We Are Better Than This
June 11, 2015
Driving home on Monday, I heard on NPR that Kalief Browder, the young man from Brooklyn who spent three years on Rikers Island — two of them in solitary confinement — while waiting for a trial that never happened, had committed suicide over the weekend. I burst into tears.
I was flooded with memories of when I worked in a maximum-security juvenile correctional facility in Columbia, South Carolina as a VISTA volunteer in the 70s. It wasn’t Rikers Island, but it was grim. I was 21, and that year, and the ones after when I worked with adjudicated youth in outdoor and wilderness settings, framed who I became and the career paths I chose.
Everything about Kalief’s case is wrong. So much for the right to a speedy trial or the presumption of innocence. How could so many prosecutors and judges have sanctioned locking up a 16-year-old boy in barbaric conditions for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack without giving him right to confront his accusers? Prosecutors never did produce a victim or witness. Kalief steadfastly maintained his innocence, turning down a plea deal for credit for time served.
In a completely trite moment, I was irritated with my Facebook and Twitter “whatevers” because so few liked or shared my posts about Kalief. I am white and privileged, as are many in my circle. Are we so insulated from the possibility that this could happen to our children that this tragedy doesn’t resonate?
Broader public outrage would give me some hope that as a society we are ready to put a stop to our incarceration addiction. But look how long it took to put a spotlight on the senseless police killings of black and brown boys and men. There were hundreds if not thousands of Trayvon Martins, Michael Browns, and Tamir Rices, before cell phone technology captured what communities of color have known forever.
I now work in education reform, which to some means I am a tool of the evil corporate empire, but to me it means I am dedicated to getting our public education system better-resourced and more responsive to the needs of underserved children, far too many of whom are black or brown or low-income. Washington State has its own thriving school-to-prison pipeline. The truth is seeping out about the rates at which Washington schools expel and suspend children of color.
What worries me is that as hard as we work to get education policy right, as hard as our teachers work to impart knowledge and instill a love of learning, and as hard as we work to get schools the funding they need to do the job, it won’t be enough. Children will still get body slammed at pool parties, or shot on a playground, or locked up for three years without being convicted of any crime. What we do with that damning information and how we ensure that no more young lives are senselessly lost speaks volumes about our moral compass.
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