Kalief Browder – We Failed Him. We Disobeyed God.

About a year ago I read an article in the NY Post about a teen who spent far too long(*) in jail awaiting trial for trumped up charges he was probably innocent of. I was incensed when I read the story. I was furious at this peek into the system that would put him there for this. It wasn’t a fear induced anger – I wasn’t afraid of this happening to me or my children. It isn’t a problem that would face us.. Perhaps that’s why I became so angry. I was mad at the injustice shown to a human being who lives on the same sphere I live on. Who was made in the same image I was made in.

To me this case summed up a lot of injustice that still exists in the Criminal Justice system in this nation. Call it race. Call it socio-economic status. Call it both. But this story peeled back the veneer I’ve seen over our justice system. The veneer that says “nah.. it’s not really that bad.. if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” I’m not saying I disagree with personal accountability after reading of his story. I’m just saying that things are not always as they appear to be. By all accounts and by the integrity and courage and decisions this young man (well he was a boy when he entered jail waiting 3 years for his trial.. he was a man when he was finally left when the state dropped their charges…) was innocent of the charges lobbed at him.  I don’t fear this happening to me because he lacked four things I possess:

  • The ability to afford – or easily find a way to afford bail
  • The ability to afford – or easily find a way to afford a lawyer
  • White skin (as much as I wish this wasn’t a factor, I can’t say that and feel like I’m telling the truth)
  • I don’t live in the inner city

(* – Actually it is even more than far too long. 1 minute in jail for trumped up charges from a confused witness who changed his story a couple times to the cops and has zero other proof just “yeah that looks like the guy” with no other evidence whatsoever is far too long.. And I.. And most of the folks who read my technical blog wouldn’t even spend a second in a police cruiser or a second in handcuffs here.)

What Happened?

Really simply? This young man had one incident with police (cleared off of his record) that was a dumb thing his friends did and he was there and went along as a teen. That’s it though.  This time – he and a friend were walking. A cop came up to them and accused them of stealing. He told the cop “check my pockets I don’t have anything!” cop said “no a backpack” and then the cop said it was a week or so ago but the victim said he identified them on the street and knew it was them.. That’s it. No videos, no evidence, no proof, no nothing. And he got arrested, processed, bail was set (too high for his struggling adoptive mom – he was the 8th she adopted) and he went to Rikers island. Once there he had a tough time and ended up in solitary confinement for a lot of his stay.. While he waited for trial. For three years. THREE YEARS.. THREE.YEARS. The system is busy. And most folks end up waiting and waiting and then the prosecutors and judges offer a pretty good plea deal and they take it out of a desire to leave Rikers. He never took a deal. Even at the end when the deal was plead down to a misdemeanor, no big deal on the record, and get out on time served. He refused. He was tortured in his heart about it but he said he was innocent and he wasn’t going to do that. Instead he’d risk trial and risk 15 years in prison if found guilty… Ultimately.. The state dropped the charges when the “victim” went back to Mexico – and there was no other evidence, just a statement of one victim..

So I was pretty mad – and broken up about this case. Well today – I stumbled on a story about Kalief. The adopted son. The brother. The friend. The kid trying in school and getting C’s. The kid who didn’t want to just waste his life and had plans and dreams.

He’s dead. (Link to NY Post article about that)

This past weekend, his adoptive mother who was there for him for every single one of the court hearings (where the prosecutor asked for a continuance and then he went back to Rikers waiting again for his right to a speedy trial…), who raised him and loved him and helped instill integrity in him – found him hanged. She found his limp body hanging out of a window in their home. He never escaped the torture he suffered in Rikers. The solitary confinement during his growing and building years. The beatings. The starvation from angry COs. The humiliation. The destruction of his pride. He may have been free from Rikers physically, but it never left him mentally.

The system killed that young man. The attorneys and judges and policy makers and COs and Prison officials didn’t push him out that window. But they systematically sucked his life from him. They destroyed his will, his identity and his desire to live. They turned him from a vibrant youth with potential into a meek,quiet, broken young man who lost three years of education. Who lost three critical development years as a teenager.

The story about his death is here in the NY Post – from the same reporter who first told us about his plight in the earlier link.

This story has crushed my heart in more ways than I can count. The knowledge that he is most assuredly not the only person suffering like this wrecks me.

There were no kickstarter campaigns for his bail money. There were for my football team the New England Patriots and their star Quarterback Tom Brady when the NFL fined them. The system failed him. The media failed him. Our attention was diverted to many false shouts of “Racist!!” over on MSNBC or defense of said racism over on Fox News or 6 way video chats about missing airplanes on CNN.. But his story never got the time of day. It got a little after he was out – but not much.

We disobeyed God, Too

Yes. We disobey him in a lot of ways. We kill our unborn children. We tighten our wallets and close our clean hands inside and outside the church to real suffering. We have our quiet sins, too.

But we let this young man suffer. And we are letting others like him suffer. His mother was obedient. Obedient to care for the orphans and give this boy a second chance on life and a home. His adoptive father was obedient in a sense – even while separated he supported the children and was there for them.

Here’s the deal – Kalief’s problem is our problem. We are called to minister to the world. We are called to love justice and seek to end oppression. We are called to help. I harped on this in an earlier blog post about a problem in the church here.

As we stay silent and ignore the plight of this young man and let the media that tries to tell us what our religion says or the “Christian” politicians who try to tell us “everything is fine.. it’s just those bad sinners and criminals we have to fix then we’ll be all good” we become complicit in these crimes.

This isn’t as obvious as the Selma moment in our history; it isn’t outright and obvious, in your face oppression of basic rights like voting and public beatings for daring to try. This is just as important, though, and we cannot call our justice system just if there are men and women in the same predicament as him today in jails throughout America. If no one is held accountable for indirectly causing this young man’s death – or at the very least destroying his civil rights and inhumanely treating him.

His death must be transformative – if it isn’t then the atrocious waste of a life is made worse. His death must become a pivot point where we wake up and care. Where we seek to at least try and understand the plight of others. Where we stop ourselves from justifying this as “well.. just a bunch of thugs.. that’s what happens” like the commentators who try and tell Christians how to think say. If the nation doesn’t rise up and shout ENOUGH! then there will continue to be more Kaliefs out there. They may not kill themselves. They may not even be fully innocent of the original crime they were accused of. But the message this treatment sends is “that’s all you are. It’s all your kind are… Abandon all hope and be broken” – This treatment, this unjust justice system will continue perpetuating the problem. More lives will be ruined. More destructive recidivism cycles will be put into action by the flywheel of injustice. And we’ll continue spending our time arguing and talking about unimportant items while nothing changes. We’ll eat our cake and fight about the issues the politicians and media want us to fight about – and pain and suffering and loss will continue…  It’s time to snap out of this slumber we’ve allowed ourselves to be lulled into.

Life is better for a factory raised chicken than what he endured at Rikers.

Isaiah 1:17 says:

 learn to do good;
seek justice,
    correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
    plead the widow’s cause.

 

Micah 6:8 says:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,[a]
    and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Jesus told us about the Good Samaritan to tell us that we are not to be passive inhabitants of this world ignoring the problems that “others” have. But to be an active participant in being an instrument of His grace unto the world.  James’ reiterates that a lot in his epistle.

The system failed here. But the church failed here as well when we let injustice and oppression reign and ignore it. It’s the same as when we ignore the oppression of abortion that happens down the road from our churches.  It’s the same as when we ignore the hungry and hurting in our world or in our midst.

We all fail when we see injustice and our first instinct is to reply to that injustice with “well.. they probably deserve it.. Maybe if they just listened.. Maybe… What if” – sometimes those are the correct assumptions. And we do no good jumping to conclusions. But it really feels like a lot of the visible church (especially the REALLY VISIBLE church and the intersection that I call FoxNewsianity and Republiianity) has a default of ignoring these things as someone else’s problems.. And focusing on ours.  I spent some of my time recently arguing with Amazon about my kids birthday present not shipping when they said it would (in two days because of Prime).. That was my hassle.. There are people in jail cells waiting years for trial in NY because they can’t afford a lawyer who isn’t overburdened with legal aid cases or bail.. Or because they are black. Or because they come from the wrong neighborhood.

And I’m not saying that all who break the law do so because we make them. I think fatherless children is a real problem out there. I think multi generational welfare is a real problem. I think gangs are too appealing. But I have to say there is something to this quote from the Prince Caspian movie:

You get treated like a dumb animal long enough, that’s what you become. You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.

 

What a shame. I pray that he knew Christ. I pray that his mom and dad and family are receiving the help they need. I pray for justice. I mourn and weep with his family.

(Note – I am sharing this because I can’t do anything else to help. I do a search and there are a scant 200 news articles containing Kalief.. While there are already over 2,000 containing the term McKinney and 2,000 containing the term Jenner… Let this be one more link about a young man the system, the country and his fellow citizens and fellow image bearers forgot about and basically let perish a few years before his suicide.)

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