Walking While Black


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.

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.

Amendment IV: The fact that a Black man is a nigger is sufficient probable cause for him to be searched and seized.

Having failed to convince Connelly, the chubby, gray-haired officer in charge, we were up against the wall in a matter of minutes. Each of us had the legs of our dignity spread apart, was publicly frisked down from shirt to socks, and then had our pockets rummaged through. All while Officer Connelly insisted that we shut up and keep facing the wall or, as he told Red, he would treat us like we “were trying to fight back.” The officers next searched through my backpack and seemed surprised to find my laptop and a casebook I had brought to the club so that I could get some studying done on the bus ride back to school.

We were shoved into the squad car in front of a crowd composed of friends and acquaintances who had been in the club with us and had by now learned of our situation. I tried with little success to play back the facts of the famous Miranda case in my mind. I was fairly certain these cops were in the wrong for failing to read us our rights.

Amendment V: Any nigger accused of a crime is to be punished without any due process whatsoever.

We were never told that we had a right to remain silent. We were never told that we had the right to an attorney. We were never informed that anything we said could and would be used against us in a court of law.

Amendment VI: In all prosecutions of niggers, their accuser shall enjoy the right of a speedy apprehension. While the accused nigger shall enjoy a dehumanizing and humiliating arrest.

After my mug shot was taken at the precinct, Officer Connelly chuckled to himself as he took a little blue-and-white pin out of my wallet. “This is too sharp for you to take into the cell. We can’t have you slitting somebody’s wrist in there!” he said facetiously. I was handed that pin the day before at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. . . . I wanted to be transported back there, where I had seen the ancient Egyptian art exhibit that afternoon. The relics of each dynastic period pulled a proud grin across my face as I stood in awe at the magnificence of this enduring legacy of my Black African ancestors.

This legacy has been denied for so long that my skin now signals to many that I must be at least an accomplice to any crime that occurs somewhere within the vicinity of my person . . . this legacy has been denied so long that it was unfathomable for the cops that we were innocent bystanders in this situation . . . this legacy lay locked all night long for no good reason in a filthy cell barely bigger than the bathroom in my tiny basement apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts . . . this legacy was forced to listen that night to some white guy who was there because he had beaten up his girlfriend the way the cops frisking my cousin had threatened to beat him down if he kept trying to explain to them what had really happened . . . this legacy is negated by the lily-white institutions where many Blacks are trained to think that they are somehow different from the type of Negro this kind of thing happens to because in their minds White Supremacy is essentially an ideology of the past.

Yet White Supremacy was alive and well enough to handcuff three innocent young men and bend them over the hood of a squad car with cops cackling on in front of the crowd, “These BOYS think they can come up here from Brooklyn, cause all kinds of trouble, and get away with it!”

Amendment VII: Niggers must remain within the confines of their own neighborhoods. Those who do not are clearly looking for trouble.

Indeed, I had come from Brooklyn with my younger brother and cousin that evening to get our dance on at the Latin Quarter. However, having gone to college in the same neighborhood, I consider it more of a second home than a place where I journey to escape the eyes of my community and unleash the kind of juvenile mischief to which the officers were alluding. At 25 years old, after leaving college five years ago and completing both a master’s degree and my first year of law school, this kind of adolescent escapism is now far behind me. But that didn’t matter.

The bouncers and the cops didn’t give a damn who we were or what we were about. While doing our paperwork several hours later, another officer, who realized how absurd our ordeal was and treated us with the utmost respect, explained to us why he believed we had been arrested.

Amendment VIII: Wherever niggers are causing trouble, arresting any nigger at the scene of the crime is just as good as arresting the one actually guilty of the crime in question.

After repeated incidents calling for police intervention during the last few months, the 24th Precinct and the Latin Quarter have joined forces to help deal with the club’s “less desirable element.” To prevent the club from being shut down, they needed to set an example for potential wrongdoers. We were just unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time—and to fit the description of that “element.” To make matters worse from the bouncers’ point of view, we had the audacity to demonstrate our understanding that for them to touch us without our consent constituted a battery.

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.

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.