Photograph by Braelyn Wekwerth
November 4, 2013. The 57 bus is packed with kids on the way home from school. One of them is named Richard. He’s a junior at Oakland High School. A little over a year earlier, he stepped in when his friends Skeet and Hadari got in a fight with some strangers. They were arrested, and all three of them were sent to group homes. Skeet ran away from his group home, and just over a month later he was shot and killed. Richard “broke down after that,” as he would later tell police. But now, things are finally coming together. Richard is living back at home with his family. He’s working at a job-training program and slowly getting his grades up.
A few seats away from him sits Sasha. Sasha is a senior at Maybeck High School. They identify as agender, neither male nor female. They like giving hugs. They’re obsessed with communism, Russia, and buses.
Sasha likes skirts and wears one almost every day; today is no exception. The bus continues along its route, and Sasha slowly drifts off to sleep. Richard and his friends are joking around and one of them pulls out a lighter. He can’t get it to work so he passes it to Richard. Richard puts the lighter up to Sasha’s skirt and flicks it. Instantly, the white gauzy fabric goes up in flames.
Oakland based writer and journalist, Dashka Slater, would later turn this story into an award-winning novel. Now, she uses it as a platform to teach young people that despite living in a society that has often already “written a script” for their lives, it’s in their power to deviate from their predetermined paths. Last Wednesday, April 25, she spoke at the Berkeley High School (BHS) library to do exactly that.
Slater first heard about the incident when she got an email from one of her neighbors. The neighbor caught a glimpse of the scene on the way home from work and was wondering if anyone knew what had happened. The news came out almost immediately, and people were quick to take Sasha’s side. Wondering how such a hateful crime could ever happen in the tolerant and politically correct Bay Area, people concluded that the only reason Richard could have done such a terrible thing, was because he was a genuinely awful person. And in the months that followed, the community only continued to draw conclusions.
As a journalist, Slater’s instinct was to dig deeper, she sought a narrative that was “based on evidence, facts, and understanding, rather than misconceptions and rumors.” She said that her immediate reaction was the same as everyone else’s: angry that it had happened and glad to hear that Richard was arrested. It was only when she heard that Richard would be charged as an adult rather than a minor that she began to feel some discomfort.
“I held these two ideas that were kind of in opposition to each other,” said Slater. “One being that gender non-conforming people should be safe, and the other being that children shouldn’t be sent to adult prisons. That’s when I started to want to know more.”
Slater spent the next fourteen months learning everything she could about the story, which continued as Sasha got treatment for their burns and Richard went through a prolonged criminal prosecution. Slater interviewed Sasha, Richard, their families, friends, and just about anyone who had anything to contribute. The product? The most accurate and personal narrative of Sasha and Richard’s story.
In January of 2015, Slater’s article, “The Fire on the 57 Bus,” was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Two years later, she published the complete story as a book called The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives.
It’s been nearly five years since the incident, and Sasha and Richard are both looking towards the future not the past. “A lot of time has gone by, neither are trying to relive that, or to be defined by it for the rest of their lives,” said Slater. Sasha is a senior at MIT and Richard is finishing up his sentence at a Juvenile Justice Facility; his seven year sentence was shortened to five due to his good behavior and drive for learning.
Slater is using what happened to Sasha and Richard as a way to teach people that life is too often dominated by non-existent binaries.
While discussing the book with students during second and third period, Slater explained how problematic it is to be dictated by binary thinking, the idea that people by nature must be either male or female, victims or villains, good or evil. “When we get in these rigid categories, we have to change reality to jam it into the box, but life doesn’t always fit so neatly,” she said.