By Jordan Flaherty
Sheriff Scott Franklin of Jena says he is trying to rid his community of drugs. Critics say he is pursuing a vendetta against the townâ€™s Black community.
At four am on July 9 of last year, more than 150 officers from 10 different agencies gathered in a large barn just outside Jena, Louisiana. The day was the culmination of an investigation that Sheriff Scott Franklin said had been going on for nearly two years. Local media was invited, and a video of the Sheriff speaking to the rowdy gathering would later appear online.
The Sheriff called the mobilization â€œOperation Third Option,â€ and he said it was about fighting drugs. However, community members say that Sheriff Franklinâ€™s actions are part of an orchestrated revenge for the local civil rights protests that won freedom for six Black high school students – known internationally as the Jena Six – who had been charged with attempted murder for a school fight.
One thing is clear: the Sheriff spent massive resources; yet officers seized no contraband. Together with District Attorney Reed Walters, Sheriff Franklin has said he is seeking maximum penalties for people charged with small-time offenses. Further, in a parish that is eighty-five percent white, his actions have almost exclusively targeted African Americans. In a town with just over three hundred Black residents, he sent his 150 officers only into the townâ€™s Black neighborhood.
According to a report from Alexandriaâ€™s Town Talk newspaper, LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin prepared the assembled crowd for a violent day. “This is serious business what we’re fixing to do,” said Sheriff Franklin. “If you think this is a training exercise or if you think these are good old boys from redneck country and we’re just going to good-old-boy them into handcuffs, you’re wrong. These people have nothing to lose. And they know the stakes are high.”
â€œIt’s going to be like Baghdad out in this community at five am,â€ he continued dramatically, explaining that their target was 37-year-old Darren DeWayne Brown, who owns a barbershop â€“ one of the only Black-owned businesses in town â€“ and his â€œlieutenants,â€ who Franklin said supplied eighty percent of the narcotics for three parishes. “Let me put it to you this way,” declared the Sheriff, “When the man says, ‘We don’t sell dope today,’ dope won’t get sold.”
Sheriff Franklin said that option one is for drug dealers and users to quit, option two is to move, and option three is to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And this day was all about option three. “They will get put in handcuffs, put behind bars today and never see the light of day again unless they are going out on the playground in prison,â€ he boasted.
At the end of the day, a dozen people were arrested on charges that ranged from contempt of court to resisting arrest to distribution of marijuana, hydrocodone, or cocaine. Despite catching the accused residents by surprise with early morning raids, in which doors were battered down by SWAT teams while a helicopter hovered overhead and then search teams were brought in to take houses and businesses apart, no drugs or other physical evidence were retrieved â€“ other than small traces of marijuana at one house.
Virtually all evidence in the cases comes from the testimony of twenty-three-year-old Evan Brown of Jena, who also wore a hidden camera that parish officials have said provides powerful visual evidence. â€œWeâ€™re completely satisfied with the results,â€ said LaSalle Sheriffâ€™s Department Narcotic Chief Robert Terral, who refused further comment on the operation.
LaSalle Parish is a politically conservative enclave located in northwest Louisiana. Former Klansman David Duke received a solid majority of local votes when he ran for governor in 1991â€”in fact, he received a higher percentage of votes in LaSalle Parish than in any other part of the state.
The Parish became famous in 2007 for the case of the Jena Six. In demonstrations that were called the birth of a 21st Century civil rights movement, an estimated 50,000 people from across the US marched in Jena â€“ nearly twenty times the population of the town. They were protesting a pattern of systemic racism and discriminatory prosecutions. All six youths, who once faced life in prison, are now either enrolled in college or are on their way.
The Sheriff told the Jena Times that he began preparing for Operation Third Option in November of 2007, less than two months after the historic protests. The raid occurred just a few weeks after the Jena Six cases were finally settled.