Thursday, July 12, 2018

Finished: "The 57 Bus" by Dashka Slater

Done: The 57 Bus: a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives by Dashka Slater, 2017, 9780374303235.

Our staff training day this year included a visit to the Children's Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) at UW-Madison. We had a brief tour and the staffer there answered questions and gave a couple book talks. She really sold me on 57 Bus and I placed a hold on the book as she was still talking about it.

The story is different than I expected. I thought I'd be reading more of a true crime and law and order book. Instead Slater covers all the before and after of the crime. We see the two teens as the older children they are and how they are both having trouble growing up.

Short version: rowdy teen plays prank on other teen on Oakland city bus in 2013. 1st teen lights the 2nd teen's skirt on fire expecting a little smoke and a shocked reaction. Instead the whole skirt goes in flames, the teen gets 3rd degree burns, the 1st teen is arrested for a felony and charged with a hate crime. Writer interviews both sides and presents the history of what happened.

Longer-ish version: Slater does a ton of reporting. She gets to know both families, she speaks to friends, relatives, teachers, school administrators, neighbors, etc. She gives us a balanced look at what happened and the results on everyone involved. Here is a another short version: everyone is screwed over.

The victim, Sasha, is genderqueer and that is part of what made the story a big deal when the assault happened. Richard, who lit the skirt, said he was homophobic when interviewed by the police. Richard's comment was leaked and, after many already people thought Sasha was targeted, the assault was figured as a hate crime. And, let's face it, Sasha was freaking burned. In flames, out of the bus, and running around on the sidewalk burned. Another two passengers knocked them down and put out the flames.

Slater focuses on Sasha's journey from a boyhood as Luke to genderqueer Sasha as much as the assault and recovery. The gender/sex/sexuality/romance topic is very important to Sasha. Early in the book Slater provides a glossary to help us out. Genderqueer/nonbinary is: "gender identity doesn't fit neatly into male/female categories."  Since Sasha does not identify as male or female Sasha does not use male and female pronouns and has adopted "they", "we", and "us". This is incredibly confusing at first for someone like me who has not tried to keep up with gender/sexual/romantic language changes. I agree that others should support and follow the names and language another person uses to describe themselves. But, even Sasha's parents have trouble making the change.

Richard was 16-years-old when he attacked Sasha. I believe Richard when he says he had no intention of a real fire. Richard was attempting a prank. A prank that was a Real Bad Idea, but still a prank. Richard was a loveable, friendly, talkative boy. But, he had trouble before. A couple years previously he was hanging out with a school cutting crowd that would ride the city buses all over and look for things to do. This would include arguing and fighting with other teens. One fight gave him about a year detention in a youth home. Richard himself is robbed at gunpoint and has several friends who are murdered.

Richard's large extended family includes his dedicated mom. She works two jobs and still makes it to each court hearing. During Richard's first detention she would drive the several hours to the group home. When the assault hits national news Richard is painted as a gay-hater. Everyone of his friends and relatives are shocked at what happened and disagree with Richard's portrayal.

Richard stays in jail after his arrest and is charged as an adult. He writes two apology letters to Sasha shortly after his arrest but those letters are kept by the attorney since Richard admits to the crime. Slater implies that the state went tougher on Richard because the letters were held back. That the state did not see remorse. A plea bargain falls through and Richard signs an agreement to several years of prison with a chance at a juvenile facility if his first few months are trouble free.


The story covers two cultures I have little to no experience with: Urban teens with gender fluidity and urban teens with fiscal instability living in violent neighborhoods. The #57 spans the length of Oakland and touches on pretty much every part of a incredibly diverse city. Richard and Sasha would never have met but for the chance meeting on the bus.

1. I'll read online comments for news stories where smart-asses will write racial shit about a perpetrator's family. To paraphrase the writing "My poor boy boy dinna' do nothin'. It's all the po-lice! My poor Pookie" They will then gripe about how a person's mother will stand up and defend the person. Fuck you, Internet Asshole. What mother wouldn't stick up for her kid? You think she should tell the press, "My son is worthless bucket of crap and belongs in jail for the rest of his life"? I rarely see those comments when a white, rural kid commits a crime.
2. My uncle has lived in the Bay Area for 30-40 years and was in Oakland for several years. He had plenty of stories but one was how they clearly heard the murder of a neighbor across the street.
3. Reading brought up the idea of community standards and behavior. I hear "community standards" and think of how it is used to try and censure literature. There are cultural differences in behavior though. Punching someone in the face to enforce behavior is an acceptable step in plenty of places around the world. Richard could be rowdy and disruptive in school but to his peers that did not overshadow his kindness to others.
4. Restorative justice was looked into with Richard and Sasha's case. Slater had a very interesting story where this worked out. A high school boy was slapping girls butts. He and three girls sat in a circle with a counselor. At first they had ice-breaking exercises and people were joking around. Then things got serious when one girl talked about what happened. Their discussion aired things out and everyone understood together that slapping butts is funny, but not funny. They group agreed to always ask permission to touch. They become friends and that agreement partly turns into a joke "May I take a Dorito?" but is also recognized as serious.
5. Slater touches on some issues of juvenile justice and the legal and prison systems that Bryan Stevenson deeply covered in Just Mercy.

No comments: