When Your Life Doesn’t Matter

The conversation was around the sentencing of the man who killed Semaj.  In May of 2014, a security guard shoved Semaj off of a MATA bus. As he fell from the bus he hit the sidewalk face first and fractured his skull. He never regained consciousness and died a few months later. Testimony indicated the security guard escalated the situation by forcibly confronting Semaj who was drunk and being disorderly.

One summer during graduate school, I worked as a security guard. Our “training” lasted a whole six hours; most of which was about how a security officer is not a cop, how to write reports and check in and follow the rules of wherever we might be placed.

None of the training addressed how to deal with conflict or with unruly people or drunks. I would guess the same was true of the guard who confronted Semaj.

We were told we could go on and get weapons training, and with that training we would be paid more. Only two wanted to do so. The rest of us did not want to carry a gun. The two exceptions were also the two who were “wanna be” cops.  Most of us were simply looking for steady work that would pay above minimum wage. Several told me they figured this would be quiet work, just going around a warehouse or factory after hours making sure everything was fine.

After that day of training I was assigned to various places to work as a security guard. My first assignment was to a PGA Golf Tournament. I “guarded” a hospitality tent one day. The next day I “guarded” the TV tower where the play by play guys sat. People generally ignored me, though a few drunks made fun of me and the other security guards as “rent-a-cops.” I know movies like to do the same, mock security guards as incompetent or over-zealous. My fellow guards were neither. Just ordinary folks trying to make a living.

My next assignment lasted the rest of the summer. I became a guard at a state psychiatric unit. The supervisor who assigned me said, “You’re a college boy, so maybe you can talk with the patients.” I was not sure exactly how to take that observation.

Our role at the psychiatric unit was to be “the muscle” who would be called in when a patient became unruly. My only special training for this work was advice from a co-worker, “Watch yourself. These people are crazy. Be safe. That’s what matters.” One night I came to work and learned that one of the guards had his arm broken by a patient a few days earlier on the day shift. I learned that the security firm did not pay for his medical bills.

“He’ll probably lose this job too,” another guard said to me, “He can’t work with a broken arm. They don’t care about us. We don’t matter.”

Semaj had been a regular guest at Manna House for many years. He found work and a place to live and we did not see him much anymore in the year before his death. Still, many of the guests knew him and were outraged that the security guard did not receive a stricter sentence.

“You kill a man and walk away free. That doesn’t happen very often.”

“Semaj was difficult, but he didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”

“I don’t know how someone gets nothing when a man is dead.”

“DA probably didn’t even want to prosecute.”

Then on the way to the gate as we were closing for the morning, one last comment from a departing guest brought together for me Semaj and the security guard.

“If someone kills me ain’t nothing going to happen. Nobody looks out for us. Our lives don’t matter.”

Biblical justice, I teach my Christian Ethics students, respects our dignity as made in God’s image. The lives of those harmed and the lives of those who did the harm are supposed to matter. When we are called to account for our wrongdoing we are led into repentance and reconciliation and the just renewal of community. In this case, Semaj’s life clearly did not matter. And the guard was not called to a just accountability. For Semaj and this security guard there was no biblical justice. And so, as biblical justice also makes clear, there is no peace.

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