Racism and justice in a small town

Member of 'The Jena 6' writes autobiographical account of ordeal

By Lex Talamo
The Times

JENA, La. (AP) - Bryant Purvis was 17 years old when he was charged with attempted murder for the beating of a white high school student in the central Louisiana town of Jena.

Purvis said he was "completely innocent" of his alleged crime. He took a plea deal in 2007, to a reduced charge of simple battery, he said, because his defense attorney told him to.

Purvis, who wrote a book about his encounters with justice in Jena, said at a recent author event at the Shreve Memorial Library in Shreveport that battling the justice system, clearing his name and recovering from the repercussions of racism have marked his journey into adulthood since the school yard fight that marked him as a member of "The Jena 6."

Since that day a decade ago, his life has changed. One of the biggest lessons he says he's learned is how to forgive.

"I don't blame them anymore for what happened to me during those years. I wasn't perfect myself," Purvis wrote in an autobiographical account. "I can see now that ignorance breeds hate, and the only antidote is forgiveness."


A "small, segregated" town

Purvis was born in 1989 in Jena, a town of about 3,000 people in central Louisiana that is less than 10 percent black, according to U.S. Census data. He attended Jena High School, later graduated from Hebron High School in Texas and went on to play basketball at Grambling State University.

His book opens with an account of the schoolyard fight that would change the course of his life.

"I was charged with attempted murder. It was a crime I did not commit; in fact, I wasn't even in the room when it happened," Purvis wrote in his book. "But I was soon implicated as a co-conspirator, and from that moment on my life changed forever."

On Dec. 4, 2006, a group of six black students - who came to be known as the Jena 6 - were arrested for the beating of Justin Barker, a white high school student. Barker underwent three hours of treatment in the emergency room for his injuries, including a swollen eye and concussion, according to media reports.

Initially charged as an adult with attempted murder, Purvis pleaded guilty instead to simple battery in 2007 in juvenile court, as did four other members of the Jena 6. All five youth were sentenced to seven days of probation, court costs and a $500 fine.

The remaining member pleaded guilty to second-degree battery and was sentenced to 18 months.

At the author event, Purvis told those gathered at the library that he felt the Jena 6 had been "targeted" and used "as an example" to other black youth.

He also said his hometown hasn't changed much in terms of race relations since Dec. 4, 2006. There's still a "black" side of town and a "white" side of town.

"At the time I was there, we could never hang out together," he told the group of about four dozen gathered for the author event. "The main thing I notice, going back, is not a lot has changed."

In his book, Purvis questions the overcharge of attempted murder, as well as the lack of aggressive punishment of potential hate crimes around the Jena campus.

Those crimes included the hanging of nooses from a campus tree prior to the schoolyard fight - the principal at the time called the act a prank by students who had no knowledge of the South's history of lynching blacks - and a fire set in the school's main building, which investigators said was unrelated to the other events, according to news reports.

"I should have known that it was only a matter of time before either myself or someone I cared about would be hurt by living in Jena," Purvis wrote in his book. "I didn't understand at the time that there were people in the world that would attempt to ruin a black man's reputation, or even take his life, just to prove a point."

The justice system's treatment of the Jena 6 evoked mass protests in September 2007 - of crowds of more than 20,000 protesters outraged by charges that were excessive and racially discriminatory, according to news reports.

Erin Berry, a Caddo Parish Magnet High School librarian who started a Go Fund Me account to reimburse Purvis's travel expenses to Shreveport, went to elementary school in Jena. She described the town she remembered as "small" and "segregated."

"It's not a paradise for blacks and whites living together. It's an environment where this definitely could happen," she said.

Writing the book was like "therapy," Purvis said. But it also took him a long time to find the courage to write, because he didn't want to have to relive the events.

"I wanted to put it completely behind me," he said. "I moved out of Jena to Dallas, where people were so welcoming. I don't notice it so much today because I've matured. I don't focus on any negative energy. I walk into a place with confidence, and with my head held high."

But he added he would not be the man he is today without having gone through his legal battle.

"I learned that even if the opportunities we have in life are not equal, it doesn't mean that we can ever stop fighting for equality," he wrote in his book. "It taught me to question authority, to stand up for what I believe in and above all to fight to expel ignorance."


A broken system

Members of the audience at the library event asked Purvis if he would have taken the plea deal if he had known the extent to which the "guilty" verdict would follow his name.

Purvis said absolutely not, and that he wished he had been better educated about the criminal justice system as a youth.

In addition to his keynote speech at the library, Purvis and local lawyer Carlos Prudhomme, who also works with the Volunteers for Youth Justice's Teen Court, spoke with youth at the Airport Community Center last Friday about the juvenile justice system.

Laurie Lyons, a retired attorney who attended the library's author event, said the injustices present in the Jena altercation continue today.

"The problem is that this goes on all the time and we don't help those youth," she said. "It really takes an effort from all of us."

Clay Walker, the administrator of Caddo Parish Juvenile Services who also represented the youngest member of the Jena 6, remembers the cases as marked by "absolute racism."

"It was a ridiculous investigation. They got the facts wrong, they rushed to conclusions, they overcharged. It was one of the greatest abuses of power in the system," Walker said. "What it highlights is that the justice system is imperfect."

Walker said checks and balances exist within the justice system but added that correcting errors can be slow. But he praised Shreveport's Bar Association for striving for fairness and justice and said even his work with the juvenile detention center requires constant vigilance to issues of integrity and fairness.

"Positions of power lend themselves to corruption, so the system has to consistently check that power," Walker said. "It's a constant check on yourself and the system: are we doing it right, are we doing it fairly? We should constantly be working to make the system work for the people."

LeVette Fuller, the library's teen services coordinator and a co-sponsor of the event, said Purvis was a perfect choice for the library's summer speakers series, "Build a Better World."

"One thing that makes our world better, to me, is seeing how someone has improved their own circumstances and then used their story to motivate others," Fuller said. "Bryant Purvis's story represents perseverance and hope in the face of major challenges and injustice."

Fuller said that Shreveport's juvenile incarceration numbers in recent years have declined because of progressive initiatives that target and treat underlying childhood trauma, rather than look at incarceration as the sole solution.

"We have improved our juvenile incarceration numbers in recent years and that is because we are taking the root cause of infractions into account," Fuller said. "We are choosing, thanks to people like Clay Walker, to learn about childhood trauma and toxic stress that lead to some of these infractions so that we can treat the real issue rather than train youth via incarceration to become repeat offenders."

Walker said the justice system is heavily slanted against defendants, which he added was manifested in his representing the youngest member of the Jena 6.

"You'll never realize how unfair the system is until you are wrongfully accused, which happened with my client. It's a heavy steamroller than can run someone over," he said.

But Walker added that some good came from the Jena 6 tribulations. His client actually went to live in a different state with an attorney, who also paid for his tuition to a high-class boarding school. The cases also lead to juvenile justice reform.

"It shone the light into where there had been corruption," Walker said. "It's not uncommon, if you think about history, for it to take a singular, horrible example to highlight more everyday abuses."

Walker added that the youngest member of the Jena 6 was "one of the most decent kids" he's ever met, who "was the direct opposite of how he was being talked about."

Purvis works with the Achieve Higher Goals organization while developing his own business in the fashion and fitness industry. He also plans to work with or mentor youth as a coach or with a position within the juvenile justice system in the future.

Published: Mon, Jul 10, 2017