Kalief Browder’s suicide exposes aspects of American culture we can’t, as decent humans, ignore.
Picked up at 16 for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
Imprisoned for three years without a trial.
Two years of solitary confinement.
Denied food. Denied showers.
Assaulted by officers.
Beaten by fellow inmates.
Released, deeply hurt.
Fleeting hope, but still tormented.
Found relief only in ending his life.
This is the story of Kalief Browder, and this his story unfolded in the United States, land of the free.
Mayor Bill De Blasio said in April, “Kalief Browder’s tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island’s culture of delay.”
This is far more than a culture of delay, this is the culture of a broken nation.
Here culture is Kalief Browder brought to light through his suffering and death:
This is a culture of disempowerment.
School leads to college or a career, right? Maybe some travel and self-discovery? For a huge segment of the population, school leads straight to prison. For many at-risk children, school is not the first step towards a fulfilling career and productive life, it is the first of several stops that lead to incarceration. Zero-tolerance policies, police in the hallways, juvenile detention centers without adequate educational opportunities are all part of this school-to-prison pipeline.
This is a culture of injustice.
This is not just a culture of delay. Ito is a culture of injustice, one that subjugated the most basic rights of Kalief Browder. It is easy to display outrage when someone is imprisoned overseas for a crime he or she didn’t commit. Or, when travelers face draconian punishments for small infractions. There are innumerable cases of justice denied close to home.
This is a culture of barbarism.
Kalief, a child, was beaten, kicked, assaulted, not only by fellow inmates, but also by the officers charged with his care and supervision. He was starved and denied access to basic hygiene. While he was in solitary confinement, he shared his cell with mice and rats. This was torture. On American soil. We devote a lot of energy to preventing bullying in schools, while ignoring institutionalized bullying and torture in our criminal justice system.
This is a culture of segregation and oppression.
It is convenient in our society to warehouse people who are poor, struggling with mental illness, afflicted with addiction. Instead of lending a helping hand, instead of viewing them with compassion, they are herded up and imprisoned. Instead of receiving access to mental health care, they are punished. Kalief attempted suicide in prison. That was a cry for help. His cries were ignored. He was dehumanized.
This is a culture of discrimination.
Kalief was African-American. One in 15 African American men end up incarcerated, compared to one in 106 white men. Over their lifetime, one in three African American men go to prison. Coming out of prison, it is nearly impossible to find housing, employment, and ways to contribute to society.
This is a culture of callousness.
Kalief was experiencing so much psychic pain that he tried to end his life several times. Ultimately he succeeded in finding relief. He was surrounded by people, yet he felt alone. Callousness and indifference often masquerades as “strength.” It is easier to ignore people in pain that to face it with them. Before his death Browder said, “They look at me like I ain’t worth nothing. Like I ain’t shit. It hurts to have people look at you like that.”
This is a culture of judgmentalism.
In the case of Kalief and others like him, alleged crimes and mistakes are put on display, as if to justify harsh, inhumane responses. Equally judgmental are suggestions that the crimes didn’t take place. It doesn’t matter. Even if Kalief had committed that robbery, he did not deserve the treatment he endured while dealing with our legal system. Humans deserve a basic level of respect and dignity no matter what their pasts include. People who commit crimes might lose their freedom, but that loss of freedom should not automatically come with a loss of dignity, respect, and life.
This is a culture of arrogance.
Kalief drew the attention of Jay Z and Rosie O’Donnell. He had the opportunity to go to college after his release. He still suffered. Kalief didn’t need society to throw him a lifeline, he needed society to function as his companion on his journey out of the shadows. We- collectively as a society- shine a flashlight from above and saying, paternalistically, “You can do it! Here have a flashlight!” We don’t know how to Be With. Our comfort zone is Doing For. It is arrogant to view society’s role as a rescuer. We need to be companions.
This culture is part of our culture, and it is no longer hidden in the shadows. The secret is no longer vaulted up in our nation’s prisons. Now that the secret is out, we are all complicit if we turn our heads and pretend this culture doesn’t exist here. Because it does.