It’s August, which for educators means that the depression is starting to set in as we get closer to September. But we here at CREAD are giving you a fresher, more empowering outlook on this month by digging deeper into Black August. Thirty-one days of acknowledging and celebrating Black resistance, Black political prisoners and Black liberation.
I’m definitely in my feelings though, cause it took until I was a whole 31 ½ years old before I knew anything about it. Side-eyeing all of my African-American history teachers.
Any time I hear or think about our trash-ass, corrupt-ass criminal justice system, my edges start hurting. But one particular story that let me know that resistance against this system must continue is the story of Kalief Browder.
Kalief Browder grew up in the Bronx, about a half a mile from where I grew up, when one day, he was taken into police custody for allegedly robbing a man for his backpack. This sounds like a “slap-on-the-wrist” offense but as Black folks know, a White man’s slap on the wrist is pretty much a death sentence for us.
Browder ended up spending three years on Riker’s Island for that “stolen” backpack. And most of his time on Rikers was spent in solitary confinement. Imagine your 16-year-old Black son hanging out with his boys one night and never coming home for three whole ass years.
Where they do that at? Oh yeah, racist America.
Don’t believe me? Just watch the film 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northrup was a free man but because of the Fugitive Slave Act, white folks could go North collecting other WhiteFolks’ property (i.e. slaves), and re-enslave them. The problem in this situation (other than slavery itself) was that Solomon Northrup was a free man and despite his evidence, spent 12 years on a plantation, hence the title.
No difference here.
Browder could’ve just been another name run through the system, another Black boy with a record, just another criminal. This is a common story but the funny thing about stories is there is always more than one version. He spent his short life reclaiming his story and this is just one reason that he is an inspiration and is already added to my list of heroes.
Here are some other reasons why I am putting some respeck on his name:
- Because our justice system didn’t…First off, when I watched the docu-series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, all I could think was this kid (yes, let’s not forget he was a 16 year old adolescent, not a grown ass man) went to prison for a backpack. How Sway? Where was the community service or paying the man back for the items stolen or hold up, what about the punishment when your ass is innocent?
Remember last week, when I told you that crackers be crafty?
I ain’t lie. Instead of the police department and the legal teams admitting that they didn’t follow proper protocol, arresting Kalief based on the victim’s memory (and we all know eyewitnesses can be unreliable) and the mis-managing of the case (their witness left the country,) they continued to paint a picture of Kalief as a criminal.
All of a sudden, Kalief’s entire personal business, being a foster child, joy-riding in the back of a stolen bread truck and being a part of a gang became WHO he was. This justified their reasons for keeping him in jail because even though he might not have done it, he was guilty of something. (Uhhh, pats imaginary weave, rolls eyes). So Kalief sits in Riker’s for three years, which leads me to my next reason.
- Because he refused to take a plea… Ummm, can you repeat that? Yes I can.
He refused to admit guilt to something that he did not do and sat in prison because of his principles.
This is noble asf and almost unheard of. He was offered not one, not two, but several plea deals and Kalief was like, “Nah, I’m good.” As I watched his story, everyone who was interviewed said, “When you’re in Riker’s, all you want to do is get out.” Anybody would want to go home and be with his or her family and friends and just go back to being a teenager.
There is footage of all the times Kalief had to fight to survive, enduring physical abuse from the inmates and the guards. He was in solitary confinement and spoke about the voices he heard, the screams from other inmates and the ways he was literally going insane. You could have taken the toughest dude in the hood and just to be free, he probably would’ve taken the deal.
Michelle Alexander mentions that 98% of cases like Kalief’s end in a person taking a plea deal and while Kalief may or may not have known the stats, he knew that was the common way out. But it’s not just about going home.
- Where was Kalief going to work?
- How was he going to avoid checking a box on a job application?
- How was he supposed to move through the world as an innocent man with a criminal record?
Those prosecutors didn’t give a damn about the answers to those questions but Kalief did. So every time he went to court, he maintained his innocence.
This is resistance at its finest. He showed that you can break his body and even fuck with his mind but you can’t break his spirit. For all my readers, John Proctor wasn’t even this gangsta (See The Crucible).
- Because you gotta put some respeck on his mama name too…One of the things I loved (if there is anything to really love about this real life nightmare) is Kalief’s mom, Venida Browder.
The warrior spirit of resistance is in her DNA too and the documentary really showed her in that light. When our men and our children are locked up, they’re not the only ones who suffer. Kalief fought on the inside but Mrs. Browder fought on the outside as only a mother can.
She cared for her other children while battling a heart condition, taking a dozen medications. Yet she made it to every court case, made sure her son saw her face on the visiting floor and she accepted those phone calls trying to reassure her son that everything would be ok whether she believed it or not. Even after her son was released and after his death, she needed the world to remember Kalief and the ways the system drove him to his death.
What’s more devastating is that she didn’t live to see justice for her son and he still hasn’t gotten it. She passed away a year after Kalief committed suicide. Even though a documentary can bring awareness, she was on the front lines trying to make change. She made sure that people understood that not only did she want justice for Kalief but that he deserved justice because he was innocent and because no one should feel that level of fear of a system that should be protecting them.
- Because he spoke out after being released…Most people would’ve just tried to put the pieces of their life back together but Kalief went into activist mode ASAP. Kalief was on CNN, Rosie O’Donnell and other news outlets sharing his story. This wasn’t for fame either. This was for awareness. Kalief began to see the bigger picture. Kalief wasn’t the first person in this situation. He was wrongfully accused and because he was too poor to make bail and had a previous record for a petty crime, he was seen as a throwaway. This is the narrative for so many of the people that were locked up before him, with him and who will be locked up after him. He blew the whistle about conditions on Riker’s Island-the way that place made everyone animals, inmates and security guards alike. He was sharing all of the dirty little secrets of our so-called justice system.
Not only did he beat the system but he blew the whistle in the only way allowed- he blew the whistle on the real criminals: the police, the correction officers, the legal system, the judges, you name it.
Assata Shakur said it best when she spoke about political prisoners, “They’re in prison, not because they are criminals but because criminals put them in prison. They’re in prison, not because of illegal acts but because of illegal thoughts.” She goes on to say that illegal thoughts for a Black person are freedom and liberation, so if Kalief was guilty of anything, it was for not staying in his place and accepting his fate. Let the congregation say Amen!
- Because others are resisting in the same way Kalief did…If you’ve been following the news, last week, Pedro Hernandez was released from Riker’s on bail for armed robbery. He, like Kalief, also maintains his innocence and he also refused to take a plea deal. Like Kalief, one of the victims, who’s an eyewitness, can’t fully recall who shot him or all of the details.
Déjà vu much?
But this is the cyclical nature of the attack on Black and Brown people. Pick a nigga, any nigga and throw them in jail. Iron out the details later or just make shit up. Sounds good to me. Meanwhile, lives are ruined, victims don’t get justice and the system continues to function exactly as it was designed- to keep people of color behind bars or as Auntie Maxine Waters said, “to prevent us from realizing our true potential.” And guess what? All the Kaliefs of the world will never get to reclaim their time.
People don’t care about numbers and statistics. They care about stories. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they could barely get through the docu-series because it’s too real for them. I keep hearing the question: How could this happen in 2014, 15, 16, 17? Because America’s been doing the same old two step, just to a different beat. Personally, I wasn’t disappointed. Kalief’s story lived up to my expectations. I just felt disgusted and done. Even if he was guilty, is this the precedent we’re setting for stealing a backpack or just when a Black person does it? While Kalief couldn’t reclaim his time, I’m damn proud that he reclaimed his story.
Before I get to the educators, (That’s right, y’all not off the hook. Heavy material just means a heavy lift) allow me to spit a few bars in Woke Cypha fashion for Kalief Browder, R.I.P. Something fit for a spirit like his.
You got Nat and you got Frederick
All inside your DNA . Got Assata, got Mutulu
All inside your DNA
Got your mama and her mama
All inside your DNA
Got the Bronx and your ancestors
Inside your DNA
Had no kids
But your spirit lives inside my DNA
I’m not an emcee but I had to do it.
That’s all I got but my educators on the front lines, what say you?
- Are we teaching about Kalief Browder in our schools? This was a kid like many of our kids from our neighborhoods whose life was changed forever. Gather some articles, show the docu-series and get some units going.
- We need to focus on the word criminal; who gets the label and who gets to hand that label out. We got criminals right now in the White House. Any of y’all want to speak truth to that?
- What are our thoughts about the criminal justice system? How many times have our children and their families come into contact with that system and what is the impact?
- Required reading: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: Reading allows you to see how a case like Kalief’s is even possible.
- Let’s discuss what police and justice really mean to us. As Jesse Williams said in his interview with Angela Rye, those words mean very different things to different communities. Preach! Cause I know po-po means something very different to me than the White person to my left. We gotta talk about it.
Finally, how do we get our students to do something with this information, whether they create their own tributes to Kalief, continue to tell his story on social media and re-imagine a world where a story like Kalief’s could never happen again?
Educators, it’s August. You got some planning to do. Get to it and make sure our kids resist, resist, resist!