By MICHAEL FORSTER ROTHBART • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA — At 18, Sasha Fleischman was lit on fire while riding the bus home from school in Oakland.
Fleischmann is gender non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. They fell asleep, and another teen, Richard Thomas, lit their skirt as a prank. Thomas was arrested at school; Fleischmann was hospitalized for weeks with severe third-degree burns.
Dashka Slater, a journalist who lives close to the bus route, began covering the story. She spent three years following both instigator and victim.
Slater’s book “The 57 Bus” tells both their stories, and in doing so, explores the difficult collisions of gender identity, race (Thomas is Black, Fleischmann white), class, crime, punishment and forgiveness.
“The 57 Bus” was selected as SUNY Oneonta’s 2021 Common Read, with 1,200 free copies distributed to students. Slater came to Oneonta on Tuesday, Oct. 18, to give the annual Mills Distinguished Lecture.
Within days of the fire, community members were trying to balance contradictory feelings, Slater told a crowd of 225 at the Alumni Field House.
“Concern … for Sasha who was the victim … and at the exact same time, this sense of condemnation and dismissal for Richard.” There were public calls to try the 16-year-old as an adult. Slater rejected the idea that she could only have compassion for one of the two parties, and set out to understand root causes. “Curiosity is how a conversation begins. Opinions are what ends it,” she said.
The final chapters tell how this incident changed both their lives: medical procedures for one, imprisonment for the other, and then, eventual rehabilitation for both.
“We think about hate crimes in a legalistic fashion, as opposed to being a social problem,” Slater said. People tend to see these crimes as a violation, “rather than as a manifestation of the wounds in our own community fabric,” she said.
“I was open to the possibility that the truth would remain murky, that I would have to hold two things in my head at the same time: the fact that Richard did something horrible and cruel, and that he was more than the sum of his worst actions,” Slater said.
In opening remarks, President Alberto Cardelle wel-comed the public, the first public event on campus since COVID began.
“We weren’t sure we’d be able to do this until ten days ago, but the (COVID) numbers are really good now,” said Bill Harcleroad, director of campus activities. “We cancelled alumni weekend because we weren’t ready. We’ve got to be safe.”
The next large event, a delayed commencement celebration for the class of 2020, is scheduled for Oct. 30, with graduates limited to two guests each.