Bike locks, hate crimes, and the casualness toward Black bodies

I came across a Washington Post article titled “No hate crime convictions for white San Jose State students who clamped black roommate in bike lock.” If you think I almost flipped over a table before I finished reading, you’d be correct. It’s been a while back, but I’m still in a table-flipping mood. I have two separate thoughts, and the other piece is here: BIKE LOCKS, HATE CRIMES… AND DATING? 

During Fall 2013, Donald Williams Jr, a Black, then-freshman student at San Jose State University, was heavily harassed by his White roommates. And when I say “heavily harassed,” I mean they did things like put his neck in a bike lock. Among other things. Yes. Among other racist things. Including, but not limited to:

  • Williams’ roommate calling him “three-fifths;”
  • Williams’ roommates hanging a Confederate flag in his room;
  • Williams’ roommates mocking him in a letter that was signed “the Beloved Revered Doctor Martin Luther King.”

Recently, the Santa Clara County Jury found the roommates guilty of a misdemeanor, but decided not to find them guilty on a hate crime charge. Because, of course, these nice young men’s actions have nothing to do with race! They’re just friendly pranks!


People often want to talk about how we’re in a post-racial America, or how “Black privilege” is a thing now. I honestly don’t understand how they can make these arguments when White supremacy is alive and well. And this is White supremacy at its finest. How in the world did three college students think it was okay to chain their Black roommate up in a bike lock, that they could tease him in such a racist and hurtful way, that they could touch him in such a way? Because White supremacy. Because these men, in their privileged mind, thought they could do these things, and laugh it off as a joke. Because they weren’t thinking of Williams’ feelings, or agency, or right to live in his residence hall in peace, because why would they consider those things? Privilege is being able to not think about those things, and not see the historical connection between putting a Black man’s head in a bike lock and chaining Black men together during slavery.

Reading that their lawyers call their hate crimes a “prank war” made me furious, but not surprised. Processing that the jury did not declare their actions a hate crime made me cry.

Misdemeanor battery is obviously nothing to scoff at. The three men who received these charge were already expelled, and will serve 30 days in jail, be on two-years probation, do community service, take a cultural competency course, and pay restitution (this linked article also talks about student protests over the decision and their campus climate, which is awesome). However, it’s important to recognize the jury gave this sentence because of “offensive touching,” a legal term that, while certainly true in this case, does not speak to the fact that the offenses are clearly also a hate crime. It’s also important to recognize the jury acquitted one of the three men.

I would like to take this time to point out that if a group of Black college students put a white man’s head in a lock, all hell would break loose. Not only would this story reach all corners of the United States faster, but all parties involved would probably face more than a month of jail time. Think pieces around reverse racism would skyrocket. The men would be seen as hard criminals, not “dumb prank[sters].”

Which brings me to the point of the casualness toward Black bodies, the treatment of Black individuals as less than human. Putting Williams’ head in a bike lock served a message: Black bodies do not need to be respected, don’t need to be treated with dignity. The use of the Confederate flag, even after Williams expressed issue with it, served a message: Black bodies do not need to be made comfortable. And the jury refusing to charge the three White roommates served a message:  it’s not a hate crime when hate crimes are committed. William’ story and word does not matter. White feelings trump Black bodies.

This casualness is what fuels police brutality against Black people. It’s what allows society to look at Black women as “strong” and “unbreakable” as an excuse to ignore accounts of violence and assault.  It’s what leads to racial disparity among the prison population. It’s what makes me nervous for my brothers’ experiences in college: Will they feel like they belong? Will someone make them feel less than human? Will they be okay?

It’s what allowed three White men to chain a Black man into a bike lock. Among other racist things. And officially, it was still not considered a hate crime.


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