Walking While Black

The bill of rights for black men

 May 2, 2000

After hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of legal theory in law school, I have finally had my first real lesson in the Law. On Sunday, October 18, 1999, I was taken from the corner of 96th Street and Broadway by the NYPD and held overnight in a cell at the 24th Precinct in New York City. While home from school for the weekend, I was arrested for a crime I witnessed someone else commit.

We left the Latin Quarter nightclub that night laughing that Red, my cousin, had finally found someone shorter than his five-foot-five frame to dance with him. My younger brother, K, was fiending for a turkey sandwich, so we all walked over to the bodega around the corner, just one block west of Broadway. We had no idea that class was about to be in session. The lesson for the day was that there is a special Bill of Rights for nonwhite people in the United States—one that applies with particular severity to Black men. It has never had to be ratified by Congress because—in the hearts of those with the power to enforce it—the Black Bill of Rights is held to be self-evident.

Bryonn Bain in front of Harvard Law School, 2000
photo: Andre Souroujon
Bryonn Bain in front of Harvard Law School, 2000

As we left the store, armed only with sandwiches and Snapples, the three of us saw a group of young men standing around a car parked on the corner in front of the store. As music blasted by the wide-open doors of their car, the men around the car appeared to be arguing with someone in an apartment above the store. The argument escalated when one of the young men began throwing bottles at the apartment window. Several other people who had just left the club, as well as a number of random passersby, witnessed the altercation and began scattering to avoid the raining shards of glass.

Amendment I: Congress can make no law altering the established fact that a black man is a nigger.

My brother, cousin, and I abruptly began to walk up the street toward the subway to avoid the chaos that was unfolding. Another bottle was hurled. This time, the apartment window cracked, and more glass shattered onto the pavement. We were halfway up the block when we looked back at the guys who had been hanging outside the store. They had jumped in the car, turned off their music, and slammed the doors, and were getting away from the scene as quickly as possible. As we continued to walk toward the subway, about six or seven bouncers came running down the street to see who had caused all the noise. "Where do you BOYS think you're going?!" yelled the biggest of this muscle-bound band of bullies in black shirts. They came at my family and me with outstretched arms to corral us back down the block. "To the 2 train," I answered. Just then I remembered that there are constitutional restrictions on physically restraining people against their will. Common sense told me that the bouncers' authority couldn't possibly extend into the middle of the street around the corner from their club. "You have absolutely no authority to put your hands on any of us!" I insisted, with a sense of newly found conviction. We kept going. This clearly pissed off the bouncers—especially the big, bald, white bouncer who seemed to be the head honcho.

Amendment II: The right of any white person to apprehend a nigger will not be infringed.

The fact that the bouncers' efforts at intimidation were being disregarded by three young Black men much smaller than they were only made matters worse for their egos (each of us is under five-foot-ten and no more than 180 pounds). The bouncer who appeared to be in charge warned us we would regret having ignored him. "You BOYS better stay right where you are!" barked the now seething bouncer. I told my brother and cousin to ignore him. We were not in their club. In fact, we were among the many people dispersing from the site of the disturbance, which had occurred an entire block away from their "territory." They were clearly beyond their jurisdiction (we spent weeks on the subject in Civil Procedure!). Furthermore, the bouncers had not bothered to ask anyone among the many witnesses what had happened before they attempted to apprehend us. They certainly had not asked us. A crime had been committed, and someone Black was going to be apprehended—whether the Black person was a crack addict, a corrections officer, a preacher, a professional entertainer of white people, or a student at a prestigious law school.

Less than 10 minutes after we had walked by the bouncers, I was staring at badge 1727. We were screamed at and shoved around by Officer Ronald Connelly and his cronies. "That's them, officer!" the head bouncer said, indicting us with a single sentence.

Amendment III: No nigger shall, at any time, fail to obey any public authority figures—even when beyond the jurisdiction of their authority.

"You boys out here throwin' bottles at people?!" shouted the officer. Asking any of the witnesses would have easily cleared up the issue of who had thrown the bottles. But the officer could not have cared less about that. My family and I were now being punished for the crime of thwarting the bouncers' unauthorized attempt to apprehend us. We were going to be guilty unless we could prove ourselves innocent.

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