by Raj Jayadev (This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post)
To call the death of 22-year-old Kalief Browder a suicide is not the full truth. Kalief Browder may have hung himself, but he was killed by the brokenness of our court system.
The story of his short life, told by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker last year, chronicles the horrors of a 16-year-old who was charged for a stealing a backpack, sent to the isolation and brutality of Rikers Island prison for three years, only for the charge to eventually be dropped by the prosecutor. Follow up articles report that Kalief was so profoundly haunted from his mental and physical abuse inside that upon his release, he was hospitalized and told his mother, “I can’t take it anymore.” Ultimately, he hung himself with an air-conditioner cord at his home this June.
The ubiquity of his name online is a different sort of morbid hashtag. It seems social media adds a new name every week of an African-American killed by police, with a hashtag prefix added on. The names we are familiar with — #MichaelBrown, #TamirRice, #FreddieGray — point to obvious culprits and have fueled a new national movement for police accountability and reform. But the #KaliefBrowder name points to a less talked about, yet as his case shows, equally lethal injustice.
Kalief’s tale shows us as that the lack of accountability of our courts and unchecked power of the institutions that reign over the criminal justice system like prosecutors, can be as deadly as a bullet from a cop. As such, if we are to prevent more tragedies like what Kalief Browder suffered, we need the national movement that has taken the streets to hold police accountable to also extend into the courts.
Of course, for anyone that has gone through, or had a loved one go through the criminal court system, it is an easy connection to make. The reality is that police are not isolated actors, but rather are just the entry point of a larger criminal justice system that involved prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and a host of other institutional players that have collectively swelled our nation’s incarceration rates to over 2 million Americans.
Police may have racially profiled Browder, wrongfully arrested him, but ultimately it was the prosecutor who decided to pursue charges, and torturously continued the case for years, while a teenage Kalief endured extended stretches of solitary confinement. And the Judge could have reduced or eliminated the $3,000 bail his family could not afford, allowing Kalief to defend himself against the false allegation while he attended school, rather than locked in a cage. But the wink and nod of the court system is that the coercive pressure of detention forces people into plea deals rather then taking cases to trial. That dynamic of incentivizing people to give up their constitutional right to their “day in court” in order to get out of jail contributes significantly to why over 95 percent of cases in American are resolved through plea deals.
Yet despite wielding incredible power, prosecutors, like the Bronx District Attorney’s office who were responsible for Kalief doing three years in Rikers, are often insulated from the ire of public scrutiny. So while police in the streets or inhumane conditions in the prisons have been a focus of the movement for justice, the machinery between arrest and incarceration — the courts — have remained a social justice blindspot.
In San Jose, California, where I’m from, families have started to use that science of community organizing, which is leading to police reform across the country, to penetrate the court system with that power. Families who have loved ones facing charges meet on a weekly basis, supporting each other, and forming a network behind the person who has been arrested. It is a communal counter balance to the isolation of the court system. The approach is called participatory defense — essentially encouraging communities to engage in the justice system in its totality, rather than waiting for the courts to do what it will with loved ones, or stopping pressure at moment of arrest in the street.
What we have found is this engagement can change the outcome of cases in very real ways, even though the essential agents of change are not lawyers or judges. Communities across the country are now starting to employ the approach. Because though every city may have a local story of an unarmed person of color killed by police, they also have thousands of people wrongfully chewed up through their courthouse as well, who also deserve community intervention and outrage.
The New Yorker profile of Kalief describes his publicly appointed attorney as stretched too thin, and Kalief says he doesn’t even remember him visiting him at jail. But imagine if Kalief’s family and friends were thought of as an extension of the defense team? What if they were able to bolster the defense attorney’s argument for a bail reduction by showing the courts biographical information, and the actual community Kalief is a part of? And what if the judge and prosecutor saw a packed courtroom at each of those hearings — so they knew they couldn’t just kick the case down the road a few months without public outrage? What if they — the institutions of the public system — knew they were publicly accountable?
The hypotheticals are heart-breaking, because sadly, an intervention in the destruction of young Kalief’s life was possible. And that is not to say that the prosecutor may have suddenly been struck with a dose of empathy, or that the judge would have somehow thought more rationally of what he is doing to a 16-year-old child. But rather, that the weight of the public who would see Kalief Browder as a child of their community, would see their own ability to bend the actors of the court towards a more just and sane outcome through their collective force.
And while Kalief Browder is no longer alive, there are entire generations who can be saved from his fate if this historic moment of calling for police accountability expanded its lens to the court system.