BY ZACHARY PRICE
“Where do you boys think you’re going?” You might think no one would dream of addressing a grown man that way, but that’s just how Bryonn Bain ’01 says New York City cops and bouncers spoke to him last year when they detained him for a crime he didn’t commit.
Bain, who is African-American, was leaving a Manhattan nightclub with his brother and cousin one night in October 1999 when he witnessed a group of young men throwing bottles at an apartment window. After the men sped off, bouncers from the nightclub stopped Bain. Within minutes, New York City police officers were on the scene. They threw Bain and his brother and cousin against the wall, frisked them aggressively and hauled them away to spend the night in jail. Bain explained this treatment on a segment of the CBS news program “60 Minutes” last week. “Their assumption was, ‘These black kids are responsible for the problem,'” Bain said.
Bain had to appear in court four times over a period of five months before his case was finally thrown out. He has yet to receive an apology from the New York Police Depart-ment or the Latin Quarter, the nightclub whose bouncers detained him.
Bain is now working to educate Americans about his experience and the experience of other victims of racial profiling. Last year, Bain wrote an essay about his experience for a class he was taking with Prof. Lani Guinier. She was impressed by the piece, so Bain decided to go public, publishing versions of the essay in the RECORD and The Village Voice, a newspaper based in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City.
The Village Voice article – “Walking While Black: The Bill of Rights for Black Men” – drew the largest response in the history of that newspaper. The uproar attracted the attention of other news sources, leading to the coverage by ’60 Minutes.’
“After hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of legal theory in law school,” Bain’s essay begins, “I have finally had my first real lesson in the law.” Bain then describes how police officers told him and his brother and cousin to “shut up” or they “would treat us like we ‘were trying to fight back;'” how an officer took away Bain’s pin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explaining, “This is too sharp for you to take into the cell. We can’t have you slitting somebody’s wrist in there!”; and how the officer taunted Bain on learning that he attended Harvard Law School, musing that he must be there on a sports scholarship.
The essay punctuates the story with Amendments from an alternative Bill of Rights. “Amendment I: Congress can make no law altering the established fact that a black man is a nigger … Amendment II: The right of any white person to apprehend a nigger will not be infringed …. Amendment III: No nigger shall, at any time, fail to obey any public authority figures – even when beyond the jurisdiction of their authority.”
As Bain explained in the essay, “there is a special Bill of Rights for non-white 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.”
Within a week of publication, the Village Voice was receiving thousands of letters in response. Bain himself was receiving offers to appear on programs ranging from the Queen Latifah Show and the Discovery Channel to Court TV and Dateline, as well as “60 Minutes.” The article, Bain told the RECORD, seemed to “touch a nerve in American consciousness.”
Bain told the RECORD he was hesitant at first about permitting “60 Minutes” to film him. Yet Bain chose the program over other options, he said, “because they’ve been around longer than many of the other shows and would reach more people.” Nevertheless, he was skeptical. “I think in general I just don’t trust the media,” Bain commented, “because I’ve seen how they’ve taken a whole host of black issues of all kinds – the way that issues are spun, it’s just constantly disappointed me. So for several months I didn’t give them any agreement to do it.”
When Bain agreed to accept the offer, he imposed the condition that his brother and cousin be included. “They were resistant at first to include my family in the story,” he said. “The Village Voice piece was only my face on the cover, it didn’t have my brother’s or my cousin’s, and it was really important to me that they be part of this story, because they were part of the incident.”
Bain told the RECORD he was pleased with the coverage the program gave to his family. He also said he is generally “glad” to have appeared on the show. He is disappointed, however, with some aspects of the program.
In particular, Bain was disappointed that the show did not give more coverage to his “proactive” responses to the false arrest. Bain has been involved in social activism since his undergraduate days at Columbia University. He performs regularly with the New York based music and poetry ensemble Diorgen, and has also helped found the Blackout Arts Collective, a non-profit group that organizes performances in Boston and New York and conducts tutorials that use drama and hip-hop to teach young people about social issues. Since his first year at HLS, Bain has worked with young prisoners at detention centers in the Boston area.
Additionally, Bain is working on a book that will expand on his Village Voice essay. The book, which Bain has tentatively titled, “Walking While Black: The Bill of Rights for Black America,” will have ten chapters, one for each of Bain’s alternate Amendments. It will include reflections from black activists and writers who approach the question of “how institutional racism affects black America” from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, Bain said. Prof. Guinier is helping Bain with the project.
None of this activist work was included in the “60 Minutes” program. Bain said he met for five hours with “60 Minutes” reporters and Prof. Guinier to discuss the book project. “They taped the whole thing,” he said. “We have a transcript of that meeting, and they didn’t include any of that.” The “60 Minutes” program also included no information on the Blackout Arts Collective and Bain’s artistic work.
“What I was disappointed about in the story,” Bain told the RECORD, “was that it didn’t explore the different things that we are engaged in to challenge the status quo and change the societal conditions that black people are living in. Racial profiling, I think, is a symptom of much deeper problems in the society, and we’re actively working to change things in the society, and that was something I felt they should have given more attention to.”
“So the first thing I said to them when I saw it was, number one, well, I’m happy you didn’t portray me in a negative light – that was definitely a possibility that Prof. Guinier brought to my attention – but at the same time, there’s a lot of proactive work that we’re doing that wasn’t given time to, and I wish it had been.”
For the future, Bain plans to continue his work in activism and the arts. “I saw law school, actually, only as a tool to empower me to do this,” Bain told the RECORD. “I had no idea how it would empower me to do this, but some of the opportunities that have emerged in the past year have been part of that.”
“I think had I not been a Harvard Law School student, my story would not have been as interesting to most of the country,” Bain said, “and I think that’s a really sad reality, because what happened to me is happening to hundreds of thousands of black men and women around the country, and their stories aren’t making the front cover of the Village Voice, and their stories aren’t being told on ’60 Minutes,’ and their stories aren’t receiving thousands of responses, because in the eyes of many people in this country, they’re not seen as legitimate or as valid, and I think that’s part of the sad reality of having this kind of opportunity to be at a place like Harvard.”
“At the same time,” Bain went on, “I understand that why I
came to Harvard was that I saw that there were certain tools and certain skills and networks that I wanted to have access to so that I could work to empower my community. So I feel like it’s my responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities to do what I can towards the efforts that I know are just and good.”
The full text of Bryonn Bain’s essay is available at www.villagevoice.com /issues/0017/bain.shtml
More information on the Blackout Arts Collective, as well as a discussion board on Bain’s essay, is available at www.blackoutartscollective.com
The Blackout Arts Collective organizes performances of poetry, music, and hip-hop every first and third Wednesday at the Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street. According to Bain, “it’s the hottest thing going on in Boston right now.”
Bain is preparing a lawsuit against the NYPD and the Latin Quarter with the help of Matthew Tollin ’00 and Rafiq Kalaam-Idn (NYU ’00).