Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A talk with Nicole and Deion Browder, siblings of Kalief Browder, whose suicide in 2015 came after a morbid ordeal with New York City’s criminal justice system.
Americans are hyper-sensitive right now to videos and images of the split-second police killings of African Americans in the streets. We’re less sensitive, or less aware, of the slow killings of African Americans that happen in jails, prisons, and penitentiaries every day. The story of Kalief Browder may change that.
Browder was arrested on highly questionable charges of stealing a backpack when he was 16 years old, then sent to the New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail to await a trial that never happened. His mother, Venida, was unable to post his bond, and his father had abandoned the family. As a result, Kalief spent three hard years in Rikers, the majority of them in solitary confinement. Two years after his release from jail—after prosecutors failed to bring a case against him—Kalief committed suicide. He couldn’t escape the trauma and stress that followed him from his stint in the sordid jail, even as he embarked upon a campaign to expose all of the evils occurring within the corrections facility.
A new documentary, executive-produced by Jay Z, on Spike TV is bringing Kalief Browder’s story to a wider audience in hopes of continuing that campaign beyond his death. His mother was a leading voice for that movement, but she passed away from heart failure last October. The surviving family members have taken up the flag, speaking out against the criminal justice system and demanding that Rikers Island be shut down. On March 8, Kalief’s brothers Akeem, Deion, and Kamal, and their sister Nicole, will join Jay Z for a live-televised town hall discussion on criminal justice reform. CityLab spoke with Deion and Nicole Browder about this work.
Someone on Facebook recently wrote: “Kalief Browder was murdered by the city of New York. Kalief Browder's mom was murdered by the city of New York.” Would you agree?
Deion: I would have to say I agree. It’s not just the city, it’s the state as well. Everyone plays a part: NYPD, the corrections officers, the housing units in Rikers. They haven’t even acknowledged or formally come out to the family for an apology, to say they’re sorry. Nothing. They don’t want to own up to what they did. So, I totally agree with the statement: NYC killed Kalief. Because everything that was done, was done in New York City. He was tried in Bronx criminal court. He went to Rikers Island. The corrections officers who did their dirty deeds were part of New York City system, and we must hold them all accountable.
Nicole: New York City did kill Kalief. Everyone has a role. I’m talking about the police officers who [told Kalief], “We’re just gonna take you to the precinct,” like they were just going to Six Flags or something. It’s disgusting. They killed Kalief. And they also killed my mother. I want them to know that, too.
And there’s no evidence. They didn’t investigate the case properly: They didn’t go to the house, they didn’t do any research, nothing at all, and he had to sit there and suffer at Rikers.
Rikers is supposed to be a temporary place where you’re held until your case is settled, or you’re released. He sat in there for three years, over a book bag. And now we have to be stuck with the pieces to pick up. We do. The family. Our family is broken because of Rikers. Because of the corrections officers. Because of the quote-unquote justice system. I know [Kalief and our mother] are at peace. But I’m not at peace with what they did to our brother and our mother.
But the bigger purpose is to spread awareness, to hope and pray this doesn’t happen again, which I know it will. To hopefully have people who are in the same situation as Kalief—if not worse—to come forward.
How was it seeing and hearing from the inmates and guards who attacked your brother? Were you able to confront or talk to any of them?
Nicole: When the video was released by The New Yorker showing the officer who slammed [Kalief] to the ground, I reached out to him on Facebook, and I told him, “God bless you, really, God bless you. You’re gonna need all the blessings.” I heard that that specific officer, who slammed Kalief down, was given more training, but no disciplinary action.
I don’t even think that I want to confront them, because it’s not going to be a good confrontation. It’s going to be a bad one. I think the best thing for me to do is keep my distance. Because I don't know how they can go home to their families laying in bed, while we’re laying in bed crying because we miss our brother and our mom, and they get to go home and relax, look at their family and kids in the eye and live life like that. How the hell do you do that? There’s no conscience there.
Deion: I haven’t even thought about reaching out. The documentary is my first time having the opportunity to see who played a part in a lot of the beatings and the hell he went through. I think that the purpose of the story is not to know or to confront—it’s just to build awareness. Nothing is going to change the fact that Kalief is not here. I think the bigger picture is, for Kalief, to make sure his story lives and we need to make sure his voice is heard. Me speaking to the corrections officers and the inmates he was inside with—the focus doesn’t need to be on them or on the question of why or how. I’d rather spend my time on getting justice for Kalief. Asking unnecessary questions will not change anything for me. It will not bring closure for me. It will not help me move forward with this process of healing.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are considering bringing back a lot of the policies that put your brother in his predicament. What would you say to them if you could talk to them?
Nicole: I never voted for that man, and the reason is his beliefs are different than that of an average minority. [Trump and Sessions] believe in stop-and-frisk, and that’s something Kalief did experience, just like a lot of black and Hispanic people.
Donald Trump is a narcissistic person and there’s no reasoning with him. He’s too worried about immigrants and Muslims, when we have bigger problems in the United States that he should be worried about. But instead he’s over there making friends with Russia. All this stuff I believe he will put in place because he feels it works, which it doesn’t. It’s discriminating. It’s not right. A lot of families were broken because of that. A lot of blacks and Hispanics were criminalized for no reason other than you were a color. I honestly don’t think the president cares what a minority has to say. I’m very disgusted that we have a president like that in the United States.
But then again, sometimes I think maybe he can change. I want to see him. I would tell him, “I just want you to sit in a cell for a day or in solitary confinement. I want you to experience something that we do.” But this was a privileged man who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I have nothing in common with our president and I really don’t have too many nice things to say about that man.
Deion: If I sat them down, Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump, I would say: “Put yourself in these people’s shoes. Take a moment to step out of your shoes and step into these young adults’ shoes of black and brown skin color and understand them. Understand what kind of lives they lived and all the different things they went through. Take a step and actually visit a jail. Visit Rikers Island and visit these different prisons that have these different people and actually have conversations with them.”
This is not just about politics. This goes deeper than that. We really need to understand that these people are sitting in jails for crimes they didn’t commit. We have innocent people sitting in jail right now just based on stop-and-frisk rules we had back in the ‘90s and 2000s. We need to understand that these people who are being snatched off the streets have lives and they have families and we’re breaking these people’s lives, destroying these people’s families, just based off of their skin color. I would stand against them for anything that would bring back stop-and-frisk.
Can you talk about the work your brother’s life has inspired, such as campaigns to shut down Rikers Island and end mass incarceration and stop-and-frisk?
Nicole: My whole purpose is not to let this happen again, and to help juveniles in solitary abolish it. We don’t need solitary confinement. These are not animals. I don’t even believe in animals being locked up like that. I’m excited to be a part of that movement and to see what it has to offer. We want to help low-income families who can’t afford bail, and try to help some families help their kids and loved ones out of solitary.
Deion: I stand behind every and any movement involved in reforms and changing such an unjust system and the unification of people. We need to start making efforts to speak up, and I think Kalief’s story gives a platform for people who’ve experienced such struggles, pain, and heartache, and turmoil. I think this is the movement and Kalief’s voice is the hope of the future. That is the movement that I follow, so long as Kalief’s voice is continuing to be heard.
The documentary delves into some really personal details about your family’s dynamics—your father leaving and not helping bail Kalief out of jail, your mother’s financial challenges. Was it difficult having your family so exposed like that to the public?
Deion: I think it was necessary to tell the truth. I don’t want the story to be portrayed in any other light. It was important to speak the facts about that point in time, where my father did leave, and things started to spiral downhill from there. A lot of personal facts we spoke on played a part in where Kalief stood at that time. It was important to give you guys the actual facts, details, situations, and family moments just so you could understand why Kalief took the direction he took and why a lot of us took the directions we took in life.
My father was very absent in all of our lives. He was an amazing provider, but when it came to guidance, we had to get that from our mother. There was nothing we learned from him. It was important to know that Kalief’s story doesn’t just start from the streets, it starts from within. This is not us trying to portray Kalief in this positive light, but for us to portray him how he was and who he was. And to show how we can go from a happy moment to a very difficult moment in life to a very tragic moment.
Nicole: I want people to see that Kalief is a human being, just like everyone else. He made his mistakes growing up. We did, too. We put our lives out there, because our life is basically about Kalief’s life, and how much we knew him from the good to the bad. We saw how much he changed from a normal kid to coming out into society where he was just a different person with demons on his back. Before that, he was a happy kid. He came out [of Rikers] and it just wasn’t the same anymore.
My mom recently passed in October. We still haven’t really healed from that. We’re still healing from Kalief. We’re just trying to keep it together and stay together, so we can move forward. Kalief’s story was lucky to get out there the way it did. I know for a fact that there are many other stories very similar to his. I hope that those people whose stories don’t have the platform that Kalief’s has will be able to come out and speak about their story.
What are the most painful scenes in the documentary to watch?
Deion: There’s a few. The three most painful parts for me are, first, the beginning, which shows Kalief walking and laughing and being his happy self. It’s difficult to see that because Kalief didn’t have many moments like that after jail. And to see a glimpse of what he would have been had he not been there is very painful for me.
The second part is seeing him go from that boy in the beginning to seeing all the tragic moments he had in prison. It just shows how they broke him.
And the third moment is seeing my mother cry. It caused me to relive every moment I spoke to my mother. When she cried it was so passionate and so heartfelt that you could feel the pain through her tears. This is a human we’re talking about here. I go back to it, and I put myself in that place again and I feel like she’s talking to me, she’s crying to me, or when I see Kalief going through all of that, I feel all the pain.
Nicole: For me, it’s what he says in the beginning, when he’s smiling, and he says, “I see these businessmen and businesswomen dressed in suits. I just want to be successful like them.” I just had to pause, because it’s emotional. He’s happy, he’s smiling, he’s trying. He did try. It just shows how his innocence was stripped away from him at such an early age where he didn’t get a chance to be a teenager. He didn’t get a chance to be an adult. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even get a chance to be a kid.
I think the second thing for me is, of course, when I see the guards beating on him, and the inmates beating on him, and nobody’s stopping them.
And the third is seeing my mom cry. We tried our hardest to ease a lot of her pain. It didn’t work. I’m not a mother but I can only imagine getting your child stripped away from you.
How have you been coping with having to relive these tragedies through your speaking appearances and doing media for the documentary?
Deion: It makes me think, “What could I have done differently?” You start to ask yourself these questions and play the blame game with yourself, saying, “If I had just done it this way or that way maybe it could’ve ended up another way.”
Sometimes I deal with it in a positive way by saying I know that I did the best I could, and this story is helping bring change to those who really need it. But then there are moments where I can’t see their faces. I can’t see my mother’s face. I can’t see Kalief’s face. I can’t hear their voices, let alone hear the different things that he went through, and what my mother was going through at the same time.
Nicole: I’ve seen celebrities on social media who have reposted it, and people are commenting and are disgusted [about Kalief’s story] just like we are. It’s a human issue, so to see that we have so much support out there, and that a lot of people are not only sympathizing but are willing to help us make change, it means a lot to me.
I hope people can learn from this and understand that, Kalief is not the only one. There are a lot of Kaliefs out there who are contemplating suicide, and I don’t want this to happen again. We have a lot of outreach programs, so that’s good. The platform is good. I couldn’t be more grateful, but unfortunately I wish my brother was here to witness all of this. This is what he wanted and I know we’re doing the right thing. What more can you ask for, right? I’m grateful, but it’s just a bittersweet thing for me.