Letters for January 12 

Readers sound off on goats, our movie reviews, and Berkeley libraries.

Page 4 of 6

2) Given that the university trustees owe a duty to see to it that the university can stay in business, wouldn't prioritizing YOUR family's finances be a breach of fiduciary duty?

And finally,

3) If your family feels it can't get by on a six-figure income after you are no longer productive, shoudn't your grade as your household's moral leader and fiscal manager be an "F"?

David Altschul, J. D., Berkeley

Perceptions of Justice

It is easy to assign our own version of "justice" to some all-encompassing, overall vision of what justice should be. In the months that have passed since December of last year, I have found that more often than not, my description did not match anyone elses. Rightly so. After all, who could define absolute justice? Your experiences, encounters, privileges, desires, and realities all shape your account. And yet, we are all held to a certain amount of responsibility and accountability, because we all have (at least for the most part) a general idea of what is and is not acceptable. Beyond those basic assumptions, we all make our individual choices and decisions about what we believe is just, fair, and right. And then we leap, and hope that we haven't overstepped or miscalculated, or, that if we have, we'll be grazing a limb instead of losing one.

Just after Thanksgiving, I read a book by Dave Eggers called What Is The What about the "Lost Boys" of Sudan and their plight in the hopes of finding safety from the chaos of their villages. Before reading it, I had heard a lot about the Sudanese refugees but had read very little about the actual situations and circumstances that led to their journey. To read their lives, and their endurance, and their modesty in the face of all these events, was incredibly humbling. I remember that I kept telling everyone that the book had "rearranged my perception of justice." What I didn't know is that throughout my lifetime, with this book and the events that would follow shortly thereafter included, my perception of justice would change and shift consistently. In fact, sooner than I could possibly imagine, my commitment and theory of justice would be most tested.

When I heard of Oscar Grant, my heart ached the way it had a million times before with a million calls like the one I received that January morning. If it wasn't someone we knew personally, it was still a young minority from our community, and, rarely inclined to watch the news, my friends and I called each other to analyze the details before we got someone else's version of things. That morning, my friend shared the usual statistics: Black victim; White killer with a gold badge and a blue uniform, the latter colors determining his fate just as much as the color of Grant's skin had determined his own. But at the end, the prototype blurred, the story changed, and the results were inexplicably different. My friend hesitated a few seconds to let me consider the agonizing news before I asked if the BART camera's had caught the execution on tape, thinking quickly how stupid that sounded. Of course the camera's had filmed the scene, they were always on. Even more, my friend informed me, was that there was a young woman who filmed it all with her camera phone. And while the police had attempted to confiscate the phone without return, she had already posted the video on YouTube. Herein lies the crucial difference, the substance that had never before been visible in police slayings in my community. Because of this, Oscar Grant would not be another Mack "Jody" Woodfox, another Anita Gay, another Andrew Moppin, another Young Gary. Because a few people had raised their phones and pressed a button; because the light had shone enough on that platform for us all to see; because Mehserle and his fellow officers could not help but feel they were above the very laws they supposedly safeguarded; for all these reasons, January 7th was scheduled. Because, as we chanted marching down International Blvd., we are all Oscar Grant.

That night, hundreds of protesters marched in absolute unison. As the tension grew higher, however, it was clear the focus of the group had somewhat dissipated. Where there was anger, there was no action both productive and non-destructive to engage in. As onlookers joined the group, we continued like some type of "Fuck You" parade and procession, some sobbing, others screaming, even more of us unsure of where to place this burning feeling we had; a feeling many of us possessed since children, since watching our own brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers harassed by the police. A feeling of inadequacy and absolute rage at the idea that someone thought your entire community was inadequate, was less than and somehow not worth saving. As one mother once asked me through tears, "When everyone else is calling 911, who do we call?" By the time we reached Lake Merritt BART, the night had come and the rage was quick to follow. After getting excited because they had stomped an officer's squad car, someone smashed a windshield as the group progressed through Chinatown. This was the beginning of the end, the start of the so-called "mob mentality" that is notorious for grabbing hold of a group. After seeing my reaction, a man handed me a megaphone so I could try to speak to the group, but my words, however true, were falling on a deaf group of kids who had seen executions like this one all their lives, until today, when someone had told pretty much told them, "Have at it at this city!" Throughout the rest of the night, we would be tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and injured by the police. The city was in disarray, shop windows broken throughout downtown. Newspaper dispensers and trash cans lit the landscape, fires blazing as people threw bottles and screamed at the riot cops, who stood there, annoyed that they were missing their evening meal to deal with the likes of us. And beyond the temporary damage, the feelings of mistrust and tension throughout the community in the weeks and months that would follow, was a more permanent problem. It was not as "black and white," as cookie-cutter as I had imagined. Mehserle stole Grant's life and, as a result, two children had no father, a wonderful woman lost her lover and friend, a family lost a son, and a community with little hope to begin with lost all hope in whatever decency we assumed our officials and authorities had. Though we all know well enough to know that the needs of a people rarely come first, I hesitate to say there was anyone who could watch with anything less than disgust as BART officials, law officials, and state officials all refused to give any comment that would imply they or their system was at fault. This was when the word "justice" became commonplace in every conversation, a necessity to re-hash and define and understand. What were we without justice? What would I be without defending it? At protests, on riot lines, and everywhere in between, I struggled to grasp this concept in it's entirety. The same sick feeling I had felt when I heard the news was the magnified feeling of the small lump that gathered in my stomach when the first innocent person's car got destroyed, which was the same feeling I had known since I was child, though in a newly heightened sense. It was the feeling that spoke to my heart, however it could and told me that something simply wasn't right. But, just because it isn't right to me doesn't make it unjust, and just because someone didn't agree or understand why I thought it was wrong didn't mean the person was wrong either. In fact, while we could have a hundred different definitions for justice and injustice, the only time that we really bother to think about it is when we violate one another's perception of justice. And just as I thought I had begun to form my own theory that made sense, just when I thought that my weapon was big enough to enter battle, the war changed, the scenery shifted, and chaos ensued once more. This time, our soldier's weren't the ones falling, but, it certainly didn't feel like victory.

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