FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Race and Politics in a Rural Louisiana Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Rights and Black Political Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

JORDAN FLAHERTY is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine.  He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org.

 

 

More articles by:

Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
December 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
The FBI: Another Worry in the National Security State
Rob Urie
Establishment Politics are for the Rich
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: That’s Neoliberalism for You
Paul Street
Midnight Ramble: A Fascist Rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Joan Roelofs
The Science of Lethality
Joyce Nelson
Buttigieg and McKinsey
Joseph Natoli
Equally Determined: To Impeach/To Support
Charles Pierson
The National Defense Authorization Act Perpetuates the Destruction of Yemen
REZA FIYOUZAT
An Outrageous Proposal: Peace Boats to Iran
Lee Hall
Donald Trump Jr., Mongolian Sheep Killer
Andrew Levine
A Plague on Both Their Houses, Plus a Dozen Poxes on Trump’s
David Rosen
Mortality Rising: Trump and the Death of the “American Dream”
Dave Lindorff
The Perils of Embedded Journalism: ‘Afghan Papers’ Wouldn’t Be Needed If We Had a Real Independent News Media
Brian Cloughley
Human Rights and Humbug in Washington
Stephen Leas
Hungry for a Livable Planet: Why I Went On Hunger Strike and Occupied Pelosi’s Office
Saad Hafiz
Pakistan Must Face Its Past
Lawrence Davidson
Deteriorating Climates: Home and Abroad
Cal Winslow
The End of the Era: Nineteen Nineteen
Louis Proyect
If Time Magazine Celebrates Greta Thunberg, Why Should We?
Thomas Drake
Kafka Down Under: the Threat to Whistleblowers and Press Freedom in Australia
Thomas Knapp
JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon Versus the Pentagon and Trump
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s War on the Poor
Michael Welton
Seeing the World Without Shadows: the Enlightenment Dream
Ron Jacobs
The Wind That Shook the Barley: the Politics of the IRA
Rivera Sun
Beyond Changing Light Bulbs: 21 Ways You Can Stop the Climate Crisis
Binoy Kampmark
The Bloomberg Factor: Authoritarianism, Money and US Presidential Politics
Nick Pemberton
Ideology Shall Have No Resurrection
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
What Trump and the GOP Learned From Obama
Ramzy Baroud
‘Elected by Donors’: the University of Cape Town Fails Palestine, Embraces Israel
Cesar Chelala
Unsuccessful U.S. Policy on Cuba Should End
Harry Blain
The Conservatism of Impeachment
Norman Solomon
Will the Democratic Presidential Nomination Be Bought?
Howard Lisnoff
The One Thing That US Leaders Seem to Do Well is Lie
Jeff Cohen
Warren vs. Buttigieg Clash Offers Contrast with Sanders’ Consistency
Mel Gurtov
The Afghanistan Pentagon Papers
Gaither Stewart
Landslide … to Totalitarianism
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
How Blaming Nader in 2000 Paved the Way for Today’s Neo-Fascism
Steve Early
In Re-Run Election: LA Times Journalist Wins Presidency of NewsGuild 
David Swanson
If You’re Not Busy Plotting Nonviolent Revolution for Peace and Climate, You’re Busy Dying
Nicky Reid
Sorry Lefties, Your Impeachment is Bullshit
John Kendall Hawkins
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
Susan Block
Krampus Trumpus Rumpus
Martin Billheimer
Knight Crawlers
David Yearsley
Kanye in the West
Elliot Sperber
Dollar Store 
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail