Looking Up: The precedent of the UAlbany bus incident

Looking Up: The precedent of the UAlbany bus incident


The person who called 911 on 12-year-old Tamir Rice supposedly was afraid of being assaulted, even while he recounted to the dispatcher that the gun was probably fake, and didn’t leave the area for an extended period of time. That call got a child killed.

The person who called 911 on Tamir was not prosecuted for filing a false report that caused not only extreme “chaos and apprehension,” but death. In the investigation, they were even shielded from having their name made public. No one publicly castigated them and told them that they had been lying and they were not in fact afraid and now they had made life much harder for all the people calling 911 who were really being threatened by a gunman. As far as I know, they did not apologize, and no court ever demanded that they do so.

I can only assume that person was not a black woman.* Because even in the extremely unlikely event a black woman would have made that call in the first place, apparently when black women call 911 and their analysis of the situation they called about is different in the moment from the hindsight analysis of other people, that is a crime. A crime worth a strong threat of jail and the reality of three years probation, a $1000 fine, and 200 hours of community service, even when the call did not end in physical harm to anyone.

I sat through the sentencing hearing on Friday June 16 for Asha Burwell and Ariel Aguido, regarding what has come to be known as the UAlbany bus incident. Earlier this year Burwell and Aguido were cleared of all assault charges regarding the incident, but still found guilty of filing a false report for their 911 call and their use of social media after the assault. Essentially, there was a fight, and the only thing that anyone did during it that the courts found rose to the level of a crime was that three black women called 911 and asserted that the incident had been motivated by racial animus toward them. Also they got some details, like the number of people involved and the gender breakdown wrong.

First, let’s deal with the second point: neuroscience research shows that trauma affects ability to process detail and memory formation. Certain key details that precede and follow a traumatic event are recorded in precise detail, others are foggy. Someone in a fight may not be able to make an accurate assessment of exactly how many people are involved, but still can hear crystal clear in their heads the racial taunts that they endured before the fight. I realize this makes the job of the courts difficult, but it’s nonetheless a reality it should be accounting for.

As for the idea that Judge Robert McDonough could know with as complete confidence as he thought he did that those women did not at the time actually believe the fight had been spurred by racial animus betrays the stunning, and yet classic, arrogance of white people who do not understand how racism works. Before pronouncing his sentence, he held forth at great length about the parable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, sadistically letting them believe he might impose the jail sentence the DA’s office was asking for. The conclusion was it’s so important that no one ever be called racist when they would dispute that characterization that doing so becomes a social (and now legal) sin worse than the racism or hate crime itself. It’s like how Facebook will ban a person of color for publicly posting a screenshot of a racist message they received, but not the sender of that message.

One problem with this narrative is the choice to prosecute them so aggressively and be so demeaning toward them is giving rise to the Boy Who Cried Wolf effect. It was that choice, not their 911 call, that drove into the public consciousness not only that this had been determined not to rise to the level of a prosecutable hate crime, but that it was supposedly an intentional hoax.

That is a really big leap, especially given how investigators apparently were unfamiliar with and/or disbelieving of the racial implications of some of the things that were said. If Burwell and Aguido believed what happened was racially motivated enough to call 911 about it, that is, as their lawyers have repeated throughout the case, what they experienced. As I’ve said before, it is horrifying, and a disturbing legal precedent, that we could make a legal case with serious consequences out of insisting they didn’t.

*Actually the report does use male pronouns for the caller.

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