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A driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.
It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly.
Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.
I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone.
Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.
When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.
So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache?
Because it happened.
There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.
When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.
James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.
Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.
If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.
As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:
- When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
- Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
- Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?
Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.