“I lost my childhood. I lost my happiness.”
TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, which was produced by JAY Z, gives viewers a glimpse into the life of Kalief before, during and after his time at Rikers Island. Arriving as a teenager and leaving as a young man, Kalief’s life was changed forever by the emotional and physical trauma he faced during his confinement, leading him to take his own life in 2015. He was 22 years-old.
As myself and a group of others packed into Harlem’s Riverside Church for a viewing of the premiere episode of The Kalief Browder Story, hosted by Dream Hampton, the mood was somber. Yes, the news has come that New York City plans to close Rikers Island, but it’s a proclamation long overdue, especially considering that Browder’s story contributed to the decision, is the story of just one of many lives Rikers has cast its shadow on.
Browder was punished for a wrong he never committed and as a result became a martyr for something beyond him. He was a testament to black resilience and strength, telling his story not only for himself but for other prisoners that remain behind the walls of Rikers Island.
This was something that never needed to happen and yet here we were, watching a charismatic and smiling teenager transform into a neurotic and reclusive young man whose life was taken from him.
“It’s hard to be here,” Deion Browder, one of Kalief’s older brothers said to us during a Q&A with Asha Bandele. “I hope everyone can take something away so Kalief did not die in vain.”
Deion did not only have to endure the death of Kalief but his mother Venida Browder, who died at the age of 63 in 2016 from a broken heart. In the series, you not only see the ways in which Kalief’s imprisonment affected his life, but also that of his family. You hear of how his siblings hid in their rooms because they never knew how volatile Kalief was going to be. You see Venida break down crying because how helpless she feels trying to help Kalief both in and out of prison.
Where The Kalief Browder Story gave us a glimpse into Kalief’s life and the brutality and harshness of the American prison industrial complex, there was a panel of speakers that followed and contextualized the hurdles Kalief endured during his incarceration.
Arissa Hall, Liza Jessie Peterson and Monifa Bandele spoke with Darnell Moore about their respective roles in helping people faced with situations similar to Kalief’s. From Hall, who is the Project Associate for Brooklyn Bail Fund who pools money to pay bail for New Yorkers, to Bandele, who is a Senior Campaign Director for Momsrising, who focuses on issues facing women, mothers, and families, each woman offers a much-needed service.
But of course, it takes its toll. Peterson, who assists incarcerated kids at Rikers Island, briefly broke down when talking about how she tries to do what she can to help these kids, in hopes that they do not endure what Kalief did.
“It’s so inhuman the way the system sees our children as disposable,” Peterson said.
The poignancy of the event let up a little following a Q&A between the panelists and audience members, with the first question directed at Deion and his thoughts on Public Advocate Letitia James‘ request to rename Rikers Island after Kalief.
“Naming Rikers Island after Kalief Browder is disrespecting his name,” Deion said, to a respond of cheers and applause.
From there audience members asked how to stay optimistic in a time in which we have a president who is constantly showing a lack of care for anyone, but particularly people of color.
To that, all three offered different ways in which we could help, which included learning about different organizations and imagining self-regulated communities in which formerly incarcerated people run and support programs for the youth in those communities.
“Understanding that there’s nothing that our ancestors didn’t go through doesn’t allow us to do what we must do,” Bandele said.
As I left the church an older black woman said to me, “I’m sorry, but you look like one of Kalief’s brothers.” In that moment I could only think about how Deion, Akeem, Kamal and Nicole felt, preserving both Kalief and Venida’s legacies and continuing to fight a battle that they never asked for.
And how there was still so much fucking work to be done.