Michael Brown Got No Second Chance; Here’s a Christmas Story About a Kid Who Did

Those who doubt whether slain Michael Brown deserved the movement that rallied behind his “questionable character” should look to the Jena Six’s Mychal Bell.

Bell, whose perceived thuggish character also raised doubts about the legitimacy of a movement that defended him eight years ago, just received his college degree from Southern University. From an attempted murder charge facing 22 years of incarceration to a college degree, Bell’s instructive case of redemption should move us to march.

Tis the season for non-indictments, which gives us opportunity to reminisce on the injustices and protests of years’ past. Remember in 2006 when the national media, civil rights activists and thousands of concerned citizens descended upon the little town of Jena, Louisiana to protest the charges against Bell and five other black students for attempted murder and conspiracy for the beating of a white student, Justin Barker?

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The prelude to the assault, which accentuated the racial tensions at the school, included a fight between black and white students, the hanging of nooses from a tree in the school’s courtyard, and arson to the school’s main building – just your garden-variety high school issues.

The white students involved received in-school suspensions. The charges against the black youths were eventually reduced to misdemeanors. However, Bell, a promising football player, was placed in the custody of the Office of Youth Development and missed his senior year because of his incarceration. In 2009, Bell was arrested again, this time for shoplifting and resisting arrest in a north Louisiana mall.

Last week Southern University announced that Bell earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.

If there is something to be wanted it’s the redemptive stories that people like Mychal Bell offer – the kind of story that Michael Brown should have had the opportunity to share.

Where are the marches for Mychal Bell now? Where’s the outpouring of media coverage?

What if Ferguson’s Michael Brown had been allowed to breathe like Mychal Bell?

Yes, Mychal Bell has a rap sheet and a college degree. Yes, Bell knocked out a peer. Yes, Bell attended a school that maintained a “whites only” tree. Yes, a judge wanted to try Bell as an adult, while the white students who provoked the Jena Six with nooses received in-school suspensions. Yes imperfect people deserve justice and love. And yes, we should exalt Bell as yet another reason to march.

Rather than become enraged, I tend to brood in reaction in particular to the phenomenon of death in black communities. It is sad to consider the conditions in which black students like Mychal Bell go to school.

Also tragic: the root causes of murder in black communities. According to the most recent Justice Dept. data, blacks were the victims of nearly half of all U.S. homicides in 2005, even though they accounted just 13 percent of the population. And many ask why there are protests for those victims? (Even though most violent crime is intra-racial – 84 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders)

Many decry of the alleged lack of outrage of black-on-black crime in the face of marches demanding justice in policing.

Related: Where have all the black and brown teachers gone?

But the moral of Bell’s story is that we shouldn’t wait for the ideal scenario or perfect person to demand justice. If allowed to breathe, time gives the opportunity to remove doubts of character. We must demand that time. We also must continue to eradicate the conditions that are the precursors of violence. Let’s be clear. Mundane social work is the unrecognized protest of violence in communities. But injustice isn’t the only thing that should inspire raging policy work and marches. A second moral to be had is that protesting injustice is enhanced when we celebrate the overcoming of it.

In New Orleans, we have jazz funerals and second line parades. Detached from a funeral, second line parades are a New Orleans tradition in which a brass band leads a social aid and pleasure club followed by adoring revelers – the second line. Second lines are both a tradition (there’s a second line season) and a celebratory tool that can erupt spontaneously for say Super Bowl victories, weddings or graduations.

We need a second line for Mychal Bell.

The quest for justice and the celebration of our youth should be enough to fill the streets, disrupt status quo and contribute to a national agenda for social change. Flagrant acts of injustice are caught on video. But we must remember to second line for the countless who succeed in spite of what is expected.

Bell’s graduation reaffirms why it shouldn’t be so difficult to defend black lives. Imperfect people deserve justice. So let’s end the “where’s the outrage for black-on-black crime” rhetoric whenever people defend human beings. If there is something to be wanted it’s the redemptive stories that people like Mychal Bell offer – the kind of story that Michael Brown should have had the opportunity to share.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).