The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

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?

Related: Who is the biggest victim of America’s prison boom?

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.

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

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Pathetic. Deeds have consequences. Punching a police officer in the face is likely to lead anyone, regardless of race, to be dhit by thst police officer.

    This Bell kid committed a violent felony and his being institutionalized for his senior year is a well deserved punishment for his VIOLENT CRIME. kudos to Bell for turning his life around.. But if it was a police officer he had punched in the face instead of a classmate,he too would likely not be around for a ” 2nd chance”. Teach people that actions have consequences regardless of the color of their skin. Use your pullpit for good. Currently, you’re part of the problem my man.

  2. No, Mr. Petrucci, Andre Perry’s take on this is quite right and not pathetic at all. As my father, a veteran of 40 years as an urban police officer, often pointed out in discussing such situations–police officers are trained to handle people who are violent and resisting arrest, and they are sworn to serve and protect all of us–including the non-convicted offenders with whom they interact. There are several other trained responses to being punched in the face short of shooting someone in the back of the head or using a fatal chokehold.

    As a teacher of high-poverty students, I see many stories like Mr. Bell’s–young people who go on to turn their lives in a positive direction, but usually not without a great deal of support along the way. Sadly, I also see too many of the other stories that don’t turn out as well, so I agree we should celebrate the former much more than we do.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *