Racism Charges in Bus Incident, and Their Unraveling, Upset University at Albany

Vivian Yee, New York Times, March 1, 2016

The allegation set social media ablaze, sowing shock and outrage as it went: Three black students at the University at Albany had been attacked on a city bus by a group of white men who used racial slurs as other passengers and the driver sat silently by.

The Jan. 30 episode, reported to the police, would draw hundreds of people to a campus rally against racism; an emotional response from the university’s president; and even the attention of Hillary Clinton, who condemned the attack on Twitter.

“We are shocked, upset, but we will remain unbroken,” one of the young women who reported the assault, Asha Burwell, said at the rally, on Feb. 1. “We stand here with strength because we value our worth as black women and as human beings in general.”

But only a few weeks later, what seemed to be the latest iteration of a now-familiar debate about race on campus–the protests, the anguished soul-searching, the calls for greater faculty diversity and administrative changes–has metastasized into a controversy of an even more scorching kind: the allegation, the authorities said, was a lie.

Surveillance videos did not support the accounts of the young women, Ms. Burwell, Alexis Briggs and Ariel Agudio. Neither did the statements of multiple fellow passengers. Rather than being victims of a hate crime, the authorities said, the women had been “the aggressors,” hitting a 19-year-old white woman on the bus.

All three pleaded not guilty on Monday to misdemeanor assault charges; Ms. Burwell and Ms. Agudio, who publicized the episode through Twitter, also pleaded not guilty to charges of making a false report. The judge who oversaw the arraignment called the charges, if proved, “shameful.”

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For students and activists in Albany and elsewhere, the stakes were greater. Many feared that the hard-won dialogue over racism on campus, the fragile moment of unity, would disappear under a wave of finger-pointing.

“People were forced to think about things that they didn’t think about, maybe, before,” said Amberly Carter, a coordinator at the university’s Multicultural Resource Center who helped organize the rally. “So do we now stop defending black women because of what happened?”

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Sami Schalk, an assistant professor in the university’s English department, who has devoted class time since the bus episode to talking through the implications with her students, said she was concerned that the women’s detractors had failed to consider the prejudice and “racialized language” the young women may have encountered on campus or before the bus ride that could have played a role in provoking the fight.

Whatever the outcome of the criminal cases, Professor Schalk said, the events had already served a useful purpose: making white students aware of the subtle slights that students of color regularly encounter.

“My white students have said this has opened up conversations,” she said. “Things that are inadvertent, small, but that these white students have no experience with, not being a person of color on this campus.”

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