Walking While Black

The bill of rights for black men

As Officer Connelly joked on about how this was the kind of thing that would keep us from ever going anywhere in life, the situation grew increasingly unbelievable. "You go to Harvard Law School?" he inquired with a sarcastic smirk. "You must be on a Ball scholarship or somethin', huh?" I wanted to hit him upside his uninformed head with one of my casebooks. I wanted to water torture him with the sweat and tears that have fallen from my mother's face for the last 20 years, during which she has held down three nursing jobs to send six children to school. I wanted to tell everyone watching just how hard she has worked to give us more control over our own destinies than she had while growing up in her rural village in Trinidad. I still haven't told my mom what happened. Seeing the look on her face when I do will be the worst thing to come out of this experience. I can already hear the sound of her crying when she thinks to herself that none of her years of laboring in hospitals through sleepless nights mattered on this particular evening.

Amendment IX: Niggers will never be treated like full citizens in America—no matter how hard they work to improve their circumstances.

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

It did not matter to the officers or the bouncers that my brother is going to graduate from Brooklyn College in June after working and going to school full-time for the last six years. It did not matter that he has worked for the criminal justice system in the Department of Corrections of New Jersey for almost a year now. They didn't give a damn that I was the president of my class for each of the four years that I was at Columbia University. It did not matter that I am now in my second year at Harvard Law School. And in a fair and just society, none of that should matter. Our basic civil rights should have been respected irrespective of who we are or the institutions with which we are affiliated. What should have mattered was that we were innocent. Officer Connelly checked all three of our licenses and found none of us had ever been convicted of a crime.

Amendment X: A nigger who has no arrest record just hasn't been caught yet.

It should have mattered that we had no record. But it didn't. What mattered was that we were Black and we were there. That was enough for everyone involved to draw the conclusion that we were guilty until we could be proved innocent.

After our overnight crash course in the true criminal law of this country, I know now from firsthand experience that the Bill of Rights for Blacks in America completely contradicts the one that was ratified for the society at large. The afternoon before we were arrested, I overheard an elderly white woman on the bus as she remarked to the man beside her how much safer Mayor Giuliani has made New York City feel. I remember thinking to myself then, "Not if you look like Diallo or Louima!" It's about as safe as L.A. was for Rodney King. About as safe as Texas was for James Byrd Jr. . . . and this list could go on for days. Although the Ku Klux Klan may feel safe enough to march in Manhattan, the rights of Black men are increasingly violated by the police of this and other cities around the country every day. In the context of some of these atrocities, we were rather lucky to have been only abducted, degraded, pushed around, and publicly humiliated. Nevertheless, Black people from all walks of life can have little security in a nation where police officers are free to grab Black bodies off the street at random and do with them whatever they please.

ADDENDUM: On Wednesday, February 23, 2000, after four court appearances over five months, the D.A.'s case against Bryonn Bain, Kristofer Bain, and Kyle Vazquez was dismissed. No affidavits or other evidence were produced to support the charges against them.

After five months and four court appearances with the assistance of Professor Kellis Parker of Columbia Law School, Bryonn Bain wrote this article for a Harvard Law School class called "Critical Perspectives on the Law." He submitted it for publication at the suggestion of his professor, Lani Guinier.

Read "Walk Black Live," the reader response to this article.

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