana, Bell is free on bond after being arrested on Christmas Eve.  He’s charged with shoplifting, resisting arrest and simple battery, related to an incident at Dillard’s in Pecanland Mall in Monroe.  This comes less than less than a month after he completed a sentence for his role in a fight with classmate, Justin Barker, at Jena High School in 2006.

Here’s more from the Star-News article:

  • Police said Bell and an unidentified male were spotted Wednesday by store security after they placed $370 worth of merchandise in a Dillard’s shopping bag. After the two separated, Bell left the store, was followed by a security officer, and began running through the parking lot.
  • Bell was booked into Richwood Correctional Center and released on $1,300 bond. He will be arraigned at a later date. Each of the charges carries a possible penalty of up to six months in jail.
  • Louis Scott who has represented Bell in the past said that preconceived notions on the part of Dillard’s employees may have played a role in Bell’s arrest.  “Dillard’s has a tradition of being overly suspicious of young black males,” Scott said.

    Scott said that personal and court experiences have led him to that conclusion. “He should at least have the presumption of innocence,” he said.

It’s hard to presume innocence when a brother is running through the parking lot.    Back in February, Bryant R. Purvis, 19, -another Jena defendent- was arrested on a charge of assault causing bodily injury after an altercation at Hebron High School outside of Dallas.

This continues a sad story that has followed one of the biggest civil rights actions in recent memory.  Money squabbles and run ins with the law give more ammunition to those who questioned the protests -and the vigorous defense of the Jena 6- in the first place.  It’s another example of how our follow through on civil rights issues is sorely lacking.

Dallas South #1 post from Year two

Everything changed after this post.  Everything changed after the Day of Blogging for Justice.  It’s hard to believe, but when we blogged about the Jena Six at the end of August 2007, the national media still had not picked up on the story.  

On September 4th I wrote: One of the main goals of the Day of Blogging for Justice creators was increased media coverage regarding the Jena 6.  Today I saw a piece on Headline News where they spoke to parents on both sides of the issue. 

There is no doubt the Day of Blogging for justice made a tangible difference.  Just two weeks later I appeared in a Howard Witt Chicago Tribune piece and that was most of the nation’s first exposure to Dallas South.  I then appeared on NBC Nightly News and Dallas South instantly went from a local Dallas issue blog to a site that people from around the country were interested in. How I blog has remains the same, but what I blog about has been different.

Consequently the Jena story is not over.  The motion to remove J.P. Muffray from the bench has been tabled.  Hopefully someone less biased can take over the case and give the remaining defendants a chance at a fair trial.

Jena Six Deserve Justice

August 30th, 2007 · 4 Comments

freethejenasixpicture.jpgWhy does everyone want to convince me that justice is blind? Why do people want to make me believe that the lady with the scale never peaks under that blindfold to take a look at who stands before her awaiting her ruling?

Today, a number of bloggers are writing in support of the Jena 6. By now, most should know who they are, but in case you don’t I’ll give a quick review.

On May 18, Howard Witt wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune that exposed the nation to racial unrest in Jena, Louisiana. It all started when black students at the local high school sat under a tree -after asking permission- whose shade had traditionally been reserved for white students.

According to Mr. Witt’s article the following events occurred following this simple protest by the black students last September:

* The next day three nooses were hanging from the tree

* Once three white students were identified as having hung the nooses on the tree, the school superintendent suspended them for only three days. (The principal had suggested expulsion). The superintendent felt the nooses represented a “youthful stunt.”

* Fights broke out at the high school between black and white students.

* Unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school (November)

* A white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party

* another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store

* A group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor (December)

* LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, opted to charge six black students (hence the Jena 6) with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses (for their involvement in the above incident)

And one thing you rarely see in reports of the “attack” on the white student is that he had allegedly been taunting Black students in support of those who hung the nooses prior to getting into the fight. Observations at the Friends of Justice website further explains the two group altercations that took place:

The assault on a black student at the Fair Barn on Friday night and the fight at Jena High School on Monday morning are mirror images. In the first instance, a white twenty-two year-old initiated the fight with a punch to the face of a black seventeen year-old; at the school, a yet unidentified black student initiated the fight with a punch to the face. In both instances, the assailant’s friends joined the fray instantly. The striking difference is that the white youth responsible for the Friday incident have not been charged while those allegedly responsible for the school fight are facing charges that could send them to prison…

What supporters of the Jena Six are looking for, just like supporters of Tyrone Brown, Gernarlow Wilson, or Kenneth Foster, is justice. Justice meaning equal application of the law. The United States has a history off applying unequal justice.

Why do criminals who commit the same crime under the same circumstances get unequal punishment? Why would one perpetrator be labeled as menace while another is considered a youthful prankster? Why does someone apprehended with crack cocaine receive harsher penalities than someone who is in possession of powder cocaine? I can tell you, the system is flawed beyond measure.

Mychael Bell was the first of the accused students to go on trial. Bell had priors, including battery and damage to property, but 2nd degree attempted murder charges in a school fight are extreme. And why are 5 of the Jena 6 being tried as adults? Anyway, Bell was eventually found guilty of by and all-white jury of second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit second-degree aggravated battery after the initial chargers were reduced. He now awaits sentencing next month where he faces up to 22 years in prison.

For a country who feels like spreading its brand of democracy throughout the world, how could this be allowed to happen. Other Western countries look at the U.S. in these instances (as well as post Hurricane Katrina), and it’s evident how deeply rooted racism is even in the halls of government. Bell awaits jail while the others await their verdicts, and the white kids who gang fought the black student have crawled under a rock somewhere.

Well every American should be ashamed when a young man’s life could be thrown away for a school fight in which no one was seriously injured. But I have a hard time thinking that America would be shamed by the Jena 6 while Genarlow Wilson still sits in jail for having consensual sex at the age of 17 with a 15 year old girl. Well I’m ashamed.

I would urge the good white citizens of Jena to stand up and be proud of yourselves for reclaiming your racist past. I guess it’s not so much reclaiming as it is proudly displaying it for the country and the world.

Then I would urge America to acknowledge that the country is becoming more and more segregated by the day. And admit that as long as black folks keep to themselves and don’t start trouble (like sitting under a tree reserved for whites) we can all get along just fine.

And I make a final plea to the American media. I’d ask that you raise your right hand and admit under oath that you just don’t give a damn about black people. Your non-coverage of missing black women and children, your demonization of hip hop culture, your initial labeling of Katrina survivors as ‘refugees’ and your daily lynching of black athletes called sports talk radio is evidence of this fact.

The Jena Six deserve justice.

This post was written as part of the Afrosphere Jena 6 Coalition Day of Blogging for Justice.

Jena 6 hearing for Judge J.P. Mauffray postponed until July

Today a visiting judge was supposed to decide whether or not Jena 6 Judge J.P. Mauffray had been biased in his treatment of the fiver remaining defendants.  That judge has postponed the hearing until at least July.

Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune reports:

  •  Attorneys for the five remaining defendants facing trial in the racially divisive Jena 6 incident in Louisiana presented evidence Friday of what they said was bias on the part of the judge presiding over the cases and sought his removal.

    After more than four hours of testimony, a visiting judge appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the recusal motion against LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray asked for more evidence and postponed a ruling until at least July.

  • Defense attorneys have long asserted that the white-dominated justice system in the small central Louisiana town was biased against their African-American clients: six high school students who were initially charged with attempted murder in the December 2006 beating of a white classmate.
  • According to those present during Friday’s hearing, defense attorneys testified that Mauffray had made prejudicial comments to them about their clients on multiple occasions. David Utter, an attorney for defendant Jesse Ray Beard, said Mauffray had labeled the Jena 6 defendants “a violent bunch” and had asserted that “crime has gone down” in the months after the youths were jailed on the beating charges.

Read the rest of Mr. Witt’ report here.

Jena 6 Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. Put on Trial

From Color of Change.org – I will be updating you on the developments this Friday.

Jena 6 Judge Put on Trial
Lawyers Cite Clear Pattern of Bias, Demand Removal of Judge Mauffray

Jena, LA–Citing powerful evidence of Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr.’s bias against them, five of the African-American youth known as the Jena 6 are back in court next week seeking to remove Mauffray from their cases.

Legal documents filed in the proceedings reveal Judge Mauffray’s personal vendetta against the Jena 6. Among other incidents, Mauffray characterized the young men as violent trouble-makers and confessed his intent to incarcerate one of the youth—regardless of the strength of the evidence. Given Mauffray’s documented inability to preside over a fair trial for these youth, their legal teams have requested that a new judge be appointed to handle all Jena 6 related proceedings.

“Judge Mauffray is the man at the center of Jena’s broken justice system and now he is forced to justify his bias in a court of law with the entire nation watching,” said James Rucker, Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, the 400,000 member group that has advocated on behalf of the Jena 6. “These proceedings are an opportunity to redeem Louisiana’s justice system in the eyes of the nation and provide the Jena 6 with their constitutional right to a fair trial.”

On Friday, all of the remaining Jena 6 defendants will make a united call for Mauffray’s removal from all future proceedings. Judge Thomas Yaeger will preside over this hearing and will hear arguments and evidence from both the Jena 6 legal teams and possibly Mauffray. The hearing should be open to the public and press.

Color of Change: Youngest of Jena 6 Fights to Oust Judge and DA

Color of Change Press Release 

Lawyers File Motion to Recuse Judge and DA—Putting State on Trial—Claiming Clear Pattern of Race Bias 

JENA, LA— Lawyers for the youngest of the Jena 6, Jesse Ray Beard, filed a motion today to remove Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. and District Attorney Reed Walters from any future involvement in juvenile court matters involving Beard. Mauffray and Walters served as the trial judge and prosecutor, respectively, in the Jena 6 cases and Beard’s attorneys argue that their prejudice during and after the proceedings has betrayed an unfair bias against Beard.

Millions of Americans remember District Attorney Reed Walters as the man who refused to prosecute white students who hung nooses at Jena High School and then threatened black students at a school assembly saying that he “could end their lives with a stroke of his pen.” Walters charged Jesse Ray Beard, and five other African-American students with attempted second-degree murder for allegedly beating Justin Barker, a white student, in a schoolyard fight following the incident. Attorneys for Beard argue that this and other facts paint a clear picture of the District Attorney’s bias.

“Millions of people turned their attention to the Jena 6 last year, but at the end of the day the system itself has to go on trial,” said James Rucker, Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, the 400,000-member group that advocated on behalf of the Jena 6. “Reed Walters and Judge Mauffray have behaved outrageously at every turn and violated the most basic principles of justice. There can be no justice in Jena with these men as its agents.”

Because Beard is a juvenile, Louisiana law prohibits him from having a jury trial. Judge Mauffray will be the sole determiner of fact, which adds additional weight to the concerns of defense attorneys who argued in a motion filed today that Mauffray is too prejudiced to preside over the case. Attorneys for Beard ask Mauffray to do the right thing and voluntarily step down from the case, and if he does not, seek a public hearing to present their case in support of their motion.

More than 20,000 people marched on Jena, LA last year to protest the treatment of the six black young men now known as the “Jena 6.” The 6 teens were being tried for attempted murder after a fight on school grounds where Barker was beaten, which followed the hanging of nooses in the school’s courtyard and subsequent race-based conflicts. Jesse Ray Beard, the youngest of the Jena 6, demands a fair trial, where he can test the allegations made by DA Walters. Walters is the same D.A. who secured a conviction before an all-white jury of Mychal Bell, 16 at the time of the incident, after illegally transferring him to adult court. In December, Bell plead guilty to punching Barker after Barker and his friends taunted Bell with racial epithets.

“When a judge shows strong bias and a district attorney has a clear conflict of interest, a motion to recuse is not only fitting, it is required,” said Charles Ogletree, professor and executive director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. “Given the sad history of the case and the allegations in the motions, the DA and judge should avoid the appearance of bias and voluntarily step aside to provide Jesse Ray Beard and the rest of the Jena 6 a fair trial.”

Mervyn Marcano
Communications Director
mervyn@colorofchange.org
917.553.1001
www.colorofchange.org

Dallas South featured in Philadelphia Tribune “Blogger Nation” article

Dallas South and others are featured in an extensive article in the Philadelphia Tribune Magazine titled Blogger Nation. It is the cover story of their April edition.

Click the link to see the Philly Tribune article BLOGGER NATION.

The article that is put together by Heather Faison doesn’t break any new ground for visitors to this site, as many of you were part of the history that was made. However folks who aren’t into the whole “internet thing” may find it interesting just how much internet activism is credited with some of last years efforts.

What About Our Daughters, Jack and Jill Politics, as well as Electronic Village and his Black Blog Rankings are Afrospear blogs mentioned in the article.

Heather does a great job recapping some of the milestones achieved in the internet movement last year. My quotes all seem to be critical of the NAACP, but what I said is what I said. Also, the Afrospear was created before the Shaquanda Cotton case, but many of us who are now member were not aware of it until after. That case IS what brought us all together, there’s no questions.

Click on the link above, it’s a really slick representation of the magazine using technology I haven’t seen before. This internet thing just may work out after all.

You must have Adobe Flash Player to view the magazine.

Howard Witt a finalist for 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism

It is my pleasure to congratulate Howard Witt for being a finalist for a 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism.  Howard, Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, was a finalist in the category of National Reporting for his examination of racial issues in America. 

I count Mr. Witt as a friend of Dallas South.  Howard ran a quote from me in a September issues of the Chicago Tribune, and I gained a whole new audience as a result. I’ve made sure to keep up with what he’s been up to since he has been way ahead of the curve as it relates to covering race in America. 

I’m going to repost an interview I conducted with Howard back in October for those of you who may not have been part of the Dallas South family back then.  Congrats again to Howard and many happy returns.

Last March, Howard Witt wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune about the sentencing of a 14 year-old girl in my hometown of Paris, Texas.  In the 6-plus months that have followed, the landscape of the internet, the civil rights movement, and the media has greatly changed.

Some, including yours truly, attribute the outcry in the ShaQuanda Cotton and Jena 6 cases directly to the work of Mr. Witt.  I’d add to that the newfound interest the media has with Black Bloggers.  Howard Witt granted an outstanding interview to Dallas South where he talks about his career, the media, and his work over the past few months.

Dallas South Blog: First, tell me a little about how your career has led you to become Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune.

Howard Witt: I’ve been with the Tribune since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1982, with the exception of a couple of years (1999-2001) in New York and Washington.

At the Tribune I’ve done many different things: I’ve been a national correspondent based in the Midwest and Los Angeles; a foreign correspondent based in Canada, South Africa and Russia; the National/Foreign editor; the editor in charge of the Tribune’s Internet sites back when they were first launching a decade ago; the paper’s Chief Diplomatic Correspondent based in Washington; and, since 2004, the paper’s Southwest Bureau Chief based in Texas.

DSB:  Your paper, and more specifically you, have lead national media coverage on some prominent cases that have highlighted race as it relates to the justice system (Shaquanda Cotton, Jena 6, etc.).  Why have you been drawn to these types of stories?  

HW:  Tt is true that I’ve created a ‘civil rights’ beat for myself this year, writing more than two dozen stories on topics relating to racial discrimination, disparities and injustice here in the South. (If your readers have an interest, many of these stories can be found at www.chicagotribune.com/howardwitt .

I think it’s vitally important that the mainstream media tell these stories, because many Americans-especially white Americans-cling to the comfortable assumption that our nation’s civil rights struggles remain tidily locked away in the dark old past of lynchings, Jim Crow, Little Rock and Bull Connor. In fact, I think you can make an argument that racial discrimination is just as serious and wide-reaching today-it just takes different, and much more subtle, forms. And what is going inside the small backwoods towns of east Texas and Louisiana deserves to have a bright light shone upon it.   

What really got me curious about this topic was a story I wrote in June, 2005, about a mentally retarded black man named Billy Ray Johnson who was beaten and left for dead by four young white men in the small town of Linden, Texas. The whites invited Johnson to a ‘pasture party’ and made him dance and sing for their entertainment while hurling racial epithets at him, then knocked him unconscious (he suffered a brain hemorrhage) and dumped his lifeless body next to a trash dump.

Local juries in Linden-a town that features a mural of black slaves picking cotton on the wall of the local post office-refused to convict Johnson’s attackers of anything more than minor misdemeanors, despite the fact that their assault left him with permanent brain damage and confined in a nursing home for the rest of his life.

None of the attackers served more than 60 days in the town jail for their crime. After my story about this miscarriage of justice appeared, the Southern Poverty Law Center reacted to it by filing a civil lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf against his attackers, and earlier this year Johnson won that suit and a jury award of $9 million. 

So that was my introduction the fact that there was a lot of unseen nastiness going on in small southern towns.

DSB:  How has the Tribune responded to your covering these stories? Has the response changed over the years?

HW: I have always received very strong support from all of the Tribune’s top editors, who continue to believe in the crucial importance of journalists digging out important stories, no matter the expense in time or money. This is, alas, an increasingly rare attitude in these days of massive retrenchments and financial panic at many of the nation’s newspapers, which are watching in terror as readers migrate to the Internet.

Yet for the stories I write, the Internet has been a tremendous boon: It is thanks to broad and instantaneous distribution of my stories via blogs like yours, emails and reposting on other websites that my work can have a much stronger national impact. It was, after all, Internet-driven petition drives and protests that built up much of the political pressure that led to Shaquanda Cotton’s release and inspired more than 20,000 marchers who showed up in Jena last month. Has the response of my editors to my work changed over the years? Only in the sense that they, too, want to push Internet distribution as quickly as possible. Just this week, for example, they readily agreed to publish a story I did about what happened to the “white girl” in the Shaquanda Cotton case on the Internet on Monday afternoon, many hours before it appeared in the next morning’s printed newspaper. That would have been unheard of just a few years ago.It’s ironic that on a night back in September when I originally sent Mr. Witt an e-mail requesting an interview, he replied that he wanted to interview me for a story that he was doing about the Jena rally.  It’s been an interesting road in the 4 weeks since then that neither of us could have predicted. I pray that the work that Howard Witt has done this year is recognized. Here’s part two of his Dallas South Interview.

Dallas South Blog:  Do you see any similarities between the Shaquanda Cotton case and the Mychal Bell/Jena 6 case?

howardwitt.jpgHoward Witt: Yes, there are many. The similarities start with the way the criminal justice system functions in these small towns, where nearly all of the power (police, prosecutors, judges and school officials)  resides in white hands.

This leads to the perception-based on lots of evidence-that black youths like Shaquanda Cotton or the Jena 6 teenagers are being treated more harshly than their white peers in  school and in the courts.


The stories are also similar in their complexity: Often we are  talking about kids who do not have unblemished records themselves  and therefore might not be the kind of instantly-sympathetic  characters that many journalists look for when writing stories about  racial issues. These are not simple good-guy/bad-guy stories, but  rather much more nuanced tales about the appearance of disproportionate or excessive prosecutions based on race.

In the Jena 6 case for example, I kind of cringe when people  oversimplify the story and shout “Free the Jena 6!” It is true,  after all, that some black kids (exactly who is in dispute) jumped a  white kid at the high school, knocked him unconscious and beat and  kicked him while he was lying on the ground. It was not a  “schoolyard fight.”

But I’ve always believed that you have to view  that incident in the larger context of the racial tensions that had  been roiling Jena for months before that, starting with the infamous  hanging of the nooses from the tree in the high school courtyard. 

What’s more, the question has always been about the proportionality  of the charges: The Jena 6 teens were initially charged by the local  prosecutor with attempted murder, even though the white victim was not seriously injured, while other white youths in the town who had  earlier attacked blacks were charged either with misdemeanors or nothing at all.

DSB:  When did you realize that there was a movement on the internet  being lead by African-American Bloggers?

HW: It was within a few days of the publication of my first  Shaquanda Cotton story, back in March. I started noticing a number of blogs concerned with African American issues were re-posting the story and generating lots of heated comments about it, while at the  same time I was being flooded with hundreds of emails from readers who had come across the story in various places on the Internet very distant from chicagotribune.com.

The more I looked at these  blogs-and your Dallas South Blog featured some of the earliest and most thoughtful commentaries-the more I realized that they were interconnected and, potentially, very influential. In fact I wrote an early story remarking on this phenomenon, which can be found here

DSB:  You wrote a recent article in the Tribune about Black Bloggers. What are your thoughts on what you have seen from these citizen journalists?

HW: Well, I’m really in awe of them, frankly. Many journalists have been inclined to downplay or dismiss bloggers as crazy nerds with too much time on their hands spouting hysterical opinions while sitting bleary-eyed in their underwear in front of their computer screens at 2 a.m. (Okay, maybe some are wearing bathrobes.) Wink

But this is a nonsensical stereotype, as I’ve come to realize. While it  is true that there’s a lot of garbage out there in the blogosphere that’s not really worth the time it takes to click on it, there are  many more very intelligent and thoughtful bloggers whose commentaries and observations amplify and extend the work that  mainstream journalists are doing.

And the black blogosphere in particular looks like it’s growing into a very formidable force. As  I remarked in my story about black bloggers on the eve of the Jena demonstration, the big-name civil rights leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton were following the bloggers to Jena, not leading them. Were it not for black blogs and black talk radio,  tens of thousands of ordinary black Americans would never have climbed aboard buses for a 20-hour trip to such a remote little Louisiana town.

Ultimately I see a very interesting symbiosis emerging. The world  still needs professional journalists to use our investigative and interpretive skills to uncover important stories, which is not something that “citizen journalists” will ever be able to do with any consistency. But telling the story has traditionally been where  the role of a journalist stops.

Now bloggers are taking those  stories and giving them life, distributing them to a much wider audience that might never read a newspaper and injecting them with political fervor and activism. Which, as we have seen this year in  the cases of Shaquanda Cotton and the Jena 6-not to mention Genarlow  Wilson and even Don Imus-can have real effects.

DSB   Why do you think it took the national media almost 4 months  after your original article to cover what was happening in Jena.

HW: It was the complexity of the story, as I mentioned above, which  eludes the grasp of reporters-especially TV reporters–in search of  simple sound-bites. And it was the sensitivity of anything having to  do with race in our society-many reporters shy from such  controversial stories.

DSB:  What are your thoughts on the debate that has taken place  since the Jena Rally regarding how the popular media covers race  issues and people of color?

HW: Well, to the extent that people are talking about this issue, I think that’s important. But I have been disturbed-though not  surprised-by the backlash from many whites in Jena and elsewhere  across the country, who insist that somehow the whole story has not  been told and that the media has twisted the Jena story to make the white townsfolk look bad.

I can’t vouch for what other reporters  have done with this story, but for my part, I tried very hard to get  the white leaders of the town to speak with me when I was down there  reporting my original story back in May. Most of them refused my  interview requests.

Nor did reporters invent the facts about Jena, including the fact that most of Jena’s white voters cast their ballots for former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke when he ran for  Louisiana governor, or the fact that there’s a white barbershop in  town where they won’t cut black men’s hair for fear of dirtying  their combs and scissors and angering their white patrons.

DSB:  Do you think there will be any changes in the coverage moving forward?

HW: Not on my part. I’m continuing to follow the trials of the Jena  6 as they progress. And I’m always on the lookout for other  important civil-rights stories that should be told.

I think we can all hope that, in the wake of the Jena demonstration, other  reporters will come to understand that there is a huge undercurrent  of anger and concern in black America these days that we all ignore  at our society’s peril.

DSB:  Thanks for your time

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Jena 6 defendant in trouble after Dallas area altercation

Howard Witt, forever on the case, let’s us know that one of the Jena 6 defendants has found himself in hot water after an incident at a Dallas area high school. Bryant Purvis, now 19, was arrested Wednesday in Carrollton and charged with misdemeanor assault.

These are young men and they need guidance. Drive-by activism just won’t do.

I don’t have to go into who, what, and why of the Jena 6 on this site, but needless to say this is an unfortunate chapter in the saga. There have been a number of of unfortunate incidents regarding this story since September.

Here are some of the highlights from Mr. Witt’s story.

  • Purvis’ attorney, Darrell Hickman, characterized the assault as a “minor shoving incident” and said it involved a student whom Purvis believed had vandalized his car a few days before. A police affidavit accompanying an arrest warrant alleged that Purvis choked the student and pushed his head into a bench, injuring the victim’s eye.
  • The Texas arrest “doesn’t help his case in Jena, that’s obvious,” Hickman said. “From what [Purvis] told me, I can understand him losing his temper. We all lose our temper every now and then. But we’re in the process of negotiations with Reed Walters.
  • Purvis and another Jena defendant, Carwin Jones, posed like rap stars at the Black Entertainment Television Hip Hop Awards in October, where they presented a music award and received an ovation from the audience. Jena defendant Robert Bailey Jr. posted pictures of himself on a Myspace page with a wad of $100 bills stuffed in his mouth.
  • “It’s sort of a pop culture touchstone of 2007 for a lot of black people,” Marcano said, adding that he hoped that Purvis’ latest arrest would not detract from the larger issues of equal justice raised by the Jena case.

This does not take away from the facts of the Jena case. It does not take away from the questions raised about American Justice and media in the aftermath.

But it does show that there are individual lives at stake here. “The Jena 6″ is not a game, or a rap group, or a dance step. These are young men and they need guidance. Drive-by activism just won’t do. Let’s all remember that.

Click here to read Howard Witt’s entire Chicago Tribune article.