Something happened the other day, that for me, has become a metaphor for what it’s like to be born black and to live in the USA.
It isn’t pretty, or tolerant, or just, or even human.
In fact it’s about as unjust as injustice could possibly be.
It concerns the case of 22-year-old, Kalief Browder, who last week took his own life aged 22. When a human being decides their life is not worth living, at such a young age, it is always a tragedy. Often the reasons are far from clear-cut. Reasons, that are understandable only to them and a complete mystery to everyone else.
But Kalief Browder’s decision to end his life was perfectly understandable. But trust me, knowing why he did it doesn’t help. If anything, it only makes his death even more tragic, if that is possible.
As a teenager, Browder spent three years in New York’s notorious Rikers’ Island prison, two of them in solitary confinement, for a crime he didn’t do. He was, and is, completely innocent. He was never convicted. Never even tried. In fact all charges against him were ultimately dismissed.
No I am not joking.
It is no understatement to describe Rikers as one of America’s hardest prisons. Think the New York version of San Francisco’s Alcatraz. The inmates who end up in Rikers, are the worst of the worst. Many of them gang members. But if the video, smuggled out showing some of Kalief Browder’s incarceration is any guide, it’s a line ball in deciding who was the more brutal, the inmates or the some of the enforcers masquerading as prison guards. He was beaten by prison guards and, on at least one occasion, came face-to-face with gang members who punched and kicked him while he was defenseless on the floor.
To understand how this could occur in a country supposedly built on the inalienable rights of its citizens we need to travel back in time. The year is 2010. Kalief Browder’s life is about to be turned upside down during a routine walk home from a friend’s house in the Belmont section of the Bronx, the northernmost of the five boroughs of New York City. Browder, is approached by police, not far from Little Italy, a popular strip of cafes and bakeries, where business boomed during the day but was all but dead at night. He is accused of robbery, searched and, despite possessing nothing out of the ordinary, is arrested and later charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault.
In 2013, Browder recounted that night to US media.
“This guy comes out of nowhere and says I robbed him. And the next thing I know they are putting cuffs on me. I don’t know this dude.”
Despite this travesty, Browder doesn’t just end up in custody. For some inexplicable reason he is sent to Rikers. It would be hell on earth for anyone let alone an innocent man.
In an interview last July, Browder told ABC News that he was held at Rikers for three years because his mother could not afford to pay his bail, set at $3,500, and his trial kept getting delayed. “Only thing on my mind was that I gotta go home, I didn’t do this,” said Browder, who was 16 when he was first incarcerated at Rikers. “Now, I’m in jail around these grown men and they’re, you know, they’re fighting each other. I don’t know. It was like hell on Earth.”
In the first incident of violence captured on video, a guard escorts Browder from his cell before throwing him face first into the concrete floor. In the second incident,again captured on video, Browder, is spat on by a gang leader. He defends himself and throws a punch in retaliation before being set upon by more than 10 inmates, all of whom kick and punch him while guards try in vain to regain control.
At other times, Browder is left alone with his thoughts. Unfortunately, left alone in solitary confinement — two of his three years at Rikers Island were spent in a section of the prison known as “the Bing.”
Through it all, he quite rightly maintained his innocence but it had a physical and mental effect on him. On more than one occasion, Browder contemplated suicide. “It was all just in my head to the point where I had to just grab my head,” he told American television in 2013. “I can’t take it.” After 634 days in custody, Browder tore up his bed sheet, tied it together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture and tried to hang himself. Later that year, his High School classmates graduated without him. In 2013, he was released without a trial, a verdict or an apology.
Just let go.
But of course he wasn’t free. Outside prison, he attempted suicide again. On that occasion, in November of 2013, Browder tried to hang himself from a banister. He was taken to a psychiatric ward and later released. One of his supporters who interviewed him and was instrumental in having footage of his time in prison made public, said he went down hill after that.
“He was gaunt, restless and deeply paranoid,” she would write. Finally, in 2015, Kalief Browder succeeded where he had twice failed. He took his own life at his mother’s home by hanging himself with an electrical cord.
His lawyer said he had no doubt Kalief Browder killed himself because of “his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell.
“I think it was too much for him,” he said.
The New York authorities including the Mayor have publicly said they are “saddened” by Kalief Browder’s death.
But perhaps his lawyer should have the final say: “I’m cynical because it was the system that essentially killed him and the fact that so many young men have gone through this already. We’ll pick up the pieces, we’ll go forward and fight for justice because we don’t have a choice. That’s what Kalief would have wanted. Kalief wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re optimistic that ultimately, there’ll be a silver lining for his family, his city and this country.”
The reality is Kalief Browder is owed a debt that can never be repaid. Shame on all of them.