What Next?: Continuing Kalief Browder’s Fight for Justice
“I hate the system more and more each day,” my friend Jamy texted me last Wednesday night. She’d just finished watching the fifth episode of TIME: The Kalief Browder Story in preparation for the final installment later that night.
It’s working, I thought, as I read her stream of texts about our flawed criminal justice system and society’s treatment of poor black and brown bodies. Watching TIME — a six-part documentary series about Kalief Browder, a young Black man who killed himself at age 22 after spending three traumatic years on Rikers Island (two of those years in solitary confinement) without being convicted of a crime because his family couldn’t afford his $3,000 bail — had left Jamy, like many others, angry, more informed, and wanting to do more.
What next? we’d both ponder after watching the heart-wrenching final episode, in which viewers learn that Kalief’s 63-year-old mother, Venida Browder, passed away after a series of heart attacks just 16 months after she found her youngest son hanging from a second-story window in their Bronx home.
“Despite the city failing her and Kalief, she firmly believed that we could work to create a more fair and just system,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told the New York Daily News. “Venida was a woman of immense courage and boundless optimism. When you were with her, it was impossible to not feel hopeful about a better future. It is now up to us to continue her work.”
How do we continue the work of Venida Browder, who, in the words of family attorney Paul Prestia, “died of a broken heart”? “She was a woman of incredible grace and compassion who tirelessly fought for justice for her son Kalief and who championed the civil rights of others in our city,” Prestia told the Daily News. “But the stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much to for her to bear.”
During finale commercial breaks, TIME viewers are informed that they can get involved by going to Kalief.spike.com. There you can find a list of projects, campaigns, and organizations dedicated to transforming our criminal justice system, such as the Bronx Freedom Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, The Sentencing Project, Stop Solitary for Kids, of which Kalief’s mother was a board member, and the Vera Institute of Justice.
While there is still much work to be done, these national campaigns and nonprofits have been making significant strides in criminal justice reform. Last June, the lower house of the New York State Legislature passed “Kalief’s Law,” which ensures the right to a speedy trial. “The bill’s passage in the Assembly by the overwhelming margin of 138–2 shows that our lawmakers are finally hearing the voices of the many organizations and thousands of activists who have been fighting for a more just criminal justice system,” stated criminal justice reform activist Glenn Martin of JustLeadership USA.
In January 2016, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons, stating in a Washington Post op-ed that the practice is “increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results.” Just last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to shut down Rikers Island indefinitely. “It will take many years, it will take many tough decisions along the way,” said de Blasio in a press conference. “But it will happen.”
After de Blasio’s announcement, Jay Z, TIME’s executive producer, took to Twitter to thank viewers. “Kalief is a prophet. His story will save lives. You guys watching and your compassion made this happen. Thank you,” read the tweet.
What next? Outside of Spike TV’s suggestions, how do those of us affected but not yet fully invested in prison reform and abolition do our part? How do we move from watching injustice on our television screens and laptops to actively fighting it?
While asking myself these questions and trying to answer Jamy’s, I thought about Angela Davis — her life, her work, her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, which I first encountered in graduate school. In this must-read text, Davis challenges us to confront our ineffective, destructive, and obsolete system of punishment and mass imprisonment, which she points out is merely a more palatable and presumably human alternative to the previous norm of torture and death rather than an actual system of “criminal justice.” Instead of offering rehabilitation, today’s prison industrial complex serves as a “black hole” in which we deposit and manage “what the capitalist system implicitly declared to be a human surplus”: the poor, colored, and mentally ill. “[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society,” writes Davis, “especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
Davis also makes clear that it’s critical that we not only consider mass incarceration from a legal framework, but look toward a broader vision for justice, which anti-prison grassroots organizations, such as Critical Resistance, activist collectives, student and lobby groups have been doing for decades. We must educate ourselves not only on what it’s like to be behind bars, but why we have these bars in the first place. We must ask ourselves why, in an alleged “democratic” society, more than two million people are locked up, why a disproportionate number of these people are of color, and why private prisons and “security” corporations continue to profit from their pain and suffering. We must reflect on the connections between slavery and prison, deindustrialization and the rise of mass imprisonment, consider the price of freedom and our personal and collective investment in the criminalization of certain members of society. We must engage, in the words of Davis, “the ideological work of questioning why ‘criminals’ have been constituted as a class and, indeed, a class of human beings undeserving of the civil and human rights accorded to others.” We must attack the root of what has given rise to the world’s largest prison system and consider what better alternatives might and do look like. We must acknowledge that the criminal justice system isn’t broken, but functioning just as it was made to.
After telling Jamy to watch Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th, which offers a searing look at the relationship between slavery and mass incarceration, and their connections to the 13th Amendment and U.S. Constitution, I sent her a text with a passage from the essay “Brick by Brick: Creating a World Without Prisons” by Layne Mullett, which appears in the twenty-eighth issue of the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory Journal:
Our efforts to end mass incarceration cannot be rooted in reform, but must instead address the structural roots that have given rise to the world’s largest prison system. We must create movements that thrive on our differences and build on our strengths. The prison system sits at the nexus of multiple forms of oppression, so we must generate analysis and resistance that is intersectional. Supporting political prisoners, developing the capacity to withstand state repression, and embracing meaningful forms of justice and healing, horizontal models of sharing power, and feminist and queer ways of understanding the multitude of possible futures are all part of this struggle.