Did a White Sheriff and District Attorney Orchestrate a Race-Based Coup in a Northern Louisiana Town?
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In Waterproof, a small northern Louisiana town near Natchez, Mississippi, the African American mayor and police chief assert that they have been forced from office and arrested as part of an illegal coup carried out by an alliance of white politicians and their followers. In a lawsuit filed last week, Police Chief Miles Jenkins asserts a wide-ranging conspiracy involving the area's district attorney and parish sheriff, along with several other members of the region's entrenched political power structure. These events come at a time of widespread and high-profile racist attacks against the US President and Black members of Congress nationwide, and in a state where white political corruption and violence have been and continue to be used as tools to suppress Black political representation.
Chief Miles Jenkins
About 800 people live in Waterproof, a rural community in Tensas Parish. Tensas has just over 6,000 residents, making it both the smallest parish in the state, and the parish with the state's fastest declining population. The regional schools remain mostly segregated, with nearly all the Black students attending public schools, and nearly all the white students attending private schools. With a median household income of $10,250, Waterproof is also one of the poorest communities in the US. The only jobs for Black people in town involve working for white farmers, according to Chief Jenkins. "Unless you go out of town to work," he says, "You're going to ride the white man's tractor. That's it."
Bobby Higginbotham was elected mayor of Waterproof in September of 2006. The next year, he appointed 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. "You called the Waterproof police for help before," says Chief Jenkins, "He would say, wait 'til tomorrow, it's too hot to come out today." The new mayor also sought to reform the town's financial practices, which Chief Jenkins says were in disorder and consumed by debt.
Ms. Annie Watson, a Black school board member in her 60s who was born and raised in Waterproof, worked as a volunteer for the mayor. She says that the mayor and chief, who had both lived in New Orleans, brought a new attitude that Parish officials didn't like. "The Mayor and the Chief said you can't treat people this way, and the Sheriff and DA said you got to know your place. If you're educated and intelligent and know your rights in this parish, you are in trouble," she says. "They are determined to let you know you have a place and if you don't jump when they say jump you are in trouble."
Ms. Watson explains that Parish Sheriff Rickey Jones and District Attorney James Paxton were threatened by Chief Jenkins' efforts to professionalize the town's police force. Aside from representing a challenge to Sheriff Jones' political power, this also took away a source of his funding. "Before Mayor Higginbotham, all traffic tickets went to St. Joseph," she says, referring to the Parish seat, where Sheriff Jones is based. "So he cut their income by having a police department."
Jack McMillan, an African American deputy sheriff who works with Sheriff Jones, says he tried to warn Chief Jenkins to back down. "You've got to adapt to your environment," he says. "You can't come to a small town and do things the same way you might in a big city. Like the song says, you got to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em."