An American Kidnapping

To understand race in the U.S. today, it's Kalief Browder's story, not Rachel Dolezal's, that really matters.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

I took some time this weekend to re-read Jennifer Gonnerman’s piece on the odyssey of Kalief Browder. I wanted to understand how, precisely, it happened that a boy was snatched off the streets of New York, repeatedly beaten, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and yet no one was held accountable. To understand this question is to journey into a world of legal-speak and phraseology all of which, in the case of Browder, allows what we would normally label thuggery to mask itself under the banner of law. Browder was supposed to be held no longer than six months. But as Gonnerman explains, poor people and the courts do not use the same clocks:

Many states have so-called speedy-trial laws, which require trials to start within a certain time frame. New York State’s version is slightly different, and is known as the “ready rule.” This rule stipulates that all felony cases (except homicides) must be ready for trial within six months of arraignment, or else the charges can be dismissed. In practice, however, this time limit is subject to technicalities. The clock stops for many reasons—for example, when defense attorneys submit motions before trial—so that the amount of time that is officially held to have elapsed can be wildly different from the amount of time that really has. In 2011, seventy-four per cent of felony cases in the Bronx were older than six months.

In the case of Browder, the clock stopped for all sorts of reasons. In one instance a prosecutor claimed he was not ready because of “conflicts in my schedule.” In the other the excuse was jury duty. Another time the prosecutor was on vacation. In the meantime the courts repeatedly tried to exact a guilty plea from Browder—at first offering him three and half years (he was facing fifteen) and eventually offering him time served. Browder refused each time. From Gonnerman’s article, it seems Browder refused on principle, but there were also practical reasons for Browder to refuse. In New York, black men with criminal records represent an untouchable class in the job market. Accepting a guilty plea would not merely have been a symbolic act for Browder, but one with damaging long-term consequences. And Browder could take no comfort in the fact of having been a juvenile at the time of the alleged crime. Taking a guilty plea would not have been a harmless act. For Browder it would have meant being branded as a criminal at the very start of his adult life, which would forever injure his attempts to make a living.

This threat to Browder’s life was birthed by the era of Willie Hortons, three strikes, and super-predators. Bragging about how many people you didn’t jail has, only recently, become supportable politics. It remains to be seen how well it shall endure. The politics which entangled Browder were of another era, the era of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Those politics were not private, but public. It was through the urging, ascent, and endorsement of the public that mass incarceration was born. Kalief Browder’s case was entitled The People v. Kalief Browder not Despotic Autocrat v. Kalief Browder. The People themselves elected the politicians that saw no problem with Rikers, or with all the other Rikers across America.

There are some unavoidable conclusions in this. At our implicit behest, a boy was snatched off the streets of New York. His parents were told to pay a certain sum, or he would not be released. When they did not pay, he was beaten and then banished to lonely cell. Browder’s captors then offered him a different way out—pay for your freedom in the political currency of a guilty plea. He refused. More beatings. More solitary. The sum was lowered. Browder still refused. He was subjected to the same routine. Browder defeated his captors. They tired, released him, and likely turned to perpetrate the same scheme on some other hapless soul.

Browder’s victory came at the cost of martyrdom, and in his name we should be strong enough to speak directly about what he endured. Kalief Browder was kidnapped in our name. Kalief Browder was held for ransom in our name. Kalief Browder was tortured in our name. Kalief Browder was killed in our name.

Let us not pretend that this kidnapping scheme gone awry was somehow moral, or tolerable, just because it was lawful. Let us not accept the notion that our laws are simply sanctification—an expensive tuxedo for base criminality. And let us not pretend that Browder’s death was imposed on us from above. Americans are living in the America that we wanted; New Yorkers are living in the New York that we wanted. This must be accepted. If Americans are not responsible for what happened to Kalief Browder, for the ransoming of children, then we are not responsible for ensuring that it never happens again

By some cosmic coincidence we are confronted with the death of Kalief Browder at exactly the moment American media is obsessing over the life of Rachel Dolezal. Coincidental as it may be, it is also instructive. Through duplicitous means, Dolezal was able to masquerade as a member of the black race. Such masquerades are neither novel nor original. What fuels the fascination is the way in which it taps into one of America’s greatest and most essential crimes—the centuries of plunder which birthed the hierarchy which we now euphemistically call “race.”

Kalief Browder died, like Renisha McBride died, like Tamir Rice died, because they were born and boxed into the lowest cavity of that hierarchy.  If not for those deaths, if not for the taking  of young boys off the streets of New York, and the pinning of young girls on the lawns of McKinney, Texas, the debate over Rachel Dolezal’s masquerade would wither and blow away, because it would have no real import nor meaning. It is the killing of John Crawford III and the beating of  Marlene Pinnock which elevates this charade beyond what Jeb Bush calls himself or what Elizabeth Warren called herself.

“I think race is oppression,” writes Richard Seymour, “and nothing else.” Indeed. It is the oppression that matters. In that sense, I care not one iota what Rachel Dolezal does nor what she needs to label herself. I care solely, totally, and completely about what this society does to my son, because of its need to label him.