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The tragedy of Kalief Browder must never happen again
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By Andrea Peyser
June 12, 2015

The tragedy of Kalief Browder must never happen again

I grieve for Kalief Browder.

Trapped in a state of despair and paranoia, Kalief committed suicide this past Saturday, leaping from a second-floor window of his family’s Bronx home with an air-conditioner cord wrapped around his neck. He was a lost young man whom, ordinarily, I would never have heard about, much less cared about. Collateral damage in the grand opera of New York City.

He was 22 years old.

But I know one thing as certainly as I know that death will one day consume me, too: Kalief Browder did not deserve to die. Not now. Not like this.

Late at night, I lie awake imagining the torments Kalief must have suffered as he fell to oblivion. Did he think of his mother? Of the ladies he would never love? Of the jobs for which he would never be hired, the children he would never sire? In his final moments, did his mind race through the million little details of a future he would never see?

I believe that, in the instant between life and death, Kalief found peace.

I am angry.

Who will answer for this?

He was the youngest of his parents’ seven children, the younger five adopted. He was not a perfect teen, but he was not the worst.

In one run-in with police, when Kalief was 16 years old, an officer reported seeing him take a delivery truck for a joyride and crashing it into a parked car, according to a piece published last year in The New Yorker magazine.

Kalief insisted that he only watched as his friends drove the truck. But he pleaded guilty and was granted youthful-offender status by a judge, who sentenced Kalief to probation.

He could not have known this at the time, but Kalief was staring down death.

In May 2010, 10 days before Kalief’s 17th birthday, he and a friend were arrested after a man accused them of stealing his backpack and Kalief of striking him in the face, which led to Kalief being charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault.

His friend was not held behind bars. Although Kalief insisted he’d done nothing wrong, a judge set his bail at $3,000, a sum his parents were unable to raise, because he was on probation. After his indictment, another judge ordered him held without bail because of his probationary status. He was locked up in the vast city jail on Rikers Island — for three years — awaiting a trial that never came.

He was held in solitary confinement for about two years, punishment for fighting and other infractions, his lawyer Paul Prestia told me.

A security video from inside Rikers showed him being slammed to the ground and pummeled by a correction officer as his hands were cuffed behind his back. Another showed him being beaten by about 10 teen inmates.

He attempted suicide, said his lawyer, several times, once by trying to hang himself with a bed sheet he tore into strips, fashioned into a noose, and tied to a light fixture. Another, by smashing a plastic bucket and slicing his wrist with a shard.

A prosecutor offered him a deal allowing him to plead guilty to felonies in exchange for a sentence of 3½ years in prison, then 2 ½.

Then a judge offered to let him plead guilty to two misdemeanors and go free immediately.

In each case, he refused. He wanted to stand trial.

Then by 2013, the guy who’d accused Kalief and his pal of robbing him had returned to Mexico and could not be located by authorities.

Charges were dropped. Kalief was sent home.

But he never really was free.

He earned his high-school equivalency diploma, enrolled in community college, took a part-time job and inspired the administration of Mayor de Blasio to enact jail reforms, including ending solitary confinement for young inmates and speeding up trials in the clunky criminal-justice system that swallowed Kalief whole.

He even attracted glamorous admirers, including rap mogul Jay Z and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell. Running for president, Republican US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky mentioned Kalief on the campaign trail.

At least twice more, he attempted suicide. Twice, he was admitted to hospital psychiatric wards.

Kalief threw out his brand-new TV, he told The New Yorker, “because it was watching me.” But he showed no signs of mental illness before he was locked up, Prestia insisted.

After his death, the mayor vowed to enact even more reforms of the jail system.

It is too late for Kalief.

The night before he took his life, he told his mother, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.’’

If we, as citizens, are to lay claim to our humanity, we must not allow another human being to be driven to madness this way. I am heartsick.

Rest in peace, Kalief. Your torment is over.

©2007-2021 Andrea Peyser and andreapeyser.com; No Reuse without permission.
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