“Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17
I never met Kalief Browder; on this earth I never will. He died a few days ago finally successful after several attempts at suicide, dead at 22 years of age.
He lived in New York, in the Bronx. The chances he and I would ever have met are remote. I have a few friends who live in New York, but it is a big place. The crossing of paths was unlikely at best.
But, his life and his death should matter to followers of Jesus.
Like so many of the ongoing tragic deaths of unarmed Black men Kalief Browder did nothing wrong. Literally. Unlike many of the aforementioned deaths, Browder was not killed by a police officer. The story he told reveals an officer who didn’t think the boy had done anything wrong, either. “We’re just going to take you to the precinct. Most likely you can go home,” the officer said.
There’s a line in the movie First Blood. Delmar Berry’s mother says of her son’s Agent Orange caused death, “He died in Vietnam and he didn’t even know it.”
Kalief Browder was not killed by the police. He was killed by the injustice in the state of New York’s justice system.
He was arrested and jailed for stealing a backpack he did not steal. Then he spent more than 1,000 days in jail awaiting a trial that never took place. Two years of that time were spent in solitary confinement.
Kalief Browder was sixteen years old when falsely accused, needlessly arrested, wrongfully jailed, ignorantly held, unjustly beaten, then lost in the complicity of bad deals, shiftless lawyers, worthless judges until “right to a speedy trial” was the punchline to the worst joke ever told. He was kept in the RNDC unit on the 400-acre Rikers Island prison complex. It’s described as
as a place with a “deep-seated culture of violence,” where attacks by officers and among inmates are rampant. The report featured a list of inmate injuries: “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.”
Americans owe Jennifer Gonnerman a deep debt for bringing Browder’s story to light.
Gonnerman is also the one who exposed the abuse Browder suffered at the hands of guards and inmates alike. Brutalized, punished and assaulted while the “case” against him sat on desks and shelves as the original “witness” left the country. The witness, who had already changed his story before Browder was ever arrested, had been gone for more than a year before prosecutors realized they, quite literally had no case, of any kind, at all.
So, after suffering PTSD and insurmountable psychological struggles, Kalief Browder is dead.
Systemic injustice occurs when governmental, educational, military, religious, legal, or other social structures intentionally or passively deny to those created in the image of God the blessings or protections the institutions themselves were enacted to provide.
Christians should take note such injustice obscures the righteousness and glory of God. When systems that should provide for human flourishing suppress it instead, it’s a problem we cannot ignore. Do those of us who believe in the wickedness of humanity truly think we can gather sinful humans together, give them authority over systems, and never see active and/or passive abuse? Not only should we not be surprised that injustice can be systemic, we should expect it, and be vigilant against it.
When we do nothing to address systemic injustice we neither seek justice, nor correct the oppressor, nor stand with the fatherless, nor defend the widow. And when we do nothing, it is to our shame.
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