In Search of a Right

The 13-year struggle of targets in a racial dragnet reveals the elusive nature of justice

Sorry was not enough

They had no idea who they were looking for," Brown, the former SUCO student whose name leads the plaintiffs' roster, recently told the Voice. "Why didn't they just lock up all the black students in the gym and say, no one leaves until someone steps forward?"

He said the dragnet made college "miserable" and turned his first semester into "the absolute worst time of my life." Describing an experience of alienation that other plaintiffs confirmed as common, he said, "Going certain places as a black student in Oneonta was hard enough to begin with. And you're one of maybe two black people in a classroom. This sweep being the hot topic of the day, professors would ask what we thought about it. Some white student would say, 'They're always looking for money,' meaning a lawsuit. The professor would say, 'We need someone to take the other side. Of course, Mr. Brown must have something to say.' It could be art class—it would get brought up. And no one would take the black students' side, unless they were black."

Oneonta student rally, September 1992
photo: Bruce Endries/The Daily Star
Oneonta student rally, September 1992

Brown stuck it out and graduated from SUCO, although he says he considered leaving many times. "I felt as though I'd be letting the police and all those who trampled on my rights win."

Hugh Harris-Inniss also stayed, despite one day finding a note on his apartment door that read, "Get out, you niggers." He recently remembered, "My mom kept telling me to leave, but I didn't want this thing to beat me." But as many as half the black students either left the school immediately or transferred in subsequent semesters, two administrators from that time told the Voice. Minority enrollment dropped significantly after that fall, they said.

After being stopped and questioned, many of the students went directly to Edward "Bo" Whaley, a counselor who is black and still works at SUCO as an advocate for low-income students. He quickly arranged community meetings, and soon news reports began to describe student protests as large as 500.

Whaley had attended SUCO in the 1970s, when, he said, "There were white folks here who had never seen black folks in the flesh." Decades later, he is now a town fixture, prompting waves and greetings when he drives the streets. He described a responsive, close-knit community, where "one day I called the mayor about a dangerous bend in the road. The next day, there was a crossing guard there. A few days later, a blinking light had been installed. I can't imagine where else I would have wanted to raise my kids."

On the other hand, he said, outsiders, particularly those who appeared different, could be viewed with hostility. The dragnet brought the animosity to a boil.

"It was such a divisive situation that I actually said to my wife, 'I hope that when they catch this guy, he turns out to be black. Because if he isn't, and none of this was legit—holy Toledo,' " Whaley recently recalled. His white neighbors' disapproval of his sudden activism exemplified the racial dynamics of Oneonta, he said. "They would say to me, 'Bo, how can you say these things in the newspaper? This thing didn't happen to you.' I would say, 'It's like it happened to me. I'm black.' They would say, 'But Bo, we don't think of you as black.' "

He blames the community's lack of racial awareness for allowing a climate where the dragnet was possible in the first place. In video footage he and a student took during those heated weeks, Oneonta's then mayor, David Brenner, says, "There was a time when this community had probably four, possibly five, black families, who everyone knew. Everyone knew the parents, the offspring. We hadn't seen them here as groups."

Apologies soon trickled forth, directed mostly to the students, whose organized outrage attracted the greatest media coverage of the town-wide sweep.

A week after the investigation began, SUCO's president, Alan Donovan, condemned the school's release of the list as "illegal" and "immoral" and criticized police for acting "in violation of civil rights."

The state police also apologized, saying their "zeal to solve this serious crime" had led to actions "which we now know to be insensitive to the feelings and perceptions of minority students."

But "sorry" was not enough. On behalf of the black community, a few students contacted rights groups, which directed them to Fein's firm. At one of his first meetings with his clients, videotaped by Whaley, Fein stood at a podium before a bank of television cameras and told the packed lecture hall that the community was owed justice.

Time deepens the wounds

Thirteen years later, that audience, now adults with families and careers, still waits. The plaintiffs sued the state of New York, the university system, and law enforcement agencies, in both federal and state courts, under similar federal and state constitutional provisions. They alleged racial discrimination and unreasonable searches and seizures. They ran into roadblocks both ways.

The federal discrimination claims were ultimately dismissed, when a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs "were not questioned solely on the basis of their race. They were questioned on the altogether legitimate basis of a physical description given by the victim of a crime."

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