One Year After Kalief Browder’s Death, His Brother Keeps Fighting

On what would have been Kalief’s 23rd birthday, Akeem Browder looks forward.
A mural honors Kalief Browder in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
May 30, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

NEW YORK—There were piñatas at what would have been Kalief Browder’s 23rd birthday party in the Bronx this week. They weren’t stars or donkeys or any other colorful, traditional shape. Instead, white papier-mâché heads—caricatures of New York’s own Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and city Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte—frowned in their business suits under the hot sun as activists gathered to remember Browder. The youngest of seven siblings who called him Peanut, he took his life last June after three years incarcerated in the city’s most notorious jail, Rikers Island, a death that heightened calls for reform of solitary confinement in the city and nationwide.

The party turned rally outside the criminal courthouse was led by Kalief’s older brother Akeem Browder, founder of the "Campaign to Shut Down Rikers." Akeem has organized for criminal justice reform since before his brother’s incarceration, but he launched the campaign after Kalief’s death. Kalief was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, then spent three years in jail without a trial. Akeem spent time on Rikers himself as both a former employee of the Department of Corrections and an inmate at age 13, so his crusade is a personal one. TakePart spoke with Akeem about his activism, his brother’s life, and what justice would look like for his family. (The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

TakePart: How has your experience on Rikers informed your community organizing efforts?

Akeem Browder: As a worker and a detainee there, I’ve seen the silence that is maintained on the island. It’s crooked. It’s the most corrupt thing I’ve ever witnessed. I ended up quitting that job because I just couldn’t take seeing [Kalief] in there or being there anyway. I realized the importance of having rallies and actions because that’s what informed me when I was younger. These are things that happen directly to my community. Rikers will never change unless the people do something about it. It takes a collective effort.

TakePart: What has the last year been like for you?

Browder: It’s definitely taken a toll on myself and my family. I didn’t deal with his death well in the first month. I was devastated. The second month, I didn’t believe he was actually dead. It’s still unreal. When I went to Kalief’s funeral, I saw him in the casket, and it bothers me to this day. My mother has been holding herself strong, but she’s heartbroken. Instead of being emotional all the time, I have to steel myself away and harden myself so that I’m strong for my family.

Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, at the press
conference at New York City Hall to formally ask Mayor
de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and Department of Correction
Commissioner Ponte to immediately shut down Rikers
Island. (Photo: Erik McGregor/Getty Images)

TakePart: What’s next for the "Campaign to Shut Down Rikers"?

Browder: The people don’t have time to do any research, so we bring the research to them in the streets. We do statistical analysis. All of these systems grossly failed Kalief. It’s not the first time that it happened, and it isn’t the first time it happened to a minor. I will help with one more action after this, and that will be my last for a while. I need to take a break. I’ve been going to counseling. I’ve been doing these actions to keep myself busy, but I’m not really able to cope with the sorrow.

I don’t want to fail Kalief or let his name not be remembered. By remembering Kalief, you recognize and are forced to acknowledge that this is happening to teenagers. He represents more than just one boy, one isolated situation.

TakePart: Your family sued the city of New York, which is now offering a $20 million settlement. Would that settlement mean justice to you?

Browder: That money can’t replace my brother’s life. If we settle and take that, it’s like a gag order. It’s not the money we’re looking for, it’s the reprimand. [The city] will know they did something wrong if they lose $20 million, but we still want the behavior on Rikers to be corrected. Money doesn’t mean anything. If we can at least get corrective action, that’s what I’m looking forward to.

We can’t ever get Kalief back. Justice for me is not just shutting down Rikers but also to see that the officer who beat up Kalief and then lied about it is reprimanded harshly. But it’s not only him: We can’t put all the blame on this one dude. He’s not the one that ordered Kalief to stay in jail for three years.

TakePart: What does the world after Rikers Island look like to you?

Browder: We want public spending to stop going to a torture chamber. Why would we put someone in jail for stealing a book bag in the first place? This is why jails don’t work. The facility itself doesn’t kill or rape people. The people inside make it violent. That kind of power doesn’t belong in the hands of anyone. The idea of opening up new jails closer to communities doesn’t help anyone. Newer jail cells are still cages for humans.