Searching for Meaning and Justice - Higher Education
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Searching for Meaning and Justice


This year, I had high school graduations. But no college graduations.
And as we come to the middle of June, my family comes to the one that we have dreaded the most—the posthumous ceremony for my cousin, Stephen Guillermo, who was killed last month on May 3.

He got off the elevator of his San Francisco apartment building on the wrong floor.

We all do it. But the apartment he was let into was that of a retired security guard who knew the gun laws that allow one to use deadly force on an intruder.

My cousin was murdered. The police have the weapon. They even arrested the killer.

But then they let him go.

The law’s presumption is that the shooter was in danger, with the right to defend. This is even worse than the “Stand Your Ground” law Trayvon Martin’s family fought.

This is the Castle doctrine defense, as in “your home is your castle,” you have a right to defend it. It’s the law in California and in many Western states.

And there are no consequences if you make a boo-boo and are wrong.

In San Francisco, where they fine people for improperly using plastic bags, it would seem the District Attorney might want to challenge whether one can legally kill a man mistaken for an intruder.

But there’s no political will. Not even in liberal San Francisco.

And so what little justice we get comes in a posthumous ceremony for Stephen.

For him, the diploma meant everything. It has been a long hard eight years of study—slowed down by the need to take over and care for his family when Stephen was just 18 and his father died of cancer. Stephen was looking forward to his degree being life changing, his ticket to somewhere.

And that would be our cue to mouth the fresh platitudes about the future and the promise and all the good things that are about to happen.

Only now we can’t.

In May, Stephen didn’t just earn a degree, he earned his death certificate.

San Francisco State has been great in conferring a degree in International Relations to Stephen.

He deserved it.

But when we meet at the ceremony this Thursday, the speeches aren’t for Stephen. Just like the best commencement speeches, they are really for everyone else in attendance.

Stephen doesn’t need the degree nor the credits where he is now.

But this, the last of the expected ceremonies—spiritual and secular—is needed by all those who were close to Stephen.

We may not get the justice we want for him. Not now, maybe not ever.

But we did get him a diploma.

Higher ed was the most important goal in his young life, and it turned out to be his ultimate achievement.

It’s got to be worth something even now, if it’s worth anything at all.

The living need to know, he did not die in vain.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund ( Like him at ; twitter@emilamok

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