AP/ Kita Wright
Mychal Bell, one time football hero and honor student of Jena Lousiana tried to commit suicide in the waning days of 2008. At only 18, he wanted to die because the Louisiana “justice system” has so successfully converted him into “just another black criminal” that he will likely never see a day’s peace in his adult life.
In 2007, Mychal Bell and 5 other African American high school students rose to national attention after what many believe was an avoidable school fight resulting from weeks of unchecked racism and racist/racialized incidents in the town of Jena and Jena High School.
Many rallied for the Jena 6 not only because of the school’s seeming inaction around a noose incident that sparked the increasingly threatening racial tensions in the town but also because of comments made by the D.A. and school officials. Further, the punishment for the fight was considered to be excessive in the eyes of the law considering that Bell and others were initially charged with attempted murder, the deadly weapon, listed in court documents as: Tennis Shoe. In light of the failure of school officials to punish white students who hung nooses on a campus tree in response to black students sitting there or to local officials belated and minimal response to address two separate shot gun incidents in which white students threatened black students off school grounds (as well as one bringing the firearm on to school grounds), the sentencing of the Jena 6 also smacked of racialized retaliation.
As protest heated up, many white locals in Jena and the surrounding area claimed they feared “looting” and “violence” from black people, black protesters, and even the NAACP members. In actuality however, the only incidents were instigated by those same locals including driving through Jena with nooses attached to the back of trucks and the yelling of the “n” word. Many promised that when the media died down, the Jena 6 would pay.
And the media did die down. In fact, most have forgotten the 6 young men who ultimately bore the brunt and the rage of local and state institutions designed to criminalize and decriminalize acts on the basis of race. Most does not, however, include the police. As I reported earlier this year, all of the 6 and some of their immediate relatives have been under constant surveillance from police in at least two districts (while Louisiana has Parishes, the neighboring states have districts). Some have argued that they have been repeatedly accused of fights and other petty crimes for which they took no part in or were not even in the area.
Mychal Bell has paid the largest price, being consistently given maximum punishment for misdemeanor crimes: running a stop sign (for which he had his license and weekend pass revoked), shoplifting (for which he faces assault charges for “flailing arms that hit a security guard”), etc. His cousin was also tasered to death in the back of a police car in what some feel was the direct result of increased surveillance and retaliation against the Bell family.
Rather than taking into account why a young man who has been overpoliced and overcharged with a permanent mark on his record, and who has lost at least one family member to police brutality, might run and hide under a car when stopped in the mall or wave his hand frantically to call attention when found by police and mall security, Bell received no sympathy. He was arrested on Christmas Eve and charged with everything possible including assaulting a security guard acting as police. Bell’s misdemeanor had once again been transformed into a serious crime with the flick of a pen by a legal system that has long been on Amnesty International’s list for racial, physical, and mental violence against Louisiana citizens.
2 days before the end of the year, 18 year-old Mychal Bell tried to commit suicide. He shot himself, point blank, in the chest with a gun that no doubt will result in more charges.
Miraculously Mychal Bell is expected to survive his injuries. However it is increasingly unlikely that he will survive constant racialized police profiling and seemingly state sanctioned retaliation.
As bombs drop in Gaza, little girls are raped in camps in the Sudan and the DRC, women and girls are traded into sex slavery for safe passage of Iraqi and Afghan refugees, the queer community continues to be rocked by a loss of rights and the seeming acceptance of it by the incoming administration, and Mychal Bell lies isolated in a hospital bed waiting for another excessive stint in Louisiana’s notorious prison system, I cannot help but wonder about our humanity. For many, Bell’s petty crimes will justify the failure to be outraged at the underlining inequality surrounding his post-Jena 6 life. He is not “innocent” like the others in this list. And to that I can only respond, Bell has committed petty crimes, but his guilt does not absolve the “justice system” of theirs. We live in a world that is far more complicated than perfect victims and as long as we continue to analyze things on the basis of the myth of them and the “exceptional monsters” we will never fully dismantle the inequality that ultimately robs us all.