Kalief Browder Took His Own Life, but the System Murdered Him

Kalief Browder. (Photo: Zach Gross/The New Yorker)

Kalief Browder Took His Own Life, but the System Murdered Him

When Browder was 16, he was arrested on a charge of stealing a book bag—a charge he denied. He spent three years in Rikers Island jail without ever receiving a trial. On Saturday he killed himself.

Kalief Browder was murdered, in the first degree.

The papers will say that on Saturday, Browder, 22, walked into a room in his home, took the air conditioner out of a wall and hanged himself.

But this was a premeditated murder of spirit, innocence, youth and dreams, which began in the spring of 2010 when police stopped a then-teenage Kalief on his way home. They say he stole a book bag. He tells them he didn't. They search him and find nothing. They tell him to come down to the station with them to get it all straightened out. They tell him he will go home.

For three years, Browder sat behind bars in one of the toughest detention centers in America refusing to crack. He didn't take the book bag, and he wasn't copping to it. His parents couldn't afford the $10,000 bail to get him out, so for three years he waited for his day in court--and it never came. While in jail, Browder would be abused by guards, tormented by gangs and spend some 400 days in solitary confinement, and then, one day, without a trial, he was set free.

As if setting him free would make it right. The 400 days of solitary without a trial broke his innocence and stole his youth. The true thieves that night in 2010 were the police who stopped Browder on a New York City street. That was kidnapping. The young man taken that night from his neighborhood would never return.


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There was a crime here. One perpetuated by a legal system that sees black men as objects for prison; police who see young black men and women as thugs who must have done something (see McKinney, Texas); correction officers who don't see teens as children but as hardened criminals.

At 16, Browder was still young enough to believe that the adults around him weren't all corrupt. He was still young enough to believe that there was a chance he would see his classmates again, maybe take the girl he'd been eyeing to the prom, maybe still have time to walk across the stage with his graduating class. Except his reality was the jail cell where he spent 23 hours a day, with mice creeping out at night, crawling over the thin bedsheet under which his young body couldn't find rest.

He would tell HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont Hill that while in jail, he tried to commit suicide "five or six" times. That he had asked correction officers for help because he needed to speak to someone. He wasn't feeling right and wanted to be "stress-free." No one helped him.

Video of Browder's imprisonment would show two telling facts about his incarceration and his character: One video shows Browder being escorted from his cell by a correction officer, and the size difference is jarring. The visual shows the physical makeup of a grown man standing next to a child. In seconds, the video turns violent. Browder said he had only asked the officer why his cuffs were so tight, and the officer's response was to slam Browder down on the cold jailhouse floor.

A second video speaks volumes as to how hard Browder was willing to fight to make sense of it all.

While he was in jail, a gang leader spit on him. The video shows Browder's response. In a room full of kids all bigger than him, Browder walks up to the leader and punches him in the face. He delivers a few more blows before he is mobbed. On the ground, he curls himself into a ball until the kicking stops, and then he finds his way into another cell.

The gang is relentless; members threaten him through the glass square in the door of the cell. Browder doesn't back down. He checks his fists. Pats his hair down a bit and paces the small space, surely hopped up on adrenaline. One kid kicks the door in and the gang mobs him again.

When asked about the fight once on the outside, Browder stated only that if he had allowed the kid to spit on him, he would have been spit on every day.

I mention this only to illustrate that the pain Browder chose to endure that day was because for him, right was right. It was all black and white. He didn't steal the book bag, so he wasn't copping to it. He wouldn't tolerate being spit on, so he fought back.

The system is also black and white, and that is the reason it couldn't see Browder as a kid, or the book bag as a book bag. The book bag became right and Browder wrong, so without a trial, without a conviction, he was given the death penalty of three years in jail without even knowing it would be three years; just unending time in the box at the crux of manhood, too innocent to accept the gray parts that started taking shape.

No one looked at the boy in the cell or the years that had gone by and saw that he was changing, that his face had lost the fullness of his youth. In time, Browder was becoming something even he couldn't recognize anymore. No one saw the kid in pain, and in turn, by the time they let him go free, he was on the edge of manhood and the kid was off in the wind like a kite with no string, never to return home.

And I feel like I need to say this here because I have heard it mentioned too many times by some folks in the black community, and I can't let it rest: Suicide doesn't make you a punk. It isn't a testament to an absence of bravery. It is a final act of control when one is walking inside that dark place, a place that followed Browder like the mice in his cell, not allowing him rest.

He would tell the New Yorker how he felt once he was released.

"People tell me, because I have this case against the city, I'm all right," he told the magazine. "But I'm not all right. I'm messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that's not going to help me mentally. I'm mentally scarred right now. That's how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back."

Kalief Browder's dreams were stolen, his youth taken one night on a New York street. His life turned into a room, barely bigger than his outstretched arms, and like a plant without sunshine, his innocence began to wither away, and there's nothing redeeming in this story. There is no silver lining. If you need something to take from this story, take this: The world can be a miserable place filled with sadness, and for some young black men, money, Rosie O'Donnell and even Jay Z can't make it right (and I'm not using their names as metaphors for mythical figures; they actually tried to make Browder's story right).

If you need a happy ending, look someplace else.

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