Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jena Six Activist Convicted, Faces Decades in Prison

Civil rights activist Catrina Wallace, who received national attention for her role in organizing protests around the Jena Six case, was convicted today of three counts of distribution of a controlled substance. Wallace, who is 30, became an activist after her brother, Robert Bailey, was arrested and charged with attempted murder for a school fight. Bailey and five others later became known as the Jena Six. Their case eventually brought 50,000 people on a march through the town of Jena, and as a result of the public pressure the six young men were eventually freed. The six young men are all now in college or - in the case of the youngest - on their way.

The case was heard by 28th District Judge J. Christopher Peters, a former Assistant District Attorney and the son of Judge Jimmie C. Peters of the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Wallace was represented by Krystal Todd of the Lasalle Parish Public Defenders Office. The 12-person jury had one Black member. The case was prosecuted by Lasalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who also prosecuted the Jena Six case, and famously told a room full of students, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen."

Wallace was arrested as part of "Operation Third Option," which saw more than 150 officers, including a SWAT team and helicopters, storm into Jena's Black community on July 9, 2009. Although no drugs were seized, a dozen people were arrested, based on testimony and video evidence of a police informant, convicted drug dealer Evan Brown. So far, most of those arrested on that day have plead guilty and faced long sentences. Devin Lofton, who pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute, received ten years. Adrian Richardson, 34, who pled guilty to two counts of distribution, received twenty-five years. Termaine Lee, a twenty-two-year-old who had no previous record but faced six counts of distribution, received twenty years.

Wallace, a single mother, has three small children, aged 3, 5, and 10. The youngest child has frequent seizures. She was taken from the courtroom straight to jail after the verdict was read, and given a one million dollar bail. Her sentencing is expected to come next month.

Photo: Catrina Wallace and her mother, Caseptla Bailey.

Wrongfully Convicted Urge Action in Wake of Supreme Court Decision Expanding Immunity for Prosecutors

From our friends at Innocence Project New Orleans:
After Tuesday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Thompson v. Connick granting prosecutors' even greater immunity for their misconduct, the Innocence Network released a letter signed by 19 innocent people who were wrongfully convicted in part because of the bad acts of prosecutors demanding greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct. The letter, which was addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Presidents of the National District Attorney's Association and the National Associations of Attorneys Generals, demands to know what systems they intend to put in place to ensure that innocent people don't fall victim to overzealous prosecutors.

In its 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the Thompson did not meet the burden of proving that the New Orleans District Attorney's office was deliberately indifferent in failing to turn over information pointing to Thompson's innocence and the need for training and supervision to safeguard those rights. The Court reasoned that because prosecutors are required to attend law school and/or pass the bar exam and are required to meet certain professional standards, "recurring constitutional violations are not the 'obvious consequence' of failing to provide prosecutors with formal inhouse training about how to obey the law."

"Basically what the Court is saying is that because they are lawyers, there was no reason for the District Attorney to believe that his prosecutors might need training to be sure they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to disclose information that might be useful to their defense," said Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network. "This logic completely ignores the reality of what happened to John Thompson who was sentenced to death by prosecutors who repeatedly failed in their obligation to disclose exculpatory information. No other profession is shielded from this complete lack of accountability."

The dissent by Justice Ginsberg notes, ". . . the Brady violations in Thompson's prosecutions were not singular and they were not aberrational. They were just what one would expect given the attitude toward Brady pervasive in the District Attorney's Office. Thompson demonstrated that no fewer than five prosecutors - the four trial prosecutors and Riehlmann - disregarded his Brady rights. He established that they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense. Their conduct, he showed with equal force, was a foreseeable consequence of lax training in, and absence of monitoring of, a legal requirement fundamental to a fair trial.

"Prosecutors posses enormous power over our all over our lives, yet today the Supreme Court took away one of the few remaining vehicles that we have for holding them accountable for their actions. It is virtually impossible for the wrongfully convicted to meet the standard endorsed by the Court today," said Kathleen Ridolfi of the Northern California Innocence Project. "If prosecutors don't quickly enact systems to stem misconduct, we are sure to see an increase in innocent people's lives being destroyed by prosecutors who too often put securing convictions above their obligations to seek the truth."

In recent Supreme Court cases dealing with the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, the National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorney's Attorney Generals and the Solicitor General have filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that there are already plenty of systems in place to cure the problems of misconduct, including internal disciplinary systems, state bar disciplinary systems, monitoring by the courts, and in extreme cases, criminal prosecution.

Yet, as the letter released on Tuesday notes, prosecutors are rarely disciplined for their misdeeds. The letter sites a recent landmark report by the Northern California Innocence Project, Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009, that found prosecutors were guilty of misconduct in California 707 times from 1997 to 2009, yet were disciplined only 7 times. The letter also points to a USA Today investigation by Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy that was published on Sept. 23, 2010, that documented 201 instances where federal prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules since 1997, yet only one of those prosecutors was suspended from practicing law - and that was only for one year.

"Misconduct was found in the cases of all the innocent people who signed onto this letter, yet none of the prosecutors involved were disciplined in any way," said Barry Scheck, Co-director of the Innocence Project. "How many lives are going to be destroyed before we realize that prosecutors are no different than any other professionals? There are good ones and there are bad ones, and we need systems in place to stop the bad ones."

"Our condolences go out to John Thompson and his family, who endured his nightmare with him. He spent 18 years in prison -- 14 on death row -- because of the bad acts of prosecutors," said Emily Maw, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of New Orleans. "While nothing could bring back the years he lost to this misconduct, a jury and an appellate court felt he should at least be compensated for his wrong. But the Supreme Court in a poorly reasoned decision, that failed to recognize the reality of the New Orleans prosecutors office in 1984, has stripped him of that compensation today."

A copy of the letter, which was also sent to the district attorney offices in the counties where the signors were originally prosecuted, is available at this link .

Monday, March 28, 2011

Two Grandmothers, Two Priests and a Nun go onto a Nuclear Base: Prison for Peacemakers in Tacoma WA

By Bill Quigley

Two grandmothers, two priests and a nun were sentenced in federal court in Tacoma, WA Monday March 28, 2011, for confronting hundreds of US nuclear weapons stockpiled for use by the deadly Trident submarines.

Sentenced were: Sr. Anne Montgomery, 83, a Sacred Heart sister from New York, who was ordered to serve 2 months in federal prison and 4 months electronic home confinement; Fr. Bill Bischel, 81, a Jesuit priest from Tacoma Washington, ordered to serve 3 months in prison and 6 months electronic home confinement; Susan Crane, 67, a member of the Jonah House community in Baltimore, Maryland, ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison; Lynne Greenwald, 60, a nurse from Bremerton Washington, ordered to serve 6 months in federal prison; and Fr. Steve Kelly, 60, a Jesuit priest from Oakland California, ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison. They were also ordered to pay $5300 each and serve an additional year in supervised probation. Bischel and Greenwald are active members of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, a community resisting Trident nuclear weapons since 1977.

What did they do?

In the darkness of All Souls night, November 2, 2009, the five quietly cut through a chain link perimeter fence topped with barbed wire.

Carefully stepping through the hole in the fence, they entered into the Kitsap-Bangor Navy Base outside of Tacoma Washington – home to hundreds of nuclear warheads used in the eight Trident submarines based there.

Walking undetected through the heavily guarded base for hours, they covered nearly four miles before they came to where the nuclear missiles are stored.

The storage area was lit up by floodlights. Dozens of small gray bunkers – about the size of double car garages - were ringed by two more chain link fences topped with taut barbed wire.

USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED one sign boldly proclaimed. Another said WARNING RESTRICTED AREA and was decorated with skull and crossbones.

This was it – the heart of the US Trident Pacific nuclear weapon program. Nuclear weapons were stored in the bunkers inside the double fence line.

Wire cutters cut through these fences as well. There they unfurled hand painted banners which said “Disarm Now Plowshares: Trident Illegal and Immoral”, knelt to pray and waited to be arrested as dawn broke.

What were they protesting against?

Each of the eight Trident submarines has 24 nuclear missiles on it. The Ground Zero community explains that each of the 24 missiles on one submarine have multiple warheads in it and each warhead has thirty times the destructive power of the weapon used on Hiroshima. One fully loaded Trident submarine carries 192 warheads, each designed to explode with the power of 475 kilotons of TNT force. If detonated at ground level each would blow out a crater nearly half a mile wide and several hundred feet deep.

The bunker area where they were arrested is where the extra missiles are stored.

In December 2010, the five went on trial before a jury in federal court in Tacoma charged with felony damage to government property, conspiracy and trespass.

But before the trial began the court told the defendants what they could and could not do in court. Evidence of the medical consequences of nuclear weapons? Not allowed. Evidence that first strike nuclear weapons are illegal under US and international law? Not allowed. Evidence that there were massive international nonviolent action campaigns against Trident missiles where juries acquitted protestors? Not allowed. The defense of necessity where violating a small law, like breaking down a door, is allowed where the actions are taken to prevent a greater harm, like saving a child trapped in a burning building? Not allowed.

Most of the jurors appeared baffled when defendants admitted what they did in their opening statements. They remained baffled when questions about nuclear weapons were objected to by the prosecutor and excluded by the court. The court and the prosecutor repeatedly focused the jury on their position that this was a trial about a fence. Defendants tried valiantly to point to the elephant in the room – the hundreds of nuclear weapons.

Each defendant gave an opening and closing statement explaining, as much as they were allowed, why they risked deadly force to expose the US nuclear arsenal.

Sojourner Truth was discussed as were Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

The resistance of the defendants was in the spirit of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the suffragist movement, the abolition of slavery movement.

Crowds packed the courtroom each of the five days of trial. Each night there was a potluck and a discussion of nuclear weapons by medical, legal and international experts who came for the trial but who were largely muted by the prosecution and the court.

While the jury held out over the weekend, ultimately, the activists were convicted.

Hundreds packed the courthouse today supporting the defendants. The judge acknowledged the good work of each defendant, admitted that prison was unlikely to deter them from further actions, but said he was bound to uphold the law otherwise anarchy would break out and take down society.

The prosecutors asked the judge to send all the defendants to federal prison plus three years supervised probation plus pay over five thousand dollars. The specific jail time asked for ranged from 3 years for Fr. Kelly, 30 months for Susan Crane, Lynne Greenwald, 7 months in jail plus 7 months home confinement, Sr. Anne Montgomery and Fr. Bill Bichsel, 6 months jail plus 6 months home confinement.

Each of the defendants went right into prison from the courtroom as the spectators sang to them. Outside the courthouse, other activists pledged to confront the Trident in whatever way is necessary to stop the illegal and immoral weapons of mass destruction.

Bill is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill is part of the legal team supporting the defendants and was in Tacoma for the sentencing. You can learn more about the defendants at Bill can be reached at

New Trial Begins Today in Jena, Louisiana

Jury selection began today in the trial of Catrina Wallace, sister of Robert Bailey, one of the Jena Six. Wallace was one of the main leaders of the struggle to free the Jena Six.

The charges against her, based on testimony from a confidential informant, are seen by many as revenge for her activism in Jena.

Long History of Targeting Black Elected Officials

In the aftermath of our coverage of Waterproof Louisiana, we've gotten many comments from around the US. One longtime New Orleans activist wrote that Waterproof reminds her of a 30-year old case from rural Mississippi. She sent us the following excerpt from an article about the struggle. From 1980-81, activists from New Orleans' Equal Rights Congress, People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, and others organized around this case:

Tchula's First Black Mayor
(Excerpt from The Militant newspaper):

... In 1977, Eddie Carthan was elected mayor of Tchula, the first Black ever to be elected mayor of a biracial town in the Delta. He was forced out of office in 1981, just one month shy of completing his first term, after being convicted on trumped-up charges of assaulting a police officer. He was given a three-year prison sentence. After seven months, the governor suspended the rest of his sentence.

When Carthan took office, he recalled, Tchula was still segregated, with whites living on one side of the railroad tracks, and Blacks - who were 85 percent of the population -on the other. In the Black community, roads were unpaved, there were no sidewalks or streetlights, 80 percent of the houses had no indoor plumbing, other social services were poor or missing entirely. There were no Blacks heading up any city department, and many Blacks "did not know where the City Hall was," Carthan recalled.

Carthan sought to bring in improved housing, medical care, as well as water and sewage programs to the Black community. In an effort to punish him and put the Black community back in its place, the local white business and landowning establishment began "investigating" him from the moment he took office. "It was a legal lynching and a political lynching," Carthan said.

Before he was even released from prison on the assault charges, Carthan was again framed up -- this time on charges that he had murdered a city alderman a year earlier, in 1980. He was finally acquitted of the murder charge, after his case became known nationally and internationally....

While in jail facing the murder charges, he was framed up again, this time on charges of giving false information to a local bank. Sentenced in 1982 to three years in federal prison, he was released by judge's order after eight months...

Race and Politics in a Rural Louisiana Town Attract National Attention

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, and 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 55% 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 the 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' testimonies. 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 the 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."

In January, the mayor of the Louisiana town of Richwood was convicted of malfeasance in office for writing more than $90,000 in checks to himself and others from the town bank account. He received five years probation, and never spent a day in jail.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. district court that accuses government investigators of exclusively 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 U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, or for national media to come in. More than 50,000 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.

Photo above: Former Waterproof Police Chief Miles Jenkins.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DeSoto Parish Middle School Student Punished for Gay-Friendly T-Shirt Message

From our friends at ACLU of Louisiana:
Last week, student Dawn Henderson of DeSoto Middle School wore a shirt to school bearing the message “Some Kids are Gay. That's OK.” In return for her support of the gay community, the school's principal ordered her to change her shirt or go home, censoring her speech in violation of her legal rights.

The ACLU of Louisiana has sent a letter to the Principal, Keith Simmons, explaining that students have the First Amendment right to express their opinions, including on t-shirt slogans, as long as the school allows clothing with slogans. “Students do not give up their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. “To allow students to express one kind of opinion but not another is the very definition of censorship, and it violates the Constitutional rights of students like Dawn Henderson, who may have views different from those of her school principal.”

DeSoto school officials claimed that the shirt slogan was “distracting,” although no incident of disruption was attributed to it. “Had there been a disruption because of Dawn's shirt slogan, those causing the trouble are the ones who would properly be subject to discipline,” said Esman. “To punish the speaker for how others react is to blame the victim, and forces people to restrict their speech only to what they think others may want to hear. This is not the way a free society engages in public debate.”

“Schools should encourage discussion of issues of public concern, and especially issues about which there may be conflicting opinions,” Esman continued. “Sending Dawn home for wearing a shirt with the word ‘gay’ on it not only trampled her right to freedom of expression, but also sent a destructive message to all students that there is something wrong with being gay or even saying the word 'gay.' A school is the best place to encourage young people to share opinions. It is not the place to violate the legal rights of students whose views might differ from those of school authorities.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Guestworkers Win Victory in US Department of Labor's Proposed Changes to Regulations for the H-2B Visa Program

From our friends at the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity:
Proposed DOL regulations move guestworkers one step closer to inclusion in basic labor protections, civil rights, and the right to organize

Statement by the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity on the Department of Labor’s Proposed H-2B Regulations:

“When we started our organizing in labor camps across the South, we dreamed of dignity and respect at work. We urge all those on the side of dignity to say, loudly, that these new rules are right, so we can make that dream real.”
– Daniel Castellanos, founding member, Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity

On March 17, 2011, the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity won a major victory and a vindication of five years of organizing, advocacy, and litigation as the Department of Labor proposed new regulations for the H-2B non-agricultural visa program. We laud these proposed regulations – now we have to ensure the Department of Labor adopts them as proposed. Businesses are gearing up to fight them. We urge all allies to submit written comments within the 60-day comment period to ensure these proposed regulations become law.

These new regulations, if adopted, will help prevent employers from manipulating the H-2B program to engage in labor trafficking and debt servitude of guestworkers. Among the proposed new policies, three are the most significant:

Employers must pay for all costs that workers incur on their way to the first day at work on the H-2B visa program. Under the new regulations, each employer must pay for transportation, visa, recruitment, and all other costs related to using the program. This prevents employers from creating conditions of debt servitude: guestworkers routinely take on crushing debt in order to get a visa. Arriving at work in debt, they cannot afford to organize or report an employer’s illegal conduct, because employers have the power to deport them back into debt servitude.

In 2007, founding members of the Alliance of Guestworkers—among the first guestworkers imported to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—organized to hold their employer responsible for travel, visa, and recruitment costs. Each guestworker had paid approximately $5,000 in costs, plunging their families into debt. They were trapped in debt and their employer Decatur Hotels did not comply with its contractual promises. The DOL stood with the guestworkers as they argued in federal court, in Castellanos v. Decatur Hotels, that they were, in effect, excluded from the minimum wage. “The DOL’s new regulations are a vindication of our fight,” said Jose Sanchez, member and plaintiff in the litigation. “Even though the court ruled against us, these regulations can overturn the misguided court ruling. As a result, more guestworkers will be able to exercise their rights.”

Employers must guarantee workers ¾ of the hours promised in the contract on a month to month basis. The comments section of the Department of Labor quotes the expert Congressional testimony of members of the Alliance to describe the problem: “Daniel Angel Castellanos Contreras, a Peruvian engineer, was promised 60 hours per week at $10-$15 per hour. According to Mr. Contreras, ‘The guarantee of 60 hours per week became an average of only 20 to 30 hours per week – sometimes less. With so little work at such low pay [$6.02 to $7. 79 per hour] it was impossible to even cover our expenses in New Orleans, let alone pay off the debt we incurred to come to work and save money to send home.’” Because workers cannot switch employers, and cannot return to debt, employers are able to hold workers even when they do not fulfill their promise of providing work. Guestworkers become a captive workforce, waiting to be put to work by employers who have a ready supply of temporary labor. This new policy would give workers a lever to fight for the employment they were promised.

The DOL is implementing real protections for U.S. workers, so that employers cannot use the H-2B program to pit guestworkers against local workers. Guestworker Miguel Angel Jovel Lopez arrived on an H-2B visa in Nashville at a time when the city was experiencing close to 10% unemployment. He recounts: “We realized we were being used. Used as cheap labor, and used to undercut the local American workers.” Again and again, the Alliance’s campaigns have exposed how employers have defrauded the U.S. government in order to exclude local workers from jobs – and exploit guestworkers. The new regulations would create much-needed protections for U.S. workers to intervene in the race to the bottom.

The new regulations, if passed, would go a long way in making sure guestworkers can access their basic civil and labor rights. We urge all advocates, unions, workers’ centers, civil rights organizations and high-road employers – all those who are on the side of respect and dignity at work – to submit comments to the Department of Labor within the 60-day comment period through the regulatory commentary process supporting these new regulations.

Please follow these simple instructions for filing comments online:

The proposed regulations are online at this link.

Comments can be submitted online here.

The Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity is anchored by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Please send copies of comments to and contact Jacob Horwitz, Lead Organizer, Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity with any questions: (504) 452-9159

Native American Student Suspended for Refusal to Cut Hair

From our friends at ACLU of Louisiana:
In a fight for religious freedom, the ACLU of Louisiana has enrolled to represent a Native American student at Juban Parc Junior High School in Denham Springs, LA. Seth Chaisson, a member of the United Houma Nation, grows his hair long for cultural and religious reasons. Although he told school authorities of his beliefs and his heritage, Seth has repeatedly been reprimanded for the length of his hair, and on March 15, 2011 he was suspended from school and told that he would remain suspended every day until he cut his hair.

On March 15, the ACLU of Louisiana wrote to the principal of Juban Parc Junior High explaining that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom prohibits the interference with Seth's religious practice, including the length of his hair. Having received no reply, today the ACLU submitted a formal appeal on behalf of the student, seeking reversal of all disciplinary actions against him and demanding that his record be cleared.

“Everyone, including junior high school students, is guaranteed the right to practice his or her religion,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. “Schools may not discriminate against a student whose religion is not that of the majority. In fact, the schools have an obligation to protect students from religious and other forms of discrimination.”

Louisiana law provides strong protection for religious practices. Recognizing that religious training should be left to parents, schools may not interfere without a particularly compelling reason; adherence to a dress code is not a strong enough reason to override Seth's right to religious freedom. “Preventing a Native American from wearing his hair long is like preventing a Christian from wearing a cross,” Esman continued. “The law protects all faiths, including that of Seth Chaisson. Seth should be commended for his courage in standing up for his religious beliefs and cultural heritage.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Justice Department Report, Released Today, Calls Louisiana's "Crime Against Nature" Law Discriminatory

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on

Eve is a transgender woman living in rural southern Louisiana. She was molested as a child and left home as a teenager. Homeless and alone, she was forced to trade sex for survival. While still a teenager, she was arrested and charged with a Crime Against Nature, an archaic Louisiana law originally designed to penalize sex acts associated with gays and lesbians.

Now Eve is one of nine plaintiffs fighting the law in a federal civil rights complaint that advocates hope will finally put this official discrimination to an end.

This legal action comes in the context of increased scrutiny from the federal government over the conduct of the New Orleans Police Department. A US Justice Department investigation of the NOPD, released today, found "reasonable cause to believe that patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law occurred in several areas," including "racial and ethnic profiling and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) discrimination." The report specifically mentioned Louisiana's Crime Against Nature law, calling it "a statute whose history reflects anti-LGBT sentiment." The report also concluded that investigators "found reasonable cause to believe that NOPD practices lead to discriminatory treatment of LGBT individuals."

Punishing Women

Eve, who asked that her real name and age remain confidential, spent two years in prison. During her time behind bars she was raped and contracted HIV. Upon release, she was forced to register in the state’s sex offender database. The words “sex offender” now appear on her driver’s license. “I have tried desperately to change my life,” she says, but her status on the database stands in the way of housing and other programs. “When I present my ID for anything,” she says, “the assumption is that you’re a child molester or a rapist. The discrimination is just ongoing and ongoing.”

Eve was penalized under Louisiana’s 205-year-old Crime Against Nature statute, a blatantly discriminatory law that legislators have maneuvered to keep on the state’s books for the purpose of turning sex workers into felons. As enforced, the law specifically singles out oral and anal sex for greater punishment for those arrested for prostitution, including requiring those convicted to register as sex offenders in a public database. Advocates say the law has further isolated and targeted poor women of color, transgender women, and especially those who are forced to trade sex for food or a place to sleep at night.

In 2003, the Supreme Court outlawed sodomy laws with its decision in Lawrence v. Texas. That ruling should have invalidated Louisiana’s law entirely. Instead, the state has chosen to only enforce the portion of the law that concerns “solicitation” of a crime against nature. The decision on whether to charge accused sex workers with a felony instead of Louisiana’s misdemeanor prostitution law is left entirely in the hands of police and prosecutors.

“This leaves the door wide open to discriminatory enforcement targeting poor black women, transgender women, and gay men for a charge that carries much harsher penalties,” says police misconduct attorney and organizer Andrea J. Ritchie, a co-counsel in a new federal lawsuit challenging the statute.

A media-fueled national panic about child molesters has brought sex offender registries to every state. But advocates warn that, across the U.S., these registries have been used disproportionately against African Americans and other communities of color, and are often used for purposes outside of their original intent. Louisiana, however, is the only state in the U.S. that requires people who have been convicted of crimes that do not involve minors or sexual violence to register as sex offenders.

In 1994, Congress passed Megan’s Law, also known as the Wetterling Act, which mandated that states create systems for registering sex offenders. The act was amended in 1996 to require public disclosure of the names on the registries and again in 2006 to require sex offenders stay in the public registry for at least 15 years.

Megan’s Law was clearly not targeted at prostitution. However, Louisiana lawmakers opted to apply the registry to the crimes against nature statute as well, and at that moment started down the path to a new level of punishment for sex work. “This archaic law is being used to mark people with modern day scarlet letter,” says attorney Alexis Agathocleus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, another party in the lawsuit.

People convicted under the Louisiana law must carry a state ID with the words “sex offender” printed below their name. If they have to evacuate because of a hurricane, they must stay in a special shelter for sex offenders that has no separate facilities for men and women. They have to pay a $60 annual registration fee, in addition to $250 to $750 to print and mail postcards to their neighbors every time they move. The post cards must show their names and addresses, and often they are required to include a photo. Failing to register and pay the fees, a separate crime, can carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

Women and men on the registry will also find their names, addresses, and convictions printed in the newspaper and published in an online sex offender database. The same information is also displayed at public sites like schools and community centers. Women—including one mother of three—have complained that because of their appearance on the registry, they have had men come to their homes demanding sex. A plaintiff in the suit had rocks thrown at her by neighbors. “This has forced me to live in poverty, be on food stamps and welfare,” explains a man who was on the list. “I’ve never done that before.”

In Orleans Parish, 292 people are on the registry for selling sex, versus 85 people convicted of forcible rape and 78 convicted of “indecent behavior with juveniles.” Almost 40 percent of those registered in Orleans Parish are there solely because they were accused of offering anal or oral sex for money. Seventy-five percent of those on the database for Crime Against Nature are women, and 80 percent are African American. Evidence gathered by advocates suggests a majority are poor or indigent.

Legal advocates credit on-the-ground organizing and the advocacy of the group Women With A Vision (WWAV) for making them aware of this discriminatory law. WWAV, a 20-year-old New Orleans-based organization, provides health care and other services to women involved in survival sex work. “Many of these women are survivors of rape and domestic violence themselves,” says WWAV executive director Deon Haywood. “Yet they are being treated as predators.”

Plaintiffs Tell Their Stories

Ian, another plaintiff in the legal challenge to the Crime Against Nature statute, was homeless from the age of 13, and began trading sex for survival. When an undercover officer approached him and asked him for sex, Ian asked for money. “All I said was $50,” he says, “And they put me away for four years.”

In prison, Ian was raped by a correction officer and by other prisoners, and like Eve, he contracted HIV. Now, he says, potential employers see the words “sex offender” written on his ID and no one will hire him. “Do I deserve to be punished any more than I’ve already been punished?” he asks. “I was 13 years old. That’s the only way I knew how to survive.”

Hiroke, a New Orleans resident and another plaintiff in the suit, spoke on a call set up by advocates. “I had just graduated from high school and was just coming out as transgender,” she says. Hiroke was arrested and convicted while still a teenager. As she began to describe her experience, Hiroke’s voice began to shake. “I was being held with men in jail at the time…” she began. Then there was silence on the line. Holding back tears, she then apologized for being unable to continue.

The Louisiana legislature recently passed a reform of the Crime Against Nature statute, but for the vast majority of those affected, the change makes little to no difference. Although the new law takes away the registration component for a first conviction, a second conviction requires 15 years on the registry, and up to five years imprisonment. A third conviction mandates a lifetime on the registry. More than 538 men and women remain on the registry because they were convicted of offering anal or oral sex, with more added almost every day.

The legal challenge to the Crime Against Nature law, called Doe v. Jindal, has been filed in Louisiana’s US District Court Eastern District on behalf of nine anonymous plaintiffs. It was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, attorney Andrea J. Ritchie, and the Law Clinic at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. The anonymous plaintiffs include a grandmother, a mother of four, three transgender women, and a man, all of whom have been required to register as sex offenders from 15 years to life as a result of their convictions for the solicitation of oral sex for money.

US Department of Justice Report Finds NOPD "Has Engaged in Patterns of Misconduct That Violate the Constitution and Federal Law"

The US Department of Justice announced the results today of their year-long investigation of the NOPD. Below is their statement:
Following a comprehensive investigation, the Justice Department today announced its findings that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has engaged in patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law. The investigation, announced on May 15, 2010, was conducted pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Justice Department’s thorough and independent investigation involved extensive community engagement and in-depth review of NOPD practices. Department attorneys and investigators held interviews and meetings with NOPD officers, supervisors and command staff, as well as members of the public, city and state officials, and other community stakeholders. The Justice Department participated in more than 40 community meetings with various advocacy groups, civic leaders and public officials. The investigation also involved thorough review of a wide range of NOPD documents, as well as ride-alongs and other opportunities to observe police activity. On May 5, 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for an independent investigation of NOPD’s systems and operations.

The Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law occurred in several areas, including:

Use of excessive force;
Unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests;
Biased policing, including:
Racial and ethnic profiling and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) discrimination;
A systemic failure to provide effective policing services to persons with limited English proficiency; and
A systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.

The Justice Department also found a number of long-standing and entrenched practices within NOPD that caused or contributed to these patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct, including:

Failed systems for officer recruitment, promotion and evaluation;
Inadequate training;
Inadequate supervision;
Ineffective systems of complaint intake, investigation and adjudication;
A failed “Paid Detail” system;
Failure to engage in community oriented policing;
Inadequate officer assistance and support services; and
Lack of sufficient community oversight.

“For far too long, the New Orleans Police Department failed to adequately protect the citizens of the city. This was a result of its failure to ensure respect for and adherence to the Constitution,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “Today’s findings should serve as a foundation not only to rebuild the police department, but to help restore the community’s trust in fair, just and effective law enforcement.”

“Our findings show that the problems facing the NOPD are wide ranging, systemic, and deeply rooted in the culture of the Department,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Our team looks forward to working with the people of New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu, Chief Serpas and his officers in creating and implementing a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform.”

“Today, the Justice Department has taken a critical step forward towards building a police department which the people deserve and desperately need – one which is free from corruption and which is dedicated to the protection of its citizens,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana James Letten. “Through this partnership, and through the tireless efforts of our U . S . Attorney’s Office, the department’s Civil Rights Division and our federal partners, we will continue to do whatever it takes to reach these essential goals and to restore trust in the men and women of the police department.”

The Justice Department will work with the NOPD and the city of New Orleans to address the violations of constitutional and federal law by developing and implementing comprehensive reforms that will reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, and restore public confidence in the NOPD. The NOPD must develop and implement new policies and protocols and train its officers in effective and constitutional policing. In addition, the NOPD must implement systems to ensure accountability, foster police-community partnerships, improve the quality of policing to all parts of the city and eliminate unlawful bias from all levels of policing decisions.

This investigation was not related to any ongoing federal criminal prosecutions of NOPD officers.

This investigation was conducted by the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana. In addition, the investigators consulted with a number of police experts from around the country and with Department experts within the Office of Justice Programs, the Office on Violence Against Women, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Office on Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and the Access to Justice Initiative. Over the past six months, the Community Relations Service has facilitated community participation, allowing community members to express their concerns and to share their ideas.

The executive summary and full report can be found at this link. Over the next few weeks and months, Department of Justice personnel will be meeting with interested community groups. Comments or suggestions can also be e-mailed to

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Questions on NOPD's Respect for First Amendment

From our friends at ACLU of Louisiana:

Interference With Photographing Police Action Prompts Request for Public Records

Concerned about repeated interference with the public's right to photograph police conduct, the ACLU of Louisiana has send a request to Superintendent Ronal Serpas seeking documents pertaining to First Amendment training provided to NOPD officers. This request was prompted by the events surrounding the Krewe of Eris parade on March 6, 2011, during which an NOPD officer knocked a cell phone camera out of the hands of its owner who was filming police conduct on the street.

For many years the ACLU of Louisiana has been troubled by an ongoing pattern of First Amendment violations by NOPD officers. In June, 2010, the ACLU of Louisiana released a report entitled “Observing, photographing & filming the New Orleans Police Department,” which outlines fifteen instances in which people were prevented from filming or otherwise recording police conduct. “Superintendent Serpas is well aware of the longstanding problem within the NOPD on this issue,” said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “He has seen our report. He has promised enhanced training for his officers on this very important issue. That it has happened yet again indicates that the changes that he promised last year have not yet been implemented.”
As the NOPD broke up the Eris parade on March 6, at least one video shot by a witness shows what appears to be police using a Taser on a parade participant. That video also shows an officer knocking the camera out of the hand of the photographer, who was able to retrieve it and continue filming. Esman continued: “Only in a police state, in which law enforcement has no accountability to the public, should police fear disclosure of their conduct. If police are acting properly, they should welcome scrutiny of their actions. That NOPD officers continue to interfere with the fundamental right to record their activities suggests that they know they are acting outside the law.”

In its letter, the ACLU requested all documents that show information provided to NOPD officers concerning the rights of the public to record, in any fashion, what they see in public and training materials on First Amendment rights and protections.

Under the law, the NOPD has until March 18 respond to the ACLU's letter.

A copy of the ACLU's letter can be found here.

The ACLU's June 2010 report can be found at this link.

More video from the police attacks on the Eris parade can be found here and here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First National Conference of Formerly Incarcerated Persons Convenes In Alabama

From our friends at Black Agenda Report:
A Black Agenda Radio Commentary by Black Agenda Report managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

In the spirit of those brave and selfless Georgia prisoners who stood up for their human rights last December, formerly incarcerated people from across the country convened their own first national meeting in Alabama last week. The next is scheduled for November in Los Angeles. They stand for the full restoration of civil and human rights, and the rollback of the nation's policy of mass incarceration.

Many have declared that the real Freedom Movement of the 21st century will be a broad civic mobilization to confront the prison state and the policies of mass incarceration it inflicts upon the black, the brown and the poor. If so, the clearest sign that such a movement is truly underway is the awakening and self-organization of the formerly incarcerated.

Last week, The Ordinary Peoples Society of Alabama hosted the first national gathering of the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted Peoples Movement. The three day meeting was attended by ex-prisoners from all 50 states and included formerly incarcerated leaders from dozens of groups from around the country, including co-conveners All of Us or None (CA), Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (NY), National Exhoodus Council (PA), A New Way of Life (CA), Direct Action for Rights and Equality (RI) and many more.

Many of these one-time prisoners had long ago seized control of their lives and destinies to found service and self-help organizations in their own cities. Up till now, much of their activism has been about providing counseling to former inmates and their families, helping them find jobs, health care, housing and a tenuous foothold from which to re-enter society. They have led local efforts to curb violence and drug use, to keep kids in school, as well as restorative justice initiatives designed to make the victims of crime whole and heal the wounds of their families and communities. Separately, the former prisoners and the organizations they founded have waged local, statewide and national campaigns to curb the vicious and pervasive discrimination against former prisoners in employment and housing and to fully restore their civil and human rights.

Participants at the meeting pointed out that 700,000 prisoners were released from state and federal custody every from 2005 to 2009, mostly into communities with few jobs, little health care, dim economic prospects, and not many educational opportunities. These lives cannot be rescued, they said, unless the communities they come from and return to are rescued as well.

“In the end, more prisons are not the answer to crime,” Pastor Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan Alabama, one of the event's principal organizers told Black Agenda Report. “Mass incarceration,” he emphasized, “locks long-term poverty in place for the communities many prisoners come from and return to. Our work changing individual lives has led us back here, back to Selma and Montgomery,” said Pastor Glasgow. “Just as we've changed ourselves, we are going to challenge America, to change America, and to roll back this prison state.”

The meeting of the Formerly Incarcerated Persons Movement was funded in part by the good people of the Drug Policy Alliance. It was conducted in the spirit of the Peoples Movement Assemblies, which are a spin off of the US and World Social Forum Movements. Participants in the meeting left with commitments to begin the political education and organization of the formerly incarcerated, their families and their communities across the country as part of their ongoing self-help agenda.

That is how mass movements for real change grow. The next national gathering of the formerly incarcerated will take place in Los Angeles this November. You can contact the national Movement of Formerly Incarcerated Persons on the web at, or through links on

Friday, March 11, 2011

LJI Co-Director Tracie Washington Named One of America's Leading Black Women Advocating Change

The Root, a daily online magazine published by Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive, has named Louisiana Justice Institute Co-Director Tracie Washington as one of it's twenty Leading Black Women Advocating Change. The list, published this week in commemoration of Women's History Month, aims to "spotlight some of the Black women who are influential in activism and the nonprofit world."

Among the other activists and community leaders highlighted are Color of Change staffer Dani McClain, MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Marjora Carter, National Black Justice Coalition co-founder Mandy Carter, Praxis Project executive director Makani Themba-Nixon, and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

The site praises Washington for her post-Katrina advocacy, saying "After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, Washington was displaced, like nearly 500,000 other residents. But the civil rights attorney returned to her native New Orleans and has been fighting for the rights of the displaced and disadvantaged there ever since. As president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a legal-advocacy organization devoted to social-justice campaigns, Washington is working to make sure that New Orleans' most vulnerable communities have access to housing, education and health services."

According to its statement of purpose, The Root "aims to be an unprecedented departure from traditional American journalism, raising the profile of Black voices in mainstream media and engaging anyone interested in Black culture around the world." Prominent academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is The Root's Editor-In-Chief.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New Orleans Police Attack Mardi Gras Parade

On Sunday night, at least 20 officers descended on a Mardi Gras parade, arresting twelve costumed marchers, and repeatedly deploying tasers, pepper spray, and physical violence. The parade, which consisted of local artists and other neighborhood residents, as well as quite a few tourists, began as a stunning display of the artistic talent found in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, and ended in a violent nightmare when NOPD officers rushed into the peaceful crowd.

With arrests and beatings spread across several blocks in the Marigny, details are still being compiled by witnesses, including several lawyers and other legal workers who were in the crowd, many of whom took pictures and video. At least one young woman was arrested for photographing the scene, and witnesses reported that they saw officers erasing pictures from her camera. Another video, posted on youtube, shows one officer threatening and appearing to strike someone who was filming the scene.

New Orleans Slate, a local blog, posted a detailed and powerful report yesterday. Below are some highlights:
My husband...saw one cop baiting one kid, trying very hard it seemed to get the kid to swing at him, when the kid did nothing, the cop grabbed him and took him anyway then hit him with his baton. He saw cops tazing people left and right, he heard that it had started back at Franklin, but by the time they got to St. Ferdinand it was in full swing. The police were also using mace by this time. One guy, carrying a guitar case turned to the cops as if asking why they were doing this. He was wearing glasses. The cop grabbed him with one hand and maced him right in the face behind his glasses with the other. My husband said he could see it foaming behind his glasses. His friends tried to help him when he went down, trying to rinse his eyes out with water. They all got tazed. Tazers and mace were used liberally. My husband saw clouds of mace and was caught in it. At Press Street a cop told my husband not to turn around, saying, "Anyone who turns around gets arrested. I don't want to see faces, I want to see backs."

...As the cops became more aggressive, the people in the parade began to defend themselves, not by throwing anything but by trying to run, or put their hands over their heads to protect their skulls. This caused the tazing and macing to begin, which of course, threw more fear into the mix which caused stampeding and a lot of people being knocked down...

I'm certainly not going to try to say that no one in the parade might have caused a problem. People join in along the way. There is no set membership with wristbands, there is no parade security. Nevertheless, I've seen this parade many times before and it's pure joy and whimsy. These are delivery people and artists and musicians and young families. (I am hoping that none of the kids I saw in wagons, strollers and on parents' hips were hurt in all this.) NOPD's behavior was absolutely contrary to trying to maintain peace. It appeared that they were spoiling for a fight. It's what I saw. It's all in the attitude.
One of the paraders who was arrested wrote a detailed account that was posted on New Orleans' Indymedia website, a first-hand statement that depicts officers boasting of the beatings they delivered:
One arrestee had a broken cheekbone and a large, matted bloody wound on the back of his head from being beaten with a police baton. Later, this injury would require surgical staples. On the wall where we were kneeling, there was a growing bloodstain behind his head where his injury had bled onto the drywall. "He's bleeding," said another of the arrestees. "Officer, that man needs medical attention."

"I say you could speak? Shut the fuck up," the officer currently watching us replied. A couple of the arrestees had earlier been demanding lawyers, and he had told them to shut the fuck up too. He was big on that phrase...

An officer walked in cradling his hand and smiling. "You need hospital?" The silence-oriented officer asked him.

"Yeah, I'm going in a minute," said the officer with the wounded hand. "I knocked motherfuckers tonight, tell you what."
The Times Picayune also delivered a solid initial report of the incident, including this closing statement that says a lot about the damage this police behavior does to our city:
Colleen Tucker, of Flagstaff, Ariz., who was in town visiting a friend, said she saw 14 police cars at the Marigny intersection. Tucker said a melee broke out between marchers and officers. Tucker said she spoke to some police who told her vandalism to police cruisers provoked the fighting. "We saw no violence directed at police," she said.

Tucker, a tourist, was leaving for home Monday. "This was my last impression of New Orleans," she said.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Family, Supporters, Rally to Bring Justice for Billey Joe Johnson Jr.

By Ada McMahon

Reposted from Bridge The Gulf

Last Saturday in Lucedale, Mississippi, supporters and family of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. called for an end to the “Jim Crow ‘justice’” that left this young black man dead in the hands of the local police department.

One December morning in 2008, Johnson was pulled over by police on Fig Farm Road in Lucedale. The promising young high school football star, who his mother described as “just the sweetest child,” would not leave police custody alive. He died from a shotgun blast to the head. The police say he shot himself and a grand jury found that the shotgun “accidentally discharged”. But independent investigations and those familiar with the autopsy report raised serious doubts about how Johnson could have shot himself.

“It just doesn’t make sense. Something must have happened,” said Tiffanie Johnson, Billey Joe Jr.’s older sister. “We just want justice.”

“Law enforcement’s investigation left a lot of holes and many of us believe there was foul play. Because of the amount of discrimination we experience every day, we have little faith in the local justice system,” said Bobby Perryman of the Immaculate Heart Community Development Corporation, one of the local groups that has been supportive of the Johnson family’s calls for justice.

On Saturday February 26th, Billey Joe Johnson Jr.’s family and about forty supporters rallied at the George County Courthouse in Lucedale, then help a candlelight vigil by the side of the road where Johnson was shot. Human and civil rights groups like the ACLU of Mississippi, Amnesty International, NAACP and George County Human Rights Task Force joined the family in calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to bring charges for Johnson’s death.

Jim Crow “Justice”

In addition to justice in Johnson’s case, the ralliers called for an end to the abuse of power that characterizes the police’s relationship with black communities in Mississippi, and across the nation.

“We are tired of the corruption, the cover-ups and the abuse we suffer at the hands of the police,” said Ms. Lucy Wilson, President of the Human Rights Taskforce of George County.

According to a press release, George County is 89% white, and still very segregated. A few large white families and their networks own most of the businesses and play influential roles in city and county government.

Tiffanie Johnson, the sister of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. Photo by Ada McMahon.

Nsombi Lambright, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said that police forces and justice systems have been getting away with the murder of African Americans since slavery: 

“We have to keep demanding answers. And not only for Billey Jr. and his family, but for all the other unsolved murders that have happened since the 1960s in Mississippi. This is not new for Mississippi. We have a very troubled background of unsolved murders from slavery to present.

“Until we start standing together and saying that we’re not going to take it anymore, we’re not going to back down, the guns are not going to scare us, the taser guns are not going to scare us, then it’s going to continue to happen… And I don’t want to lose another son. I don’t want to lose another child like this…”

Support from New Orleans

Few people from Lucedale or George County joined the rally and vigil. Lambright explained, “citizens of Lucedale right now are scared to come out… If the police can get away with this, why should they feel comfortable and safe coming out?” 

The Lucedale police were on hand to “escort” cars from the Courthouse to the vigil by the side of the road where Johnson was stopped by police.

Norris Henderson, the Executive Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, was among a caravan that drove from New Orleans to support the family. He told Johnson’s parents, Billey Joe Johnson Sr. and Annette Johnson, not to be disheartened by the number of the supporters: 

“This is what it’s going to start with – a small group. I know we’re looking for a lot of people, but somebody has to be the vanguard. In New Orleans a small group of us did the same thing to bring justice for the Glover family, [helping] them bring those police to justice.

The Madison family [from the Danzinger Bridge incident]–– it started with a handful of people. And it was a smaller number than this. So be encouraged by this. And we’re committed that the next time… we’ll try to bring, as opposed to four, five, or six cars, maybe four five or six buses.”

The caravan from New Orleans was organized by the Greater New Orleans Organizers’ Roundtable, a group of community organizers that meets monthly to coordinate efforts.

Rebecca Glover, who joined the caravan, offered support to the Johnson family as someone who’s family was also touched by a “nightmare” police murder and cover-up. Her nephew, Henry Glover, was shot by police in the days following Hurricane Katrina, and then burned in his car in a cover-up that involved at least five members of the New Orleans Police Department.

“Hang in there and keep on fighting for justice,” Mrs. Glover said. “Most of all, stay focused on this. Don’t let them shove it under the rug, cause they will.” 

Billey Joe Johnson Sr. called for everyone to pull together around his son, to prevent the next child from being killed.
Billey Joe Johnson Sr. and Annette Johnson, the parents of Billey Joe Johnson Jr, gathered with family and supporters at the site where their son was shot. Photo by Ada McMahon.