In Memory of Kalief Browder

It was with a heavy heart that I read Jennifer Gonnerman’s new piece in memory of Kalief Browder (found at The New Yorker: here). I want to acknowledge outright that there are a number of other cases of wrongful imprisonment and/or undue process that all bear talking about — such as the cases of Daniel Chong, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman, Michael Graham, those detained in the now infamous Homan Square Chicago PD blacksite, and many, many more — but I’d like to acknowledge Kalief Browder as an individual in this post.

I followed the developments in New York as Gonnerman and othes chronicled Browder’s three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for the suspected theft of a backpack (Gonnerman’s first article: here). You may recall that it spurred Bill de Blasio to reform the judicial system in New York.

Obviously, as someone interested in the medical humanities, biopolitics, and the relationship between health and security I found Browder’s story to be an intellectually interesting one, a story that told us something about the hidden machinations of power. A story that a whole population of Americans already know a lot about. On a personal level, his story strikes a chord with me and really reminds me of my own privilege as a heterosexual, normative, middle class, white man, because deep down I know that what happened to him could not have happened to me almost anywhere in the U.S. because I am seldom seen as threatening or criminal. I get the benefit of the doubt, rather than being automatically doubted. And at the same time, I can imagine how those experiences would have destroyed me. But again, I have the privilege to imagine rather than know this in any material, embodied way.

Stories like Browder’s are hard for me to blog about, but I feel compelled to address them (and his in particular). I’m faced with the ethical compulsion to witness someone I never knew, and the intellectual compulsion to speak about his life experiences as a teaching moment on the function of power and the state manipulation of bodies and health. And yet, I am concerned that to do the former is but an empty gesture from a white male Ph.D. While to do the latter smacks of a hollow appropriation of someone else’s life, story, and pain.

Browder’s death is at once similar to and radically different than the recent, high-profile deaths of people of color from state violence made more visible throught the #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername social media campaigns. The violence done to him was a slower one, though, an institutional violence long familiar to Americans of color (but perhaps especially black Americans). It’s a violence that the poor know well, too. A slow state violence that works over years and leaves its marks on minds as much as bodies. (And when I say slow state violence, I am really thinking about something along the lines of the intersection of Rob Nixon’s “slow violence” and Lauren Berlant’s “slow death”)

In a separate post I will talk a little bit about some of the slow, bureaucratic violence of the state in Los Angeles, but for now I want to remember Kalief Browder, though I never knew him. I want to say his name without exploiting his memory and overgeneralizing his experience. I want to say his name without appropriating his story and making it about me and my life and my lessons.

I can’t help but think of the end of the W.B. Yeats poem “Easter, 1916” and feel that it is “our part, / To murmur name upon name” and thus I bear witness to Kalief Browder. May he find in death the peace taken from him in life. 

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