“Loving you is complicated!” – Kendrick Lamar, “u”

I hesitated to write this piece, because I wasn’t sure if I’d word it right.

“Another one?”

That was the first thing that came to mind upon seeing Kalief Browder’s name trending on Twitter at the start of the month. His would be yet another addition to the daily-growing list of Black lives lost and taken over the past six years alone. At first, I assumed that Browder was another life taken as a result of excessive force by law enforcement. But Browder had taken his own life; and yet, it is totally unfair to hold Browder solely accountable for his suicide because of everything that led up to it.

Years earlier, in 2010, Browder had been arrested with a friend in New York, accused of stealing a backpack. Browder maintained his innocence through and through (in 2012, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it), and yet at every juncture when the system could have and SHOULD have provided him better options, he had none: his bail was set at a price too high for his family to afford; he was never given a fair trial; and he was sent to Rikers’ Island, wasting away his late teens while “justice” wasn’t being served. Browder remained imprisoned for three years, and spent much of his time in solitary confinement. During his time in prison, Browder tried and failed to commit suicide at least twice.

He was released from prison in 2013. For the better part of two years, Browder attempted to readjust to life after, again, attempting to kill himself at least twice. He was fortunate enough to go back to school, to complete his high school equivalency diploma and entered Bronx Community College as well. A profile on Browder in The New Yorker prompted many famous names, like Rosie O’ Donnell, for example, to step up and step in to give Kalief support and reassurance. But Browder had been abused and assaulted in prison, both by inmates and police. Jennifer Gonnerman, who wrote the profile on Browder, mentioned that she’d seen video footage of Browder being beaten in prison. What’s scarier still to imagine, are the things that weren’t caught on camera. Browder’s story also, to a degree, prompted changes to be considered and made to the New York prison system as it pertains to inmates. But Browder’s story will end in tragedy instead of triumph.

“You shook as soon as you knew confinement was needed… Don’t let me tell them to the world about that shit you thinkin’…”

I imagine that prison changes a person. I imagine that you see and deal with things that the ordinary civilian can’t possibly comprehend or understand. I imagine that you still have nightmares about it. Though physically, he was freed, Browder was still a prisoner in his own mind. And when you’ve been held accountable for a crime you haven’t committed, when you’ve served time on a sentence you should’ve never been dealt to begin with… when you’ve been condemned as guilty even as you are completely innocent… that causes you to question. You might feel you deserve it. You convict yourself in your head because you’ve been told you were in the wrong; and having been left alone to ponder it for so long, you can’t help but think that it’s a little true.

“[You] place blame on you still – place shame on you, still/ Feel like you ain’t shit, feel like you can’t feel…”

I can’t imagine the grief that Browder’s adoptive mother and his adoptive siblings feel, now that their youngest is no longer here. When you lose a loved one to suicide, one of the first thoughts is almost certainly, “Did we do enough? Didn’t they know they were loved?” I hope they know that they did. Sometimes you do all you can and that still won’t save someone from the things going on inside their head. That’s not a reflection of what his family “failed” to do; it is, however, a confirmation that mental health goes much deeper than just creating a loving environment. It is why “self-care” has grown from being a token buzzword of conscious social media, into a very real process and adopting of habit that allows people of color especially to maintain their sanity in a world that thrives on calling them “violent” and “crazy.”

But further still, Browder’s death is a confirmation of the imbalance in our justice system, of the imbalance in treatment of Black folks compared to others. Browder would have been given the benefit of the doubt if his skin color had been different; at the least, he certainly wouldn’t have been in jail for three years behind as small an offense as alleged theft (Browder was charged with “robbery in the second degree”). Browder, unintentionally, has become a martyr for a conversation on both mental health in the Black community and on the failings and mistreatments that occur in our prison system and in court procedure. Even today, mere hours ago, the FBI has
arrested Rikers guards on charges of beating an inmate. This is not just a New York problem, however.

ABC US News | World News

Loving yourself is complicated. It’s even more complicated when daily, you never know if you’ll be the next to be picked up or stopped by police or restrained as you shout out that you can’t breathe or had a gun pointed at you directly for trying to intervene when one of your friends is wearing nothing more than a swimsuit and pinned to the ground. Black people, often, tell themselves that, in spite of this, it will get better. It has to get better. We have to keep going.

“I know your secrets, nigga: mood swings is frequent, nigga/ I know depression is restin on your heart…”

It never got better for Kalief Browder. I don’t think that the world is better off without him. I hope he found some semblance of peace. But it is both sobering and heartbreaking to be reminded that sometimes, in spite of the hope, in spite of the optimism… sometimes the darkness wins. Ideally, the life of Kalief Browder will at least shed light on how to deal with the darkness – and encourage us to continue to challenge the unequal distribution of justice, that keeps the darkness at its darkest.

*The above photo is credited to Zach Gross of The New Yorker.*