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Break or Die (Kalief Browder Reflections)

Black Lives Matter

After watching the remaining episodes of the Kalief Browder documentary I will say that the final episode did an excellent job of connecting his story which started in 2009 to the event we have sine in the last 3 years with Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others. It reminds us that these stories are not unique. They are not isolated incidences. They are what has become the reality for Black people, especially men, in America.

The Failure of America

The larger conversation is about the failure of America. The failure of America to live up to the hype that it sold to the rest of the world. How in stories like Kalief – and the fact that they are not anomalies – let’s us know just how far we’ve fallen. How much much we have failed the world. The problem is that America has fallen so far from the ideals that made it what it was. I always reflect on the first episode of what I thought was a great show, The Newsroom. The speech the the main character gives is so articulate, profound, candid and brutally honest. And what’s worse is that it is absolutely true. There isn’t any argument that can be made against what was said.

America’s single greatest problem is that we refuse to acknowledge that we are not the greatest thing that ever happened anymore. And we are not because we have failed to deliver on all those promises from our lofty ideals. And because even as the reality blatantly stares us in the face, we refuse to acknowledge it.

The fact that something like Kalief Browder could happen and there even be a legal argument to justify it tells us that we are broken…as a country. What’s not broken are the institutional and legal connotations and subtexts that allow us to pretend that we are administering justice when we are oppressing our citizens through legislation and controlling them through fear. That is what happened to Kalief Browder.

The Aftermath

What it most fascinating about Kalief’s story that makes it unique from the other recent stories of American injustice against Black people, is that he survived long enough after the trauma to tell us about it. I often wonder if Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray had survived their ordeals what they would have to say. What their lives would be like. In Kalief’s story we get to see the actual effects of what happened to him. When he sits in front of the camera and tells us about how he no longer fits into society. Despite his going to college and achieving a greater than 3.0 gpa and advocating for justice, there was a void in him that could not be filled. It was forever lost to him. Being released from prison and the potential of a million dollar reparation settlement did not assuage that loss.

A big part of that loss was the loss of security. In the final episodes there is a lot of discussion about Kalief’s paranoia and feeling that the police and FBI were somehow permeated every aspect of his life in order to return him back to the trauma from which he’d narrowly escaped. America’s fear tactics had worked all too well. So well in fact that it led this young man to take his own life to escape it. 

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

The Point

We take too lightly the loss of justice and peace. We – because so many of has have not experienced a direct retraction of our freedom and civil liberties to the degree that Kalief did – understand it intellectually but not wholeheartedly. We don’t see how it breaks you. It breaks your belief in anything good, anything right, anything just. All you know is that you have been made a target because of things your did not choose and cannot change. America tried to break Kalief, but in fact it did not. He stood his ground and stood by the truth, to the extent of denying 13 plea deals that would call for his admission of guilt. Not even for an escape from the hell that was Riker’s Island did he break. He survived and he returned to the public and told his truth to whoever would listen. He told his truth when it hurt. He told his truth when it made him a target. He told his truth when it took his sanity. But in the end, he was unbroken. Perhaps that is why he died. Because it could not break him, it had to kill him. What we know is that it was the institutions of this great America that failed him and it was the systems that killed him. He was not the first or the last, but the telling and retelling of his story will haunt us and forever remind us that something-has-to-change.


I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,


An Angry Black Man


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