Oakland, California is a city of more than 400,000 people, but it can still feel like a small town. Not small geographically, of course. The city sprawls across seventy-eight square miles, stretching from the shallow, salty estuary at the edge of San Francisco Bay to the undulating green-and-gold hills where bobcats and coyotes roam. What makes it feel small is the web of connections, the way people stories tangle together. Our lives make footprints, tracks in the snows of time. People know each other’s parents or siblings, their aunties and cousins. They go to school together, or worship together. They play sports on the same team, or work in the same building. The tracks cross. The stories overlap.
Gravity works backward here—the money flows uphill. The wealthier neighborhoods in the hills boast good schools, low crime, and views of the bay. Thanks to the Bay Area’s high-tech boom, long-vacant historic buildings downtown are filling with start-ups, boutiques peddling handmade jeans, and nightspots serving seven-ingredient cocktail. But little of this good fortune spilled over into the flatlands of East Oakland, where Richard lived. This is where the bulk of the city’s murders happen—two-thirds of them, in 2013. The schools are shabbier here; the scores are lower. There’s more trash on the streets, more roaming dogs, more liquor stores, fewer groceries stores. The median strips are ragged with weeds.
All languages embody the obsessions of the people who speak them, and so Sasha’s language was meant to reflect the interests of people whose world was dominated by growing seasons, grains, and harvests. Instead of pronouns that disguised between male and female, Sasha’s language had pronouns that distinguished between animate and inanimate objects. The word for sun was jejz, which was also the word for day. The difference was that sun was considered animate, a being, and day was considered inanimate, a thing.
It was part of the disorienting feeling she’d had for years, that feeling that everyone except her had been issued a handbook. Samantha knew it was important to be pretty and cute, but she had no idea how to be those things, or even why she was supposed to want to be. Her body was growing curvier. Breasts burst from her chest like twin cannonballs, but they didn’t feel sexy and good, they just felt heavy. She hid them under baggy T-shirts and sweatpants and watched the other girls come to school in tiny skirts and spaghetti straps, wondered why everything was so much hard for her than it was for them.
Most of us see gender and sexuality and romance as one big interconnected tangle of feelings—this is who I am, this is who I’m attracted to, this is who I love. But as Sasha began exploring the topic online, they found that some people had developed language for combing the tangle into individual strands. In these online conversations, the word sex referred purely to biology—the chromosomes, organs, and anatomy that define male and female from the outside. Gender was the word for what people felt about themselves, how they felt inside. Sexuality was the category for who you were physically attracted to. Romantic was the category for who you felt romantic attraction to. And there was a whole array of distinctions within each category as well. It was like a gigantic menu, with columns and columns of choices.
Discovering the existence of genderqueer identity felt like discovering a secret room. All this time there had been just two rooms: male and female. Now it turned out there was another room—one that could be furnished however you wanted. The more time Sasha spent in the room, the more comfortable it felt. But the person who lived in this new room still had a boy’s name—Luke. By the second half of sophomore year, that name clearly no longer fit.
“I don’t want for people to think of me as a he, and when they say he, not only does it reinforce in their brains that I am a he, it also reinforces in the brains of the people who are listening,” Sasha explains. “It doesn’t really directly affect me, at least to hear it—it’s more like, Huh, that’s not right. And when people use the right pronoun, it feels validating.”
It was tough sometimes, watching Sasha navigate a world that didn’t even have a category for them. Occasionally, Debbie wished Sasha would ease up a little—resist correcting well-meaning relatives who said he instead of they, for example. But there was something admirable about it, too, Karl pointed out. Knowing how shy Sasha was, he admired Sasha’s newfound willingness to speak up, to stand out, to be seen.
Of course, you rarely notice when you come to the fork in the road. It just feels like another day. A day when you didn’t go to school because you were sick or your baby sister was sick, or you didn’t study for that test so why bother taking it, or your clothes looked ratty and you were tired of hearing about it, or someone was looking for you and you needed to lay low for a few days, or any of a hundred other reasons that made not going to class seem like a better choice than going. Only once you stopped going it just seemed too hard to start again. Days rolled into weeks. Weeks into months. And then at some point you realized you’d entered the future. The one you never planned on. The one where everything was going to be that much harder.
These were big dreams in her part of town. Of the roughly six hundred African American boys who started Oakland high schools as freshmen each year, only about three hundred ended up graduating. Fewer than one hundred graduated with the requirements needed to attend California state college or university. The odds of landing in the back of a police cruiser, on the other hand, were much better. African American boys made up less than 30 percent of Oakland’s underage population but accounted for nearly 75 percent of all juvenile arrests.
That’s how everyone knew Richard—as the funny one, the one who made people smile. He pulled pranks like putting ketchup on people’s faces while they slept or ambushing them with water balloons when they’d just woken up. He would do anything for a laugh—put on one of his female cousin’s sexy cropped sweaters, for example, or post a selfie on Instagram of himself dressed in a bra and a wig, gazing into the bathroom mirror with a sultry expression. I’m a THOT for Halloween, the caption explained.
Sasha’s bus ride to and from Maybeck High School took an hour and involved as many as two transfers, but Sasha didn’t mind. They had always loved the bus. Loved the intersecting lines of transit routes on the map, the crisp procession of times on the schedule. In their spare time, they drew maps of new bus, subway, and streetcar lines, or read up on historical public transit systems.
“That boy was on fire, wasn’t he?” a man remarks as Sasha pushes through the back doors to the sidewalk. Behind him, Sasha’s mustached rescuer paces the aisle. “Call an ambulance,” he croaks. He goes to the door of the bus and calls to Sasha, who roams the sidewalk with a cell phone, charred legs. “You need to call an ambulance, man.”
“A passenger on an Oakland, Calif., public bus received burns to his legs after his kilt was set on fire,” UPI wrote. The word kilt seemed to have gotten lodged in the minds of reporters. It was in every report, as if Sasha had been on the way home from bagpipe practice. The Daily Mail, in the United Kingdom, even illustrated the report with a photo of a kilt, explaining a kilt is “the national dress of Scotland.”
“Stop right here, and for a moment imagine yourself forced to submit to being handcuffed and see what kind of feelings will be aroused in you,” a Chicago lawyer named John P. Altgeld wrote in an 1884 book called Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims. Arguing that “submission to that one act of degradation prepares many a young man for a career of crime,” he took the reader through the experience of a youthful offender—which began with the accused, usually arrested for vagrancy or disorderly conduct, spending the night in the police station among older, more vicious criminals. He compared the criminal justice system to “a great mill which, somehow or other, supplies its own grist, a maelstrom with draws from the outside, and then keeps its victims moving in a circle until swallowed in the vortex.”
“A super-predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim without giving it a second thought,” he explained. And he warned that the numbers of these “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” teens were growing. By the mid-2000s, he predicted, their numbers would double or even triple, unleashing a tidal wave of violence across the nation. “As many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males,” Dilulio wrote in 1996 article entitled “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours.”
“I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake. Not only did I hurt you but I hurt your family & friends and also my family & friends for I have brought shame to them and our country and I shall be punished which is going to be hard for me because I’m not made to be incarcerated.”
“People have different habitats,” he explained. “Some people have it better than others. They grew up in good neighborhoods. Their family has jobs. They have good income. They don’t understand. Their life is so good, they think everybody’s life is good. They don’t understand the struggles people go through. I don’t know where you grew up at, if it’s like a low-income area, where there’s lots of violence and crime. But if you grew up in a low-income area and all you see is crime and drugs? If you have family that does crime? You see it. It has an impact on you. If you’re around it a lot, it’s hard to do good.”
Donald Williams Jr., an African American freshman at San Jose Sate University, had been relentlessly bullied by the white students he lived with a four-bedroom dormitory suite. The white kids, also freshmen, had insisted on calling Williams “three-fifths,” a reference to the clause in the original US Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining population for representation in Congress. They clamped a bike lock around his neck and claimed to have lost the key. They wrote Nigger on a whiteboard and draped a Confederate flag over a cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley in suite’s living room. They locked him in his room. And they claimed it was all just a series of good-natured pranks. In the end, three eighteen-year-old white students were expelled for what they did to Williams, and a seventeen-year-old was suspended. The three who were expelled were also charged in criminal court. The charge: misdemeanor battery with a hate-crime enhancement, which carried a maximum penalty of a year and a half in county jail. A jury eventually convicted all three of battery but acquitted one of the students of the hate-crime charge and deadlocked the others.
“What I want is for people to be confused about what gender I am,” Sasha explained later. That didn’t happen too often—people tended to see Sasha as male. So it was a nice change to be seen as female.
“RJ isn’t a guarantee of leniency,” Baliga cautioned. “It’s about dispensing with punitiveness for its own sake and trying to produce an outcome that will be more healing for everyone involved.”
Still, Baliga knew that there was little hope of diverting Richard from the criminal justice system entirely. “Given the severity of the harm to Sasha, we didn’t expect that the DA would allow the case to be diverted to restorative justice,” she said.
But if anyone seemed right for restorative justice, it was these two families, who had already expressed compassion for one another. “They were perfect candidates for this dialogue,” she said. “All of them were such gorgeously enlightened, beautiful people.”
The fire was becoming a more distant memory, even though Sasha still wore compression stockings. “Apart from some scars, I’m all healed, basically,” Sasha said. It was hard for people to believe it, but Sasha didn’t feel traumatized by what had happened. When the physical pain faded, the emotional pain did as well.
“I don’t really feel hated, Sasha explained. “Especially since after I was attacked, the whole world was supporting me. I felt like one person hates me—maybe.”
“We do not understand your actions,” Debbie went on. “But we also think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want you to come out of prison full of hate. Following the incident, communities near and far affirmed Sasha’s—and everyone’s—right to not be harassed or hurt or bullied for how they dress, or whether they are gay or trans or agender. We truly hope that you will gain some understanding and empathy in the years to come. Maybe sometime in the future you will be the one coming to the aid of someone being bullied.”
“From the start we have been opposed to Richard’s being tried as an adult,” he said. “His actions appear to have been impulsive, immature, and unpremeditated. He did make a big mistake and recognizes that. He asked for our forgiveness.” Karl’s voice broke. “Sasha, Debbie, and I have forgiven Richard,” he whispered. “We hope the state will focus more on preparing him for the world beyond incarceration than on punishing him.”
“Actually,” [Andrew] said, “I’m starting to identify a little bit as—I don’t even know the word I want to use yet. I like androgynous. I like genderqueer.” What held him back? Fear. Fear of other people’s judgements, their questions, their hostility, their fascination. “Because I fall neatly within the binary, I feel comfortable right now,” he explained. “But if I were to radically shift my appearance in a way that more androgynous, I don’t know how comfortable that would be for me. I mean, I’ve already been asked enough questions about my genitals. I’m just done with that.”