Henry Bryant

Photo By Anne Stokes

You might not note Henry Bryant in a downtown crowd. His clothes are perfectly pressed. And he’s soft-spoken, easygoing and always saying his please-and-thank yous. You will sit up and take notice, though, if you see Bryant protesting: He’s vocal and has the help of a bullhorn and a few dozen sign-carrying friends of every race and stripe. You see, Bryant runs a grassroots protest organization, the Power Network, which he founded in 1996. Bryant and the Power Network can be reached at (916) 821-7892.

Tell me why you started protesting.

Well, I was vying for a parking space one morning with a 20-something female driver in the lot of my [bank] branch. … I and the other driver exchanged hard looks at each other, then she pulled her car really fast into the space we both wanted. We got out of our cars, and then she walked up to me and spit in my face.

Then she practically ran into the bank. I carefully memorized her license plate and followed her in. While we were both waiting in line to do our banking business, I walked up to her and said quietly, under my breath, “I have your license plate number.” She gave me this horrified look, ran to the counter and told a teller that I had just threatened to kill her. The teller ran and told the manager, and I was immediately surrounded by a bunch of middle-aged white men, including the security guard—at the time, there were no black employees at that branch. They asked if what she, a white woman, had said was true. I said, “No, it was not, and I am a customer at this bank, and I should be allowed the same courtesy and concern as any other customer.” The manager said he didn’t want any other trouble and asked me to leave.

So you protested the bank?

Yes. That very business day—this was on March 1, 1996—I went with family and friends and stood in front of that branch with a bullhorn and told approaching customers that I was protesting my treatment at the bank as a customer myself, and urged them not to do business with them.

How did they react?

Well, a lot of the customers, especially those who were black, came over and asked me what had happened. I told them the story, and they were disgusted. Finally, a white manager asked me to stop protesting in front of his branch. I said I would keep going until certain demands of mine were met.

What did you protest next?

My brother-in-law had hired a [rental] truck, used it, brought it back in time, and was slapped with a fat damages bill by [the company]. My brother-in-law protested the bill formally, saying he had incurred no damages during his use of the truck, but they kept insisting that he was responsible. So I went out there to the [rental] branch, with my bullhorn and some friends and family with picket signs, and protested the damages claim against my brother. [The company] eventually dropped the claim.

Any current grievances?

I waited for three weeks into having started the management training program at [a local fast-food] branch. … I finally got a call from [the manager], who had initially been very amiable toward me. … [But this time he was] telling me that I “had crossed too many lines” with him during the three days I was actually there for the training. He wouldn’t explain further, so I contacted the Sacramento headquarters of [the fast-food restaurant], and told them that I was being treated unfairly as an applicant and that I had reason to believe it was racially based.

What were those reasons?

[The manager] had a different, more disdainful attitude toward the young, black employees than he did the white employees or customers. I felt that I had done nothing technically wrong during the training session, and that was the only thing I could ascribe it to.

How did they respond?

They seemed to take it very seriously at first, and said they would conduct their own internal investigation concerning the issue of racial discrimination.

Then they called me to their headquarters for a meeting, where they sat me down with what seemed to be a token black employee present in the room with us, since he added nothing to the conversation, and told me there was no basis for my accusation of racial discrimination, just that [the manager’s] behavior was a little over the top.

They asked me, “What can we do for you, Henry? Do you want your job back?” I said no.

Then I told them that I believed that I was due some monetary compensation for my troubles. I brought out my calculations, which included the money I hadn’t yet been paid for any of my training, the money that I lost when I stopped getting unemployment after getting accepted into the training program and a little money for time lost while waiting to hear about my fate with [them]. It amounted to about $7,000. They looked at my calculations, laughed, and said, “Henry, we can’t give you any money.”

And that is when you started your protests?

Yes, our first protest with the Power Network members was on October 3.

Where do you see yourself and your organization in five years?

I think I was born to be a grassroots activist. It’s in my blood. My great grandfather was a famous civil-rights activist in Savannah, Ga., and I think I inherited this predilection from him. I aspire to the achievements of men like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. And I hope to do what I do now one day and make a living at it.