By Faatimah Knight
Kalief Browder committed suicide this past Saturday in his home after losing a battle against depression that intensified during years of abuse inflicted upon him by guards and fellow inmates at Rikers Prison in New York. Kalief was twenty-two and he had never been convicted of a crime. His story first gained national attention when Jennifer Gonnerman of the New Yorker reported it in 2014. The abuse Kalief endured has been verified with video evidence. But even if there was no video evidence, the fact that he was imprisoned for three years without conviction speaks for itself. His case was finally dismissed in 2013, after three years, for lack of evidence and no witnesses.
For the past year there have been public debates in the media and the courtroom about the criminal justice system and police brutality. The face of these conversations is increasingly a video—an instance caught on camera of a young black man being inflicted with traumatic blows and bullet wounds by police officers. Sometimes the young black man is a teenager like seventeen-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin and the police officer is not a police officer at all, but a neighborhood watch volunteer like George Zimmerman. There have been talks about the need to institute better policing reform and about what constitutes excessive force on the part of police officers.
But Kalief’s death is a story America is not familiar with—a twenty-two-year-old young black man hangs himself from the window of his home. We are not used to the story of a vulnerable black man suffering from depression. Suicide inspires an empathy that is often missing in discussions on the media about black men. It does not fit into the many archetypes and tropes mainstream media is invested in perpetuating. As far as we can tell, Kalief was driven to this end by the abuse he suffered in prison and the psychological damage that accompanied it. In an interview in 2013 he said he tried to commit suicide at least five times while in prison and that he asked corrections officers to see a psychologist, but they ignored him. He said that he was punished for trying to hang himself, officers inflicted him with blows and kicks to his body.
Sometime after being released, he enrolled in community college in the Bronx and worked quite hard to receive a 3.5 GPA. No amount of overcoming the odds, however, could rid him of the suspicion that the police were after him, the nightmares that recalled solitary confinement and physical abuse and the persistent thought that death was his only escape.
A recent New York Times article showed that the rate of suicide among black children has increased substantially over the years. In contrast, the rates of suicide among white children has decreased, researchers suggested that the difference may lie in black children being more likely to be exposed to “violence and traumatic stress.” Kalief was exposed to violent and traumatic stress from the moment he was handcuffed for a crime he did not commit, to the time his parents could not afford his bail, to his unjustified imprisonment, to the physical abuse he suffered and the mental health resources he was denied. When we think about the kind of world we want our children and ourselves to live in we should not forget about Kalief Browder; his life and the circumstances of his death challenge us to reimagine and recreate a world in which this tragedy does not repeat itself.
Faatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College. An earlier version of this post appeared on First Things.