Kalief Browder Spent 3 Years in Jail and No One Knows Why


We need to keep Kalief Browder in the news.

Back in May 2010, Browder was walking home from a party in the Bronx when a strange man suddenly accused him of being a thief. Before he knew it, he was under arrest and facing criminal charges. Because his family couldn't afford his $10,000 bail, Browder was forced to wait in jail until his trial.

More than two years later, he was still waiting.

The first major turn in his case occurred in January, 33 months after he was taken into custody, when a judge offered to release him for time served on a plea deal. Browder turned it down, opting to prove his innocence in court despite warnings that losing could lead to a sentence of up to 15 years. This decision cost him another five months of his life before he was finally released in June without explanation and without Browder ever facing trial. Indeed, Browder was never made aware of the exact nature of the accuser's charges against him, to say nothing of why those accusations were ultimately dismissed.

Last week, an article by Upworthy went viral and increased public awareness of Browder's story. While this was a good start, interest seems to have waned in the days since. This is unacceptable, for Browder's ordeal is yet another piece in the grotesque mosaic of American racial profiling. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Justice Statistics statistics on street-level law enforcement from 2005 (the most recent available) reveal that non-white drivers were far more likely than whites to be arrested, searched, or given a ticket during or after a traffic stop. White people, in contrast, were more likely to receive verbal or written warnings. Unsurprisingly, similar trends exist in the experiences of non-white pedestrians like Browder.

When the Center for Constitutional Rights focused on Browder's own New York City, it found that as elsewhere in the country, "data provided by the NYPD plainly demonstrate that black and Latino New Yorkers have a greater likelihood of being stopped-and-frisked by NYPD officers at a rate significantly disproportionate to that of white New Yorkers." It also found that "NYPD officers use physical force during stops of blacks and Latinos at an exceedingly disproportionate rate compared to whites who are stopped, and that this disparity exists despite corresponding rates of arrest and weapons or contraband yield across racial lines."

Browder's case highlights more than racial injustices in our society. The $10,000 bail set for his case was morally outrageous. Not only do such steep bails discriminate against impoverished individuals like those in Browder's family, but they are often applied in cases where their use is excessive ad absurdum. This includes Browder who, after all, had been accused of a non-violent crime based solely on the word of his accuser. Similarly, the egregious time span that elapsed between Browder's arrest and trial date, as well as the lack of clarity regarding the charges made against him, blatantly violated Browder's constitutional rights as protected by the Sixth Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

A situation such as this reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from the Sherlock Holmes short story "Silver Blaze" where the famous detective draws attention "to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" not because it barked, but because it did nothing. It's most curious that Browder's name isn't on everyone's lips, like Trayvon Martin's was a few months ago. This reveals much about us. It speaks to our oversaturation with stories of racial profiling and discrimination and, ironically, how this causes our media outlets to pay less attention to them. It highlights the willingness of those who have been spared profiling and persecution to underreact when fellow citizens in different social categories experience suffering. It also shows a latent yet powerful racist streak that causes some among us to assume those NYPD officers were probably right, that "we need to wait for all the facts" to come in, which is always code for those who have already made up their minds to side against the targeted victim. Most important of all, it tells us that the only way to fight silence against injustice is to make as much noise as possible.

We can start by demanding answers for Browder, who is currently suing the city for $20 million in damages. He has a right to know why he was arrested, detained for so long in violation of his constitutional rights, and then just as inexplicably released. Good people everywhere should do their part to make sure Kalief Browder remains in the news.