Kalief Browder was held in jail for three years because he was alleged to have stolen a backpack. Held without conviction or a trial, he maintained his innocence from the beginning. He spent two of those years at Rikers Island in New York, a notoriously violent adult jail complex. Much of that time was in solitary confinement, and he suffered brutal assaults at the hands of guards and inmates. He was released in 2013, when the charges were finally dropped. He was 17 when taken into custody, 20 at his release. He entered community college, attaining a 3.5 GPA — a magnificent achievement considering how far behind he had been.
In an interview for the New Yorker after his release, Kalief spoke about the psychological affects of prison, which couldn’t be remedied by the lawsuit they were bringing against the State of New York. Kalief is quoted as saying, “there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.” He attempted suicide multiple times during his time in jail and after, and finally succeeded last week.
We often think of such stories as historical, long-gone; or as the barbaric practices of a far away, ‘less-civilized’ land. Yet this happened in our nation, in a city we claim as one of the greatest in the world, during our lifetime. It happened now, today, tomorrow, as far as Kalief Browder’s family is concerned.
What is to be done by a largely unskilled 26-year-old, in the face of such things? There is so much that matters, so much at stake — how can we live, smile, and thrive in good conscience while others suffer so? While we say “I can’t even-” about outfits and opinions, the world and our society churns people through situations that we can’t — even — comprehend.
I can rail and wail all I want, but once I finish writing this I’ll reheat some leftover rigatoni with herbed béchamel and prosciutto, pull out my book or flip on the TV and spend the evening inert, disengaged from the world and all the problems that so disgust me. I am a slacktivist on nearly all issues, and doomed my whole life to be one on most issues. This post being about Kalief Browder means I’m neglecting income inequality, refugees, and drone warfare — all issues I care about. Even if I spend a career crusading for one of those issues on the highest levels, as a UN Special Rapporteur or head of an NGO, how can I reconcile caring about another issue of grave importance and doing nothing about it? If action is the true measure of feeling, am I just a privileged, apathetic autocrat about all but a small handful of issues? Is it okay to depend on the rest of the world to care about the other issues enough to actually do something about them?
There aren’t easy answers, and I refuse to end on a cliché, or some hopeful justification. The world is irreconcilably awful in some ways, and I’m — maybe not equally, but relatively — awful, too. Solace will not be found; distraction is the best that can be hoped for. The measure of a good life may turn out to be our distractions: that we choose to be distracted not by something bad or even neutral, but by something truly good; something with meaning.