Magazine Preview: Our Village Voice
Written by Bwog Staff
In many ways, Bryonn Bain, CC ’95 and Harvard Law ’01 leads a charmed life. Admitted to college at 15 and president of his class for four years straight, Bain is now an award-winning slam poet, a working performance artist, and an occasional visiting professor at Columbia.
But his Ivy credentials haven’t protected Bain from being punished from what he calls “walking while black.” After two acute experiences of racial-profiling, Bain organized “Lyrics on Lockdown,” a national tour that uses poetry and performance as a platform to raise awareness about mass incarceration and racial injustice in the prison system. Bain is currently on tour performing his solo work, but Blue & White Features Editor Liz Naiden caught him in between stops to talk about his experience, his time at Columbia, his views on the prison system, and American race relations.
Blue & White: I understand that you’ve been wrongfully arrested twice. Can you tell me about why you were arrested in Morningside Heights and why you wrote a piece in the Village Voice about that experience?
Bryonn Bain: Like most black and Latino men in this country, I’ve had multiple encounters with the police that have ranged from harassment on the street to multiple arrests and incarcerations.
In 1999 I was home for the weekend and I was coming out of the Latin Quarter, a club which at that time was on 96th.
And at this point I’m in my second year of law school, thinking I know a little something, so I tell them, “Listen, you guys are beyond your jurisdiction, and we haven’t done anything wrong so you need to get out of our way.” So we walk around them and head to the train, and just as we’re swiping our Metrocards one cop comes down the stairs and arrests us, and it’s kind of like that scene in the second Matrix movie where the agents just keep coming, the cops just keep coming. And when we get back on the street, we look the bouncers in the face and even though they saw us do nothing wrong they say, “Officers, they did it.”
The cops accused me of stealing the laptop I had in my bag, my nice new Sony Vaio that I had brought with me to law school. I told them I was a law student, and they say, “Oh, where do you go to law school?” I say I go to Harvard. He says, “Oh my kid can’t afford to go there. What, are you on a ball scholarship or something?” I said, “Dude, I’m 5’ 9, and what’s more, there are no ball scholarships in law school.” So they continued to taunt us, and the more we tried to tell them that we were just law-abiding citizens, the more they antagonized us. So we spent the night in jail. Because at the end of the night we were leaving the corner bodega and saw an altercation going on – there were some people on the street arguing with some people in a window above the store. As we turn to go to the subway this bouncer from the club appears and because we happen to be the only people of color on the street at the time, they assumed that we were responsible for the problem.
Kellis Parker, who was the first black professor at Columbia law school and who I respect very much, came and got us out. Only a week later at Harvard another fabulous professor, Lani Guinier, the first black woman to become a law professor at Harvard, asked us to write about an experience of injustice for class. So she read my story and encouraged me to get it published and gave me contacts at The New York Times, The New Yorker, and a couple of other places. The New Yorker never got back to me; the Times did get back to me and said the article was a little risqué for them. I ended up contacting Don Schwartz at the Village Voice and they ran it as the cover story. When it came out they got flooded with responses, more responses than any other piece in the history of the Village Voice. It continued to snowball, until the following week Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes called me and asked if I’d like to be interviewed about my experience.
20,000 people heard the story on 60 Minutes, so I guess in retaliation someone at the NYPD started handing out my information, because the week after the interview I started discovering identity thefts. One of those identity thefts later resulted in there being warrants out for my arrest, which I only realized after I was pulled over with a broken taillight. My alias apparently was someone who had committed a felony, and I assume someone at the NYPD had given out my information, so he used my name, my social security number and my personal info. He made bail, didn’t go to his court date, and so they issued warrants for my arrest with him as my alias. So I was incarcerated again, this time for several days and I wrote about that again in the Village Voice.
After that I really started to do a lot of work in prisons because I realized I had a platform to talk about these issues that a lot of folks don’t have. What really hit home for me was that I got a letter soon after my arrest from someone on death row named Nanon Williams. His letter said, “Hey, they showed your Village Voice articles to a lot of the brothers on Death Row, and we’re all so glad that you’re saying what you’re saying about racism in the prison system. They won’t listen to us, cause we’re on Death Row. But a brother like you who has an elite education and access to these Ivy League institutions, and who can put it in the way that you put it, they’ll listen to you.” That really encouraged me, so I organized a tour around the country with artists, activists, and educators to raise awareness about the prison crisis and mass incarceration. We went to 25 states doing workshops and performances.
B&W: But you had been involved in prison activism before you were first arrested, correct?
BB: My father was a Calypso singer from Trinidad and he made his way here singing about apartheid in South Africa. So I grew up listening to those songs and those stories. In 1989, the first time that I set foot in a prison in upstate New York I didn’t have the same objectives of reform that I have now. My brothers and I were just invited during the holidays to perform at a local prison in upstate New York. And we kept going back every year to perform for the inmates who kind of didn’t have anybody to check with them and be with them during the holidays. And that was over 20 years ago, and I didn’t realize that 10 years later I was going to have my own situation with the police. I was familiar with prisons and performing in prison, so after I was arrested I started organizing and raising awareness and pursue the objective of de-carceration, because that’s really what we need to do in this country. The prison population has increased from 400,000 in the 1970’s to 2 million people now incarcerated. The vast majority of people behind bars are in there for drug-related offenses. We have more people incarcerated with mental illnesses than we have in mental institutions in this country. And you don’t see a bunch of folks who have Ivy League educations locked up, there is a direct connection to poverty and illiteracy. So we need to realize that there is a problem in our society behind this.
B&W: What sort of activism were you involved in at Columbia? What else were you involved with here?
BB: Well I was the first person to be president of my class for four years in a row, so I’m proud of that. I also spent a lot time involved in student movements. You know we took over buildings on campus 3 out of the 4 years I was at Columbia. We took over Low Library.
B&W: Seriously? Took over as in…
BB: We chained the doors, and we took over the building, and we wouldn’t let any of the administrators out of Low Library for the whole day. That day, students ran Low.
B&W: What was the purpose of that?
BB: It was because the administration was preparing to cut need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid. A big part of the reason that I went to Columbia was because it was one of the places that offered a prestigious education but where it didn’t matter if your parents were able to pay, you could still attend the institution. So we had about 800 students occupying Low Library and surrounding Low Library, and we chained the doors for most of that day in 1991. And we managed to save the policy. The administration decided to change their minds after we got a lot of press, and the alumni heard about it and they spoke up. I did that with Ben Jealous, the current president of the NAACP.
B&W: You know he’s our class day speaker?
BB: Oh yeah that’s right! That’s a great thing for you guys. When we took over the building, Ben was on the doors, and I was on the microphone spittin’ poetry. Then we took over Hamilton Hall in my junior year to try to save the Audubon Ball Room where Malcom X was assassinated. Ben was actually one of the people who got suspended for that, along with 3 or 4 other people. That was one of the battles that we didn’t win, so Columbia tore down the Audubon ball room on the corner of 168th street and put up a biotech facility.
Ben and I were both very involved in student activism. I also worked on the Black Alumni Council and I started the Alumni of Color Outreach Program. I contributed to the Double Discovery Center, which brings Harlem students to Columbia.
I also organized a whole series of guest lectures called “More on the Core.” The idea was to challenge the idea that Europe is the only place that has seen advanced civilization in the world. So we organized speakers come to talk about other civilizations that weren’t being represented in the core, including African civilizations that actually predated Greece and Rome, and which provided inspiration for Greece and Rome.
B&W: You started something called the Blackout Arts Collective in college also?
BB: Ben and I, we started something through the Intercultural Resource Center called the Strange Fruit Cafe, after the Billie Holiday song. It was sort of a night of spoken word and hip hop, anyway once a month we did that in Lerner. So after I graduated Kellis Parker actually encouraged me, he said you ought to take this to other people, so we got permission to start working in public schools and then prisons, doing workshops and performing music, spoken word, and theater.
After my first incident with the police we organized the Lyrics on Lockdown national tour. Chapters like ours sprung up in ten different cities around the country. Now the idea has also morphed into the Lyrics on Lockdown course, which brings students into prisons to do these workshops. I’ve had undergrads and grad students at Columbia, NYU, and the New School who have taken the course and spent half their semester at Rikers Island prison, the largest penal colony in the world, and it’s a way for them not only to teach prisoners but to learn something themselves. The funding was recently cut at Columbia, after being on campus for 5 or 6 years. It used to run out of the African American studies institute but that department is experiencing budget cuts. There have been conversations about bringing it back to the law school, if there is student interest and student support then it may come back, but really if it isn’t a priority for students then it won’t be a priority for the administration.
The way we took over buildings back when I was a student, writing letters and just making waves, students need to realize how much power they have to get what they want on campus. So if you don’t get anything else in this interview, make sure you get that. Students have a real power that is often unrealized. Talk about issues, talk about things you want changed, and then go do something about it.
B&W: What was it like to come back to Columbia to teach? It sounds like you enjoyed it.
BB: I did, I loved it. I tried to bring to my class the things that I always wanted as a student, so at NYU we did performances on the subway platform, because my work sort of links art and politics. At Columbia we spent half of the semester talking about pedagogy, and then the second half of the semester we went once a week to Rikers and split up into workshops working with incarcerated people. All of the students said that it was unlike any other course that they had ever taken.
The only reason I take a break from that is to pursue my art – I’ve been doing another show myself called Lyrics From Lockdown. It combines my story with the story of Nanon Williams, whos’s been locked up since he was 17 years old, and now has a brand new trial because new evidence has come out showing that he did not commit the crime for which he’s been incarcerated for the last 18 years.
B&W: Do you think that police brutality and the American prison system are getting better or worse? Do you see a trend?
BB: You know a lot of people will say that America is post-race because Barack Obama is President. I have some questions for those folks – was India post-gender when Indira Ghandi came to power? Was Bolivia post-class when a working class indigenous person took over there? The answer is no. We should learn a lesson from the Clarence Thomas debacle – having a black face in a position of power doesn’t mean that conditions have changed for the masses of black people. Now Barack Obama is a far cry from Clarence Thomas, and there’s no question that I would rather have Barack Obama as president than John McCain. But at the same time I have the same kind of educational experience as Barack Obama – I went to Columbia and I went to Harvard Law School – and the police still threw my black ass in jail.
We are too often and too easily appeased by having minority faces in positions of power, but the bottom line is that there is still a lonely pack in this country of people who are brown and black and poor, and the bottom line is more people are still incarcerated in this country than in any country in the world. Things have gotten better for certain parts of the community, but for certain parts of the community they’ve gotten markedly worse. It’s hard to say that having a black president made things much better for you, particularly if you’re someone like Nanon Williams who’s been incarcerated for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit.