Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Pain of a Senseless Death

Meredith Maran has written a moving article in Salon about Keith Stephens, whom she profiled in her book Class Dismissed and who was murdered in Berkeley five weeks ago.

The tribute celebrates Keith’s life, which was filled with loving relatives, minor scrapes with the law, a learning disability, and recent success in his work life. Keith was shot in the chest when he opened the door of a friend's house. His killer has not been identified.

Meredith, who followed Keith around while he was a senior at Berkeley High School, raises large questions about the value – or lack of it – society places on the lives of African-American youths.

“In the days following Keith's death I received 58 condolence e-mails, many from people I don't know: Keith's middle school teacher, the D.A. who prosecuted him, his manager at Starbucks, a Berkeley police lieutenant whose daughter goes to Berkeley High. They wrote about his kindness, his sense of humor, his way with little kids and his smile. They called what happened to him "senseless violence."

But the violence that took Keith's life wasn't senseless. It happened for reasons that any one of us could name -- start with slavery, take it from there. Spending one year in Keith's reality, I learned nothing more predictive than this: Give a kid the message that you'd rather he just disappeared from your store, your classroom, your streets, and sooner or later, one way or another, he will.

"You strip a people of their pride," Jesse told me the morning of Keith's funeral, as we drove to Mama's house to ride with the family to the church. "You strip the men of their masculinity. Then, if someone disrespects a man, to retain his pride he has to kill that person."

This is the second tragedy for Meredith this year. She also knew Meleia Willis-Starbuck, who was shot near her apartment in Berkeley in July while arguing with a group of Cal football players. Meleia’s good friend, Christopher Hollis has been charged in the shooting, although he was not aiming deliberately at her.

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