I wrote yesterday about Skirts for Sasha and the Stroll for Sasha, grassroots efforts to promote acceptance of gender diversity in the wake of the attack on Sasha Fleishman. The stroll, organized by Krista Luchessi, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, was attended by students and teachers from Sasha’s school (Maybeck High in Berkeley) and perpetrator Richard Thomas’ school (Oakland High), as well as many community members.
“Oakland has a lot of violence,” Luchessi told NBC Bay Area. “And violence can’t be the last word. It has to be love. It shouldn’t matter what you’re wearing. Sasha is courageous and his [sic] family is amazingly beautiful. I’m hoping this will heal us all in a positive way.”
The attack on Sasha was heartbreaking. But it seems there are many ways to turn heartbreak into heartfulness and hopefulness. In less than two weeks, this is the sort of hopefulness we have seen: In addition to the activism at Maybeck High and the more than $20,000 raised by the community, the students and teachers at Thomas’ Oakland High School have raised $1,300 for Sasha’s medical bills, attended anti-bullying assemblies, and watched Groundspark’s excellent gender-diversity film Straightlaced. And there was infrastructure already in place: Oakland High has a GSA who has helped mobilize a positive response. Many Oakland High students and teachers marched last night in the Stroll for Sasha along the bus route where Sasha was burned, a route dubbed “Rainbow Road,” strung with rainbow ribbons. According to NBC, at lunchtime students “created ‘NoH8’ and ‘Be Yourself” posters with funky music blaring in the background.” Gender Spectrum, who spoke at my son’s school last week, spoke last night alongside Sasha’s parents. There is a huge and growing awareness of gender diversity acceptance in this community, resonating out across our country; a reader from New Jersey wrote to me this morning, inspired by what’s happening here in the Bay Area, asking me to come speak with Gender Spectrum at her son’s school.
And here’s a lovely shining moment in the darkness of Sasha’s painful healing: Sasha’s father, Karl Fleischman, a kindergarten teacher, has spoken out against some of the hate that has been directed toward Richard Thomas. As reported by NBC, Sasha’s father said at the march last night above the beating of drums, “This is really about letting people be who they are and not being afraid of that. I think there’s a lot of fear of…anything different.” And he is holding open in his heart that Thomas is not necessarily a monster, that he is a human deserving of our openheartedness too: “To hear that someone’s set on fire. It sounds outrageous on its face,” Fleischman said, “but at the same time we don’t know what the motivations were or what the thinking was.”
Sasha’s father whote a lovely open letter in which he said, “Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that’s a good thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt…Sasha likes the look, and frankly, so do I. It makes me smile to see Sasha being Sasha….None of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha’s skirt, but I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha’s skirt as an expression of another kid’s unique, beautiful self and had smiled and thought, ‘I hella love Oakland,’ I wouldn’t be writing this now.”
How can we foster a sense of “I hella love Oakland” for others witnessing a male-born, agender-identified person wearing a skirt on a public bus?
All of this–student activism, teacher support, the whole community stepping up, supportive media coverage, the grace of the victim’s parents–is a model for what other schools and communities can do to not only respond to negative incidents but to build mindful acceptance of gender diversity and, for the health of our world, to prevent such attacks in the future.
And there is another way to find hope in the way that we respond to this attack, another way to turn heartbreak into heartfulness and hopefulness.
My friend Heidi P. Aronson wrote the following on facebook and allowed me to share it with you:
Can you talk with me about this a little? My heart has broken for Sasha, and also for Richard Thomas, the kid who set the fire. What a terrible trauma for Sasha to undergo, and yet what an outpouring of support from so many corners, monetary and moral and just plain from the heart. The comments section of so many of the articles about this, and even some of the articles themselves, have some comment on the order of “what kind of monster can have so much hate as to do such a thing” etc. etc. But you know, and I know, that we really DON’T know what Richard Thomas’ life has been like up to this point, and that if he is tried as an adult, he’s toast, he will likely not be in a position to contribute to society ever again. This to me seems a situation tailor-made for restorative justice. We can’t afford to react to such disregard for another human being by paying that disregard forward. Thomas owes Sasha a debt of life, that he should repay for the rest of his life–and he should be given the opportunity to do so, rather than repay WITH the rest of his life. I said this in a room full of black people, and they appreciated it. I said it on College Avenue to a canvasser for the Southern Poverty Law Center–a transgender woman who had herself been bashed–and she said to me, “Until this very moment I have wanted nothing more than to kill the perpetrator with my bare hands, but actually you are right,” and we bawled in each other’s arms on the street. I am struggling to know where and how to say this. It is none of my business, but it is all of our business. Thoughts?
Restorative Justice is a system in which, rather than asking a perpetrator to apologize and then punishing them punitively, the victim and perpetrator come together to work out a way to restore the balance that was disrupted by the crime. Restorative Justice is the official discipline procedure in the Oakland school system (and I wish it were at my son’s school). As Heidi says, “what a great opportunity for Oakland to do the right thing by its youth.”
What a great opportunity indeed. How can we make it happen?