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A man in the mirror

November 24, 2010

by Theo Ellington

An “educated Blackman” in Oakland on July 8, 2010, protests the verdict of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder handed that day to former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for killing Oscar Grant and asserts his credentials for making up his own mind. – Photo: Malaika Kambon, People’s Eye Photography
In the wake of the senseless acts of violence that have taken away the lives of Oscar Grant, Derrick Jones and countless other Black men, I’ve grown to feel numb. In my childhood, death and murder plagued my mind. Sometimes people I knew were taken away by natural causes. Other times they were taken away by those we call our sisters and brothers. In middle school, my first cousin, neighbors and various school mates lost their lives violently. Nowadays, I find myself thinking a lot about what my life is worth – or is that somebody else’s job?

Oscar Grant, killed “execution style” by a BART police officer who “mistook his gun for his taser.” Derrick Jones, shot to death by an Oakland police officer after he “reached for his waistband.” I know I can never understand the unbelievable stress that police officers endure. It can’t be easy to serve and protect for low wages in what is often a thankless job. That notwithstanding, at the end of the day cops are the only people who have the power to instantly kill someone based solely on their judgment. But what are the consequences on human life when they misjudge?

It’s unfair for the officer who shot and killed Oscar to receive two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. A longer sentence would not bring Oscar back but it would send a strong message to law enforcement: All life has equal value. There has been report after report about sentencing inequalities based on race. When I look at these systematic, ingrained injustices, I wonder about my perceived value to society.

I’m not alone. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg in an NPR report expressed his frustration at our fundamentally flawed legal system. As head of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund he was assigned to put a monetary value on the lives of thousands of victims. He says the basic premise of our legal system is “that compensation for death should be directly related to the financial circumstances of each victim.” Our legal system required him to give more money to those who were stockbrokers and bond traders than those who were simply waiters or servicemen. According to this, my life is worth nothing – it sits on the lowest tier of them all.

So for the past week, I’ve asked myself what I contribute to the world – and is what I contribute of any value. I am a young African American male, a semester away from graduating from university – does it matter? I see myself in Oscar Grant. I see myself in Derrick Jones. But I refuse to see myself as valueless.

We must stand for something and have something to show for it. I hope that all people who express feelings and emotion about Grant and Jones understand that our real worth can’t be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. Our real value comes from the potential of what we can offer to the world.

Theo Ellington, 22, who will graduate in 2011 from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., where he is majoring in political science and business administration, can be reached at ellingtontheo@gmail.com, on Facebook or through his website at http://theoellington.com/, where this story first appeared.

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