The Brief and Tragic Life of Kalief Browder

Numbers alone can't convey what the justice system does to the individual black body.

Rikers Island in 2012 (Tim Rodenberg / Wikimedia)

We are in the midst of a debate around criminal justice right now, a timid one no doubt, but a debate nonetheless. In the midst of such debates it is customary for pundits, politicians, and writers like me to sally forth with numbers to demonstrate the breadth and width of the great American carceral state. The numbers are, indeed, bracing and are not hard to find. The fact that African Americans comprise some one in 200 of all known people in the world, and yet African American men comprise one in 12 of all known prisoners has always given me pause.

Kalief Browder was one of those African American men. But in 2010 he was a boy of 16, sent to Riker’s Island for a crime he did not commit. As reported by the great Jennifer Gonnerman, Browder sat there for three years without a trial. He was repeatedly beaten by guards and inmates while in Rikers. He spent two years in solitary confinement—a euphemism for living under torture. On Saturday the effects of that torture were made manifest:

That afternoon, at about 12:15 P.M., [Browder] went into another bedroom, pulled out the air conditioner, and pushed himself out through the hole in the wall, feet first, with a cord wrapped around his neck. His mother was the only other person home at the time. After she heard a loud thumping noise upstairs, she went upstairs to investigate, but couldn’t figure out what had happened. It wasn’t until she went outside to the backyard and looked up that she realized that her youngest child had hanged himself.

The numbers which people like me bring forth to convey the problems of our justice system are decent tools. But what the numbers can’t convey is what the justice system does to the individual black body. Kalief Browder was an individual, which is to say he was a being with his own passions, his own particular joys, his own strange demons, his own flaws, his own eyes, his own mouth, his own original hands. His family had their own particular stories of him. His friends must remember him in their own original way. The senseless destruction of this individual must necessarily be laid at the feet of the citizens of New York, because it was done by our servants, and it was done in our name.

There should be an accounting beyond numbers for these years, something that goes beyond the failures of state budgets, something that goes beyond the the insanity of our policy. Something that captures the grandmothers beaten on traffic islands, the daughters shoved face first into the ground, the son shot while playing, the man choked to death over cigarettes, or for producing his license, or for being mentally ill, or for playing cops and robbers, or for sport. This is more than mistaken policy. This is cruelty—the long war to save the blacks from themselves. Browder was not “the blacks.” He was his mother and father’s child—an individual. And yet for reasons as old as America, he was not treated like one.