On January 22nd, Anthony McNair, 55, was lying on Telegraph Avenue when his legs were run over by a large car. The car drove onto the sidewalk and ran him over without stopping, despite his cries of agony.

Anthony—known by many as Tony—is blind and homeless. He has been homeless since the 1980s, and blind for about ten years. He lost his sight in the last decade as the result of glaucoma. Before that, he was an advocate for homeless rights and a Street Spirit vendor.

A black and white photo of Tony smiling for a photo.
A photo of Tony from the July 2005 issue of Street Spirit. (Courtesy of Janny Castillo)

Tony was run over during a march to protect People’s Park, organized by the People’s Park Committee—a community group that works together to protect the park. Some 20 people marched down Telegraph Avenue during the march, making it clear that for a short period of time the road was not available for traffic. Most cars got the memo, but according to witnesses, a 20-year-old white male drove into the march, revving his engine and getting angry when he was not allowed to pass. Defending against his aggressive behavior, people slapped the car to tell him to stop trying to run through them. In response, he chose to drive the wrong way down Durant Street, first driving over the sidewalk and over Tony, who screamed in pain. 

This was caught on video and can be watched on the People’s Park Committee Facebook page. 

You would expect that in a case like this—a hit and run with one entirely helpless citizen obviously wronged by another—there would be an investigation by the DA and charges pressed, alongside local news coverage. It has been a tenet of this country since its foundation that “The very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, whenever he receives an injury” (the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, 1803). But nothing has come of the tragedy except a half-hearted police investigation at the scene. The identity of the person who ran Tony over without stopping is being kept secret by the police. Tony is yet to receive compensation for his severe injuries. It has so far been impossible for him to claim protection from the law.

I met Tony about a week before this incident. I am a student at Berkeley Law School, taking a class about homelessness in Berkeley and what we can do about it as aspiring lawyers. Our assignment was to engage with our homeless neighbors, so I decided to approach Tony. I offered him food and a coffee, and he proceeded with (what I would soon discover to be) his regular order: a medium-roast coffee with five sugars and a drop of milk, and a sandwich on French toast with chicken and egg. I was immediately put at ease by his lucidity and sweet specificity. I delivered the items, and so began the first of many conversations between Tony and I. Tony asked me where I was from (I have a British accent) and we talked about England and about law school.

Who will notice if we don’t follow up on the investigation? I will. 

I have learned that Tony is completely blind, not just ‘visually impaired’ as I have heard him describe himself. But during our initial conversation, I did not realize that he couldn’t see. I have played this meeting back over and over in my mind, marveling at how little Tony gave away about his condition. He didn’t use a cane when I met him, and he took things from me and we shook hands without the awkwardness you might expect from someone who can’t see you. Even in our following meetings he never once mentioned his disability to me or complained about difficulties that it brings him. It was hard to believe that someone who is blind could survive on the street, mostly alone, without a guide dog or a cane. But so far, Tony has.

After the incident, Tony was taken to hospital. He remained there for a few hours to have his foot bandaged, and was told by the doctors that he had tissue damage. When I asked him how he was doing a week afterwards, he said he was not doing well. He said his feet hurt and he was “trying to stay off them,” a difficult task for somebody who sleeps on the street. He has to walk with a cane now

Tony’s stoicism was beginning to stake a claim to his character: he told me that “it could have been worse,” and that he’s learned that “he has to take the good with the bad.” Tony has experienced a lot of pain in his years and has evidently learned to accept life’s unkindness. Unlike some of his other struggles, however, this one presents a blatantly obvious route for the legal system to take to make him whole, and yet there is silence. I am currently trying to connect him to a lawyer, and pursue action from the DA’s office, to get Tony the restitution that he deserves.

Tony’s is a dystopian fairy tale that describes the callous injustice of our unequal society. An African-American homeless man, with no material riches to offer, is severely harmed by a young, white, privileged male in a large expensive car, and the law enforcement hardly blink an eye. What would have happened if the roles were reversed? If it was Tony who ran over a white student? The law enforcement may ask the age-old question that emerges lazily from the deep sleep of capitalism: what’s in it for us? They may ask: who will notice if we don’t follow up on the investigation? The answer is: I will. You should.

Throughout his life, Tony has advocated for the rights of homeless people. Now it is our turn to advocate for him. 

Call your councilperson

City Manager Dee Williams(510) 981-7000 manager@cityofberkeley.info
Mayor Jesse Arreguin(510) 981-7100 mayor@cityofberkeley.info
Rashi Kersharwani, District 1(510) 981-7110 rkesharwani@cityofberkeley.info
Cheryl Davila, Distrtict 2(510) 981-7120 cdavila@cityofberkeley.info
Bejamin Bertlett,  District 3(510) 981-7130 bbartlett@cityofberkeley.info
Kate Harrison, District 4(510) 981-7141 kharrison@cityofberkeley.info
Sophie Hahn, District 5(510) 981-7150 shahn@cityofberkeley.info
Susan Wengraf, District 6(510) 981-7160 swengraf@cityofberkeley.info
Rigel Robinson, District 7(510) 981-7170 rrobinson@cityofberkeley.info
Lori Droste, District 8(510) 981-7180 ldroste@cityofberkeley.info

Elly Leggatt is a student at Berkeley Law School.