Before catching the New Yorker update on the life of Kalief Browder I was on a high. Waiting in line for a coffee following a series of meetings with division heads at the U.S. Department of Justice; the conversations taking a particular focus on ways we can better meet the needs of young people impacted by crime and violence. Discussing solutions that did not shy away from the reality of widespread racial inequities, structural barriers, and deep distrust so many rightfully harbor for the very systems purporting to protect them. It all felt very productive; hopeful; inspiring.
But when I read this my stomach dropped from under me. Hope and productivity instantly dried up.
The tragedy of Kalief Browder caused me to reflect in real time on my own work and life experiences. The kids I’ve met on the inside of the system (94 percent of whom have undergone serious trauma). How quickly an injustice like this is to explode on the Internet as a talking point and as a way to humanize a statistic. Yet how uncomfortable an injustice like this is to sit too close to. How infrequently the conversation sticks.
I’m reflecting on the too often dizzying disconnect between policy and where the rubber meets the road. The incomprehensibility of these events to most power-holders and decision-makers.
I’m thinking back on the egregious (and squarely unconstitutional) exchange I had last year with a detective (who had no idea what I do for a living) who unsuccessfully tried to pressure me into identifying a young man of color as my attacker/robber in a police lineup.
How many other victims of violence experience the pressure to falsely ID in their most vulnerable moments. Notwithstanding their repeated accounts that the (literally) blinding circumstances were not conducive to making an ID.
How hard-wired our system is to blow it, time and time again. The human consequences of these reinforcing absurdities.
I am thinking of 16-years-old Kalief being wrongfully accused and the many reasons his family and many other families are unable to make bail. Of the next three years that ticked by on the inside without him ever being convicted of a crime. What those three years did to every person who loved him.
I am thinking of the monetary price tag; the systemic resources that literally paid for the shenanigans that kept Kalief there to the safety and benefit of no one.
I am thinking of Kalief being repeatedly and intentionally starved, denied showers, again and again exposed to horrific violence, including at the hands of those charged to protect him.
I’m thinking of these incidents being captured on tape. Of his five to six attempts at suicide while in custody. Of his documented pleas to the correctional officers to please connect him with mental health support as he buckled, as nearly all humans do, under the unfathomable psychological weight of these circumstances. Of spending nearly two out of three years in the torture known as solitary confinement.
Of the strength it’s taken him to speak out about unspeakable things. Of the bravery that lived within a young man able to share, once on the other side, what it was like to be “petrified all day… not knowing when the next harm would come.”
That he might not have ever stopped being petrified. That he pushed forward nonetheless so that others would not need to know his particular breed of pain.
I’m reflecting on how many choose not to share. Of what it’s like to be petrified. The chemical, emotional and spiritual reaction of human beings when in petrified moments, instead of other humanity, they find “nobody wanted to listen.”
Not wondering about those things? Read about him twice.
What I hold sacred is dignity. And for that reason, I’m reflecting on my conversations on these very topics at some of the highest offices in our justice system today. And I’m quite sure that none of them mean anything if we can’t connect them to ensuring this child a more dignified experience on this earth.
I am renewing my hope in the name of this beautiful and resilient soul.
That he found the peace he was clamoring for.
That we work where the rubber meets the road.
That his death will not be in vain.
Miles to go before we sleep. Rest in power, Kalief Browder.