Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we’ve witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.
As the country mourns George Floyd and processes his tragic and unnecessary death, one of the most depressing facts to come to terms with is that he's but one new name on an expansive list of black men and women who have fallen victim to systemic racism and injustice. This Saturday is the fifth anniversary of one of the most crushing entries on that list: June 6 is the day Kalief Browder passed after the three years he spent in Rikers Island—where he awaited trial for allegedly stealing a backpack—took their ultimate toll. He was 22.
To remember Browder (the subject of the 2017 docuseries Time: The Kalief Browder Story), especially as protests continue to keep the memory of him and the countless others like him alive, Complex reached out to his older brother Deion, who, along with his other siblings, runs the organization Stop Solitary for Kids.
How are you doing, this week especially?
It's a bag of emotions, seeing what's going on and everything like that. But I'm doing pretty fine.
I know it would have been Kalief's birthday a couple of weeks ago. How do you and the family reflect when this time comes around each year?
I think we all grieve differently in our own ways. Whenever it comes around, it's like a trickle-down of different days and emotions to feel. His birthday is May 25. He was released from prison May 29. That's the day that he declared his new birthday. So we tend to celebrate that. Then, a few days later, then his anniversary.
So we reflect on the good and try to think of all the memories and all the positive things that he's done—the days that he smiled and was happy—and then we also think about the fact that he's not here, and it really hits you. Sometimes, for me, I could say I don't think about it much... I try to block it out because it's a big pain. But when it comes around, it reminds you that he's not here. It's a little difficult.
I spoke with Jenner and Julia, and at this point, it's been about three years since they made the documentary on Kalief. How have you processed the reception to it and his story becoming widespread?
Again, it's a bag of emotions because in one point, you get a lot of people, even to this day, that message me on social media, from all over the world: U.K., I got someone from Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and they all were touched by his story. I'm very happy to say what the documentary did. It shed a light on a lot of things that's going on in the world within the system. And it also shed a light on everyone else's problems, those that are feeling the same way or would do the same things he did. So, I get to share those stories with people and it's liberating to know that there's so much love out there for him, when not too long before he passed, me and him had a conversation in my home. He shared a lot of what he was feeling in terms of support and love, just in the community around the world. He shared with me that he felt that after he passed away, no one would care. No one would remember him, no one would love him. And it haunts me today to know that those were his words, but he will never get to see all of the love and support that people have for him.
Kalief's story is always something that stays on a lot of minds, but I think it's hitting even harder these days, as, in the last two weeks, the country has been in such a state of unrest. How have you been processing what's been going on outside?
I'm very happy with how everyone's coming together. I think it's really important during this time to unify, and it's so good to see that everyone is standing up for this cause, all races, but particularly the African-American community is galvanizing together and we're standing up to let them know that we are here and we will not take lightly to what's happening around. We have to change what's going on. The systematic racism is getting out of control, and every single time we see pictures and images and videos flash across our screens, we slash the wounds back open. They tend to sweep a lot of these things under the rug once it dies down and then you don't hear about it no more. But I'm glad to see that this is something... this unrest that's happening, we're not settling until we see some change. I was out there protesting with them. Making everyone's voice heard is the most important part in this. It's interesting to see what's going on, and I'm just glad to see that we're all standing together, we're all in this together.
Definitely. There's been a heightened level of trauma that affected us all, and definitely greatly impacts black mothers and women who are losing loved ones, or maybe not being fought for in the same light. Do you have any advice for those protesting in the streets, some for the first time, about the stress of fighting for justice?
My advice is don't give up. The tunnel seems long, but there is always a light at the end of it. It may seem like it's going to weigh on you. I've watched it weigh on my mother. She had to step in and take over something that she was unfamiliar with, and she marched in her own way by standing up and going out there and speaking and advocating—letting the world know about Kalief's story. So my advice to protesters and my advice to everyone out there marching: not to give up. Keep going. It may weigh down on you, but the light at the end of the tunnel is definitely coming, and we can see it. It's in the distance, but we can definitely see it. And if we keep marching towards it, we will then eventually get there.
I want to talk about your family's organization, Stop Solitary for Kids. How has that been going recently, and how do you think that's helped to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline?
It's still going. We're still advocating; we're still pushing forward. I think what it's done, it's given a lot of the new generation, and even our current generation, a new chance, a new freedom. After Kalief's death, a lot of spotlights were put on the school-to-prison pipeline, the solitary confinement, the bail systems. There's a lot of spotlights that were put on these different pieces, and change hasn't come as fast as we hoped it would. But what I can say is that as we continue this process, those that are affected by each and every individual piece that I said will benefit from it. And the fight is not over. We just got to keep going, and we got to keep advocating, and keep putting in to ensure that no other child or no other teenager—no one else—goes through the same things that Kalief had went through.
What are your thoughts on the plan to effectively close Rikers by 2026?
I could say my thought on it, but I think it's important to recapture Kalief's image on the facility itself. He was a strong believer in closing down Rikers. He was a strong advocate for changing the system itself and how people are treated within each facility. So I'm all for the aspect of closing down Rikers. I just think that we also need to refocus on what the next steps would be. We can jump in—we can close Rikers. But what's the plan of action going forward? How do we know things are going to change? How do we know that just because you closed one institution and refocus on another, that those systematic errors that were happening within those facilities are not going to change? So when we think about the bigger picture of closing Rikers, we got to also be focused on the simplicity of what the reasons were, or why we are focusing on closing Rikers. Once we get all of those pieces together, I think then we can encompass the bigger conversation of not just the facility itself, but the systematic errors within the facilities.
How do you hope people remember Kalief? What do you hope that they take away from his story?
I want them to take away from his story that he was a fighter, even before he went to Rikers. He was a fighter. He was a big advocate for people. He was a big defender for people, and you got to see that through the documentary. You got to see his determination, his grit, his vigor. You got to see all of those aspects of Kalief, because I think that's one thing that everyone takes away from the documentary. A lot of people talk to me about his determination. He didn't give up his fight, and those are the things that I've watched growing up with him. As his brother, as his older brother, I got to see him grow from a toddler to a young adult. Everyone now gets to see that within the span of time that they watch the documentary. I want them to remember him as a humble guy, a peaceful guy, a loving guy. Someone who values family. Someone who advocated for people and justice for all.