The UAlbany Bus Incident Is Repeating History

We've seen this before.
05/01/2017 01:13 pm ET Updated May 01, 2017

In 1955, two Black girls were arrested for disruptive behavior while riding city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Their names were Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin. They were both teenagers. The charges against them included assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey existing segregation laws. Specifically, the girls became defiant when told to relinquish their seats to white women. One uttered profanities. The other kicked and screamed. They were both dragged from their respective buses. And they were convicted on all counts.¹

62 years later, in Albany, New York, two more young Black women have been convicted for failing to subjugate themselves to white women on a city bus. They face up to two years in prison upon sentencing. As with Claudette and Mary Louise, it will likely take hindsight before there is any sort of consensus that these women  —  Asha Burwell and Ariel Agudio  —  were victims of systemic racism and gross judicial misconduct.

Claudette Colvin (15), and Mary Louise Smith (18) were wrongfully charged and convicted in 1955.
Claudette Colvin (15), and Mary Louise Smith (18) were wrongfully charged and convicted in 1955.

The details of the UAlbany Bus Incident are as arduous as they are inconsequential, but in the interest of posterity, they are as follows:

On January 30th, 2016, three Black University at Albany students boarded a city bus heading to the UAlbany campus. The bus was crowded with intoxicated white students. Words were exchanged between the sober Black women and the drunken white passengers. A racially charged discussion ensued, racial insults were thrown at the Black women, and, predictably, a fight broke out. Cameras recorded much of the rhetoric which sparked the incident, including a white woman screaming incessantly in the vicinity of the Black women, and a demand that the Black students “get a fucking job.”

When the incident was first reported, the local community and the Black student body came out in thunderous support of the Black women victims. But as partial details emerged, that support wavered. Similarly, in 1955, residents were quick to mobilize behind Claudette Colvin and others, but ultimately decided against it. Civil Rights groups determined that combative and audacious teens would be too off-putting for the general public, and instead opted for the more sympathetic Rosa Parks. That sentiment persists today, and was capitalized on by those who wished to see the UAlbany Bus Incident dismissed as an elaborate “hoax.”

There’s nothing extraordinary or elaborate about drunk white college students harassing Black women. It’s no less common than, say, segregation in the Jim Crow South. What made this incident newsworthy was that the Black students had the audacity to confront their harassment head-on. Bus footage showed that the Black women were active participants in the altercation, especially after one of them  —  while in the enclosed space  —  had several hair extensions violently ripped from her head. The footage showed that they fought back, and in doing so, relinquished much of their victimhood in the eyes of the public. After sustaining multiple injuries, the Black women immediately called the police to report the circumstances prompting the incident. That call for help would later be used by the county to levy charges against them.

The case became national news.

In response to the negative media attention the incident brought to the University and local law enforcement, Asha and Ariel, along with their friend, Alexis Briggs, were expelled from school and ultimately charged with assault, attempted assault, and falsely reporting an incident. One source close to the case confirmed that the mayor’s office conspired with the University to push the narrative that the Black women were lying, even before any investigation had been conducted. The Albany District Attorney’s office was also recovering from the embarrassing reversal of yet another wrongful prosecution of a Black adolescent in Albany County. It was clear that the school and the District Attorney wanted to do everything in their power to discredit and dismiss the assertion that racism was at the core of this incident — even if it meant destroying the lives of Black women. They were largely successful.

After months of media slander and intimidation from the District Attorney’s office, one of the women, Alexis Briggs, accepted a plea deal to stop the onslaught of abuse and avoid incarceration, should the case go to trial. The terms of her plea deal stipulated that she was not required to testify in the ongoing prosecution of her co-defendants. Similarly, in 1956 (while Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith were co-plaintiffs in a Federal trial surrounding their bus arrests) a third plaintiff, Jeanette Reese, “withdrew from the case due to intimidation from [the] white community.” Despite the District Attorney’s office prosecuting the two remaining women with almost comical aggression, Asha and Ariel chose to weather the mounting injustices and proceed to trial.

There are those who will say the actions of Asha and Ariel are not comparable to those of Claudette and Mary Louise. They’d be right. Claudette, for example, physically assaulted at least one police officer while being arrested. And Mary Louise unleashed a stream of colorful obscenities at white passengers while being forcibly removed from her bus. In 1955, “talking back to a white person,” as Claudette later testified “was worse than stealing.” Despite this, it’s unlikely that many individuals today would find Claudette and Mary Louise guilty of committing any crime.

But Asha Burwell and Ariel Agudio don’t have hindsight on their side. What they have is a legal system that’s designed to disproportionately prosecute and convict people of color. They have a society that allows the benefactors of racism to define and legitimize what constitutes a racially motivated act. They have an imperfect community that too often overlooks the contributions and experiences of Black women and femmes. And they have the hollow consolation that in 60 years, individuals will recall this shameful conviction and realize an unforgivable injustice took place in Albany, New York in the spring of 2017.

[Update: Take Action here, and RSVP to the Sentencing Rally scheduled for June 16, 2017.]

¹Colvin’s conviction for violating segregation laws was later overturned on appeal.

Reposted from Masai Andrews’s page