Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sasha and the Batkid: Two Bay Area Stories

I made my friend Craig mad at me one time back in the 70s.   I had been living in Japan for about a year and still had not gotten used to it.  I wanted to come home to San Francisco, but I had a job in Japan and the chances of getting one in San Francisco were slim, and I felt trapped.  “You’re so lucky,” I said to Craig, full of self-pity.   “You live in this paradise, and I’ve got to live on the other side of the world.”

“What do you mean, paradise?” he said.  “You need to get out of Fantasyland.  It’s hard to live here.  We work hard to pay the rent.  The cost of living is crazy.  There’s lots of crime, lots of street people, lots of things going wrong all the time.  It’s no paradise.  Get real!”

The Bay Area remained my home through many years of living elsewhere.  I came back “to go roamin’ no more” almost eight years ago now, and I don’t want to live anywhere else ever again.  It’s no paradise.  But it’s a place that isn’t hard to love.

Miles Scott as Batkid
Two events happened this week to confirm that conviction.  One was that the city went crazy over one little boy and stopped what it was doing long enough to do what it could to make a wish he had come true.  His name is Miles Scott.  He’s five years old and lives up north in Siskiyou County.  Since he was two he has been in chemotherapy, fighting leukemia.  At the moment, he’s in remission.

Somehow, Make-a-Wish got wind of his case and learned that he wanted to be a superhero.   (Click the link here to see how things got started.  And here for the longer story.)   The mayor got in on it.  The police chief put out a bulletin begging Batman to come to the aid of the city and bring the Batkid.  The San Francisco Chronicle became the Gotham City Chronicle and published a front page with articles written by Clark Kent, Brenda Starr, Perry
White and Lois Lane.  The Gotham City Giants mascot got kidnapped by Penguin and rescued by the Batkid, whose heroic deeds also included saving a damsel tied to a cable car line and capturing the Riddler attempting to rob a bank.  Because the story went viral, the few hundred people expected to show up for these events turned into thousands.

Even the downside to this story has an upside.  Eric Mar, a San Francisco supervisor, expressed the kind of opposition you can expect to hear in the San Francisco Bay Area.  All this money spent on one kid?  Think what you could do for other poor kids with that money.

Can’t argue with that reasoning.  But when it became a battle between reason and inspiration, feel-good won out and even Eric Mar admits he doesn’t really want to rain on Batkid’s parade.  The uplift is so strong you can’t help feeling everybody won out.  Having people stop what they’re doing for a while to fall in love with a five-year-old, to become aware of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and to give San Franciscans a chance to show a little heart.  It makes me want to go out and buy a cape.

While the Lamborghini Batmobile was racing through the streets of the city, over here on the other side of the bay, Berkeley is continuing to show how it got its reputation as the kook capital of the nation.   Berkeley Councilman Jesse Arreguin the other day introduced a proposal to ban smoking in all single-family residences where children, seniors or lodgers are present.  It remains to be seen whether this ban will be taken seriously.  The point is it could be made and debated and nobody would find that unusual.

But that's not the second story I was talking about.  I just wanted to throw that in to help show the range of “how Berkeley can you get?”   Its liberal progressivism often seems frivolous, especially with evidence all around that this is no paradise we live in.

The second story I had in mind is at the other end of the spectrum from frivolous.  It captures in a nutshell the split in the two Americas.  The only question is how you choose to see those two halves?  Black vs. white?  Rich vs. poor?  Educated vs. uneducated?  Liberal vs. conservative?   All four of these frames will work.  Make a case for any one of them and you will find a following. 

Maybeck High School is only a few blocks from my house.  It’s a school with a very good reputation for those who can afford it.    It describes itself this way:

At Maybeck, the students and faculty together are engaged in intense intellectual exploration. Students call teachers by their first names and take part in lively discussions in our seminar classes. We respect our students as individuals, encouraging independent thought and trusting them to be responsible for and invested in their own educations. In this challenging but safe setting, students are encouraged to take personal and intellectual risks. Our graduates leave us as sophisticated thinkers and confident navigators of the world around them. 

I imagine if I had kids, and could come up with the tuition, I’d want to send them to Maybeck.

One Maybeck kid has been in the news the past several weeks.  At birth he was given the name Luke, but he now goes by Sasha, a name he chose because it is not marked for gender.  Sasha wants to be referred to by neither “he” nor “she” but “they.”   

The acronym LGBT seems to have settled in at long last as a way of identifying the collective which also refers to itself (depending on where one stands politically) as queer.  And many prefer queer because, they will tell you, the L and the G and the B and the T are better boxes, maybe, than previous boxes the world put sexual minorities in, but they are boxes nonetheless. 

Sasha illustrates what I am talking about.  At age 16 he has concluded that he is not gay, not lesbian, not bi, not transgendered, but agender.  The pronoun he would like people to use when referring to him is “they.”  After all, we have changed the convention of using the male pronoun “his” as in “Every doctor must carry his own insurance” first to “his or her” and now frequently to “their,” because we have recognized over time the disservice it does to women in making them invisible.   It seems simpler somehow to make a plural pronoun singular than to dance around with “his or her.”  The point is, if we can use “their” for the singular in some cases, why not in all cases?

Sasha fought gender labeling not only in language.  They often wore skirts when they went out.  Until one day, another kid, from another part of town, decided to have a little fun with Sasha and set their skirt on fire.  Sasha was taken to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco for some reason, probably because they have a good burn unit, even though the “prank” took place on the 57 bus in Oakland at the intersection of Ardley and MacArthur Avenue.

That’s less than half a mile from the house on E. 38th St. where my friend Craig lived back when I referred to this area as “paradise.”  Once called “a nice middle class neighborhood” it is now called “iffy” by many of the people I knew in those days, back in the 1970s.  It’s close to the Fruitvale District where Oscar Grant was killed by that BART policeman, Johannes Mehserle, causing one of the biggest racial conflicts of recent years.  Mehserle allegedly mistook his gun for his taser and killed Oscar as he held him down on the platform.  He went to jail for it, but only for eleven months.  Meanwhile, Oscar’s father sits in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, where he has been for the last twenty-eight years for a murder he insists he did not commit. 

These facts may all appear to be unrelated until you learn that while Sasha goes to a very white progressive school in Berkeley, and lives in an upscale neighborhood in Oakland, they were steeped in the progressive Berkeley culture most people I know here live in, which fosters a desire to save the environment which leads to the belief we should all be taking the bus whenever possible.  That means regular contact with all kinds of people, especially as you pass through “iffy” neighborhoods.  Richard Thomas, the sixteen-year-old who set Sasha on fire is black.  He goes not to a progressive private Berkeley high school but to a public school, Oakland High, and his grades are poor.   His way of trying to cover for his lack of academic skills is to be a clown.  “Prankster,” is the word being tossed around by his defenders.

Sasha’s family live in Glenview, a neighborhood where the median household income is $90,308, as opposed to the Oakland average of $51,473.   Richard lives in the Castlemont district of East Oakland, where people from my part of town almost never venture.  It is 88% black or Latino. 17% of births are to mothers under 20 (that figure is 7% for Oakland generally) 13% are born with low birth weight (8% for Oakland).  The median household income is $35,658, which will strike many Americans as not so bad, but 43% spend at least 50% of their income on rent.   24% of kids are “chronically late” for school and 17% are suspended.  There are no licensed child care centers in Castlemont.   73% go to church “most or all of the time,” 29% of the people believe young people can “never or almost never be trusted.”  The above figures came from a publication put out by the Alameda County Public Health Department.  

Two different worlds, in other words.  But the lines cross when kids like Richard take the bus to schools like Oakland High, only a mile downhill from where Sasha lives, and when kids like Sasha don’t think twice about taking the bus past Oakland High to get home.  We share the space.  During the daylight hours, at least. 

If you use the racial frame to tell their story, you see a picture emerging.  “White kid takes a bus through black neighborhood, gets set on fire.”  But that’s not what happened.  And one should point out from the start that the kids at Oakland High were not far behind Maybeck High in collecting funds to pay for Sasha’s medical care and expressing horror at the misdeed.     They quickly collected $800, which was supplemented by the teachers’ union with another $500.  Nor is there any shortage of African-Americans, young and old, expressing horror at the crime.

Nonetheless, the racial divide hangs over the story.  Sasha, we are told by their father, once raged at the television set when the injustice of the Trayvon Martin story hit the news, as you would expect from a white Berkeley liberal.   On the other hand, there is no way to get into the head of Richard Thomas and see if race or class affected his thinking.  His lawyer admits he is known to be homophobic, so that alone might explain the animus he felt seeing a man in a skirt.  But as the story gets told, people in the Bay Area wonder about these other things, as well.

As always, people who believe they have their head in the right place do not use the black/white frame or the rich/poor frame to tell this story, as I just did.  They often avoid it like the plague, in fact.  They insist each of the roles played in the story by Sasha and Richard are individual stories, and just as Sasha doesn’t like gender labels, neither should we be too quick to attach race and poverty features to their actions.  Each case needs to be treated individually, we say here in liberal California, most of us.

But then somebody like Richard Thomas shows up on the radar.  What are we to do with the fact that minority youths are 6.2 times more likely to wind up in adult court, and 7 times more likely to be sent to prison by adult court than white youths?  Do we continue to exclude these figures when deciding how to deal with Richard’s sentencing?  Should these sociological data not at least serve as a cautionary tale?

The good news is that Sasha seems to be healing and doctors expect a full recovery and a hospital release by Thanksgiving.  The bad news is that for a time one day they lay in the road until the ambulance came, their legs charred black.  One can only imagine the agony of the event and the pain that will follow them into recovery.  More good news includes the fact that when their (Sasha’s) classmates heard the story, they (the classmates) came to school the next day wearing a skirt.  And the fact that Richard has written letters of apology and contrition.  What he did seems to have sunk in.

At dinner at the house of friends the other night we got into a discussion about the practice of trying kids as adults, following the announcement they were going to try Richard Thomas as an adult.  He is clearly guilty of setting Sasha on fire, so one assumes if he is tried as an adult he will not be the youngest American kid to ever sit in an adult prison.  A report put out by The Sentencing Project in 2000 put the figure of kids under 19 in adult prisons at over 15,000.  I could dig out more recent figures, but these should make the point.  And of that number, about 1500 kids under sixteen are sitting in adult prisons, prey to molestations and gang fights.  50% are attacked with weapons.   Throw-away kids.

And this takes us to the latest bad news/good news story.  Bad news is that even in progressive San Francisco we have district attorneys arguing that kids should be tried as adults and we may get to watch yet another black kid get thrown to the wolves.   Good news is a hearing has been set for November 26 to challenge the law on constitutional grounds. 

I’m the last person in the world to want to let a homophobic bully off when he acts out.  And I don’t buy the argument that what Richard Thomas did could be labeled “just a prank.”  Nor am I persuaded by all this talk about how the neocortex isn’t fully formed until you’re in your twenties, and therefore yada yada… But I also believe there's more to the story.

It feels good to live in a place where when bad things happen, the debate gets interesting and people get engaged.  The liberal view that is the default view here is that Richard was one of those kids the line refers to in West Side Story which goes “I’m depraved on account o’ I’m deprived.”  There are also plenty of people who would throw him in jail and throw away the key, of course.  But we are learning that he appears to be remorseful, and has written letters of apology.   In the several discussions I’ve been in about this event everybody has come to the same two conclusions: that we should not fall for the flimsy argument that this was “just a prank.”  It was a vicious homophobic attack by a bully.  And that, ugly as the facts are, they should not prevent us from going for restorative justice and not retributive justice.

I’m not sure this romp through the tragic tale of a crime in East Oakland has shed any light on the problem or added any new information.  But I believe I’ve at least done the absolute minimum and poked around for more of the story than is covered by TV and print media.  In doing so, I’ve found reason not to despair about crime in America.  And just as important as the negative elements of the story is the absence of blame directed at the victim.   Women in the military have to contend with terrible sexual harassment.  The conservative view is they were asking for it by wanting to join in the first place.  The view here is this problem needs fixing.  Pope Benedict warned gays that if they revealed their homosexuality, it was to be expected that there will be violence.  People here, when they hear that story, shake their heads in disbelief.  That man claims to be a Christian? I heard somebody say.  And by the same token, Sasha might be faulted for wearing a skirt on a bus as it passed through a part of town known for machismo and violence.  But it simply hasn't come up.  On the contrary, people are rushing in to assure them that they have every right to be who they are.

When a bunch of boys in an American high school will put on a dress to show solidarity with a classmate questioning their gender and sexuality, there is reason for hope. If the young American males of Maybeck High will go to this length to let Sasha know they’ve got their (Sasha’s) back, I can’t imagine they (the people, not Sasha) would want to let this troubled kid Richard Thomas fall through the cracks, either.

But who knows?  We are a work in progress.  Linguistically and morally.

As for dealing with all the crime, well at least we have the Batkid.

Picture credits:

Gotham City Chronicle front page - photo of page A11, San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 16, 2013 

And one last photo (thanks, Jason) - of Miles (on the right)  and his younger brother (center):

1 comment:

wild hair said...

What a great city to live in.

I have been there a few times. My most memorable was the 1989 Dignity Convention when fireworks were set off inside the dome of the city hall.

Now if only Batkid could be sent to rescue the rc church. I'd like to see Batkid make the voodoo bishop do a perp walk.

Popcorn for everyone.