Once in a while I come across a story where an innocent good-hearted person is senselessly murdered and their names are forever engraved in my memory.
Names like Amy Biehl, a white American anti-apartheid activist from Stanford University who was savagely murdered by a black South African mob in 1993. She fought apartheid and spent much of her time in South Africa registering Black voters in South Africa’s first all-race elections. I can’t even imagine the pain and heartbreak Amy suffered as the people she fought for dragged her out of a car and then senselessly stoned and stabbed her to death because she was white.
I will never forget the name Nick Berg, an American civilian who went to Iraq in 2004 to help re-build
their country and was subsequently beheaded by evil Iraqi terrorists. Nick’s friends and family described him as a free-spirit who lived to help others and just wanted to play a part in the rebuilding of Iraq.
This week another name of someone I’ve never met was permanently engraved in my memory – Kalief Browder.
Kalief was murdered by the City and State of New York this week.
I was vacationing and visiting my parents in Florida last year when I randomly turned on the TV one morning as my mother cooked breakfast. Not particularly caring what was on I didn’t surf channels and by default I watched “The View”. In one segment, Rosie O’Donnell was interviewing a 21 year- old man who was sharing his story about being incarcerated at 16 years old and serving a 3 year prison term without ever getting a trial. My initial reaction was there has to be more to the story because it made absolutely no sense that an innocent 16 year old was a prisoner at Riker’s Island for 3 years.
The young man was Kalief Browder and as he spoke I can see genuine pain in his face. He was humble, articulate, and honest. The more he spoke, the more I cared.
In May of 2010 Kalief and his friend were randomly stopped on a street in New York and then arrested after a man accused them of stealing his backpack. Kalief was not in a gang or a juvenile delinquent. By all accounts he was a relatively good New York City kid in high school. Unfortunately, The State of New York didn’t see it that way. Kalief was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. His friend was let go but Kalief was held in jail and a judge set his bail at $3000. The bail could not be raised by his struggling mom who was poor and raising 6 other children. After he was indicted, the next judge ordered him held without bail at Riker’s Island. At the age of 16, he was locked up at one of the toughest jails in the country and waited for a trial that never came. The next 3 years will be horrific torture that you can only envision in an uncivilized country or in a tragic movie. Kalief became the main character of a New York City version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “Les Miserables”. The plots may be a bit different but the main theme of tormenting a prisoner with brutal tactics exists.
Rosie O’Donnell picked up on the same sadness I felt. To her credit she kept consoling Kalief and praising him for his perseverance. But Rosie knew he was broken – I can tell.
Kalief’s prison experience was torture. Can you imagine a kid who just turned 17 years old being locked up in solitary confinement for 2 out of 3 years? A time when a kid forms his identity and begins to give thought to mapping out his future was spent in a cell all alone. His only friend was the voice in his head. A voice that can drive any well-adjusted normal adult mad.
Throughout out it all he was beaten by correction officers and starved. In one beating that was caught on film a Corrections Officer decides to pummel Kalief as he is handcuffed and completely unable to defend himself in any way. Of course, two additional Correctional Officers jump in to further beat down a kid that is defenseless and no threat whatsoever. “New York’s Boldest” are actually “New York’s Coldest”
Can you imagine a relatively good kid in high school being put in a prison population with gang members that hangout in packs and prey on people that they perceive as weak? In a video that I find hard to watch you see Kalief fighting off a gang of 10 or more gang members that are out to beat him to death. Can you imagine what it feels like to defend yourself in a situation where you have no chance to win? The thugs in the video literally run over prison guards to get to Kalief. The prison guards are just one step above useless as they manage to eventually get Kalief to the safety of another room. Maybe “safety” is the wrong word, because safety never existed in this hell for Kalief.
Rosie wrapped up her segment with Kalief by giving him a laptop for college and for a second you get to see a glimpse of genuine happiness from him. For a split second you see hope and think that maybe he has a chance to heal. I was captivated by him and after the show I hit up the internet to learn more.
It was all true. An innocent teenager was locked up and tortured for 3 years in New York City in the 21st Century. The more I read, the more disgusted I became. It was reprehensible to see our Judicial System that is based on the credo “innocent until proven guilty” abuse its power by playing a game of “who can hold out the longest” with a teenager. It appears that the prosecutors continuously postponed and asked for adjournments for 3 years because they didn’t have a case. Being pros at ruining the lives of minorities, they were sure that Kalief will eventually succumb and take a plea. However every deal that they offered Kalief he turned down because of one reason – he didn’t do it. They told him he could walk out of prison with time served if he just fessed up to some charges and Kalief wouldn’t budge. This young man refused to be a statistic. How impressive is that?
Finally with no case and nowhere to turn the prosecutors dropped the charges and Kalief was freed from the physical confines of jail. Unfortunately, freedom never came emotionally.
On YouTube I saw an interview Kalief had with Marc Lamont Hill of the Huffington Post and once again I was captured by this kid’s character. Again I didn’t see the anger you would expect. I saw a kid who was wronged and searching for a peace that was lost. Like Rosie, Marc Lamont Hill sensed he was talking to a man that was broken – I can tell.
In the interview its clear Kalief was never a tough guy. He speaks honestly about how petrified he was in jail. How he had no friends in jail and cried himself to sleep. How he attempted to commit suicide 5 or 6 times because it was a living hell. Then he shares that he is back in school and attending college. Again we see a glimpse of hope for him.
In another interview onine, he talks about how wrong people are for thinking everything is alright because he has a lawsuit against the city and will have a big payday. He makes it clear that money is irrelevant and that he just wants validation that he was wronged. He talks about the abuse he endured happening to other people and how it has to stop. Every time I see him speak I’m captivated by his honestly and genuine humility. Kalief is a special person.
This past Saturday Kalief Browder took his own life at 22. The young man who I saw as a hero couldn’t live with the pain.
I can’t stop feeling angry on how he was just a kid and brutalized by the prison system. As impressed as I am for the strength Kalief somehow mustered, I have deep disgust towards every cop, judge, prosecutor, and correction officer that slowly killed Kalief. Let’s imagine for a second that he did steal the back pack – why the hell would a 16 years old wait for 3 years at Riker’s for a trial?! This is beyond absurd and criminal!!
As of today, I see no news on anyone being held personally accountable for the beating and torture Kalief endured. Who are these Correction Officers that beat him? Why aren’t they being charged? What penalty is there towards judges and prosecutors who purposely team up to prevent “ a fair and speedy trial”?
Truth be told, I would hope that Kalief Browder didn’t die in vain but in this world of 2 minute news cycles and cynical people his story will probably get lost.
However, his name is forever engraved on my mind. RIP.
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