After the loss of their mother, Venida Browder, Kalief Browder’s siblings lead the fight against juvenile solitary confinement, and the system that abandoned him on Rikers Island.
Ms. Venida Browder’s house collected sounds that cemented lifelong memories within its walls. In her Bronx abode, the matriarch raised seven children who would go on to keep the seams in tact in the fabric of family. Sounds of fun times passed through every nook of the two-floor house, but sounds of despair also found a space within her home.
TIME: The Kalief Browder Story depicts the unimaginable life of a young man, who executive producer Jay Z deemed a prophet. At 16, Kalief was accused of stealing a backpack, and was detained at Rikers Island for three years while he awaited trial. During that time period, he spent 800 days in solitary confinement. Enduring starvation, physical abuse and mental anguish, Browder was released with no charge in 2013. He returned to his mother’s Prospect Avenue house, and sought to fall back into the motion of society. He enrolled in Bronx Community College, and peddled his bike to campus where he had pursuits of a career in business.
Fifteen days before 2015’s first day of summer, Kalief committed suicide in his mother’s home. Ms. Browder recalled the moment she heard a loud thump, a noise that forever lived in her memory — that is, until her untimely passing in October 2016, nearly five months before the release of her son’s docu-series — alongside the brighter moments she shared with her children. When she investigated the noise, she discovered Kalief’s body hanging lifelessly from a cord attached to an AC unit.
Kalief’s story reached international status after journalist Jennifer Gonnerman penned an extensive and eye-opening feature on his time before, during and after Rikers. The passage published in the New Yorker served as part of the foundation for Spike TV’s six-part program, directed by famed documentarian, Jenner Furst. “Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid,” Browder shared with Gonnerman. “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”
Before the intensity of Kalief’s glow began to dim, his siblings remembered him as an ambitious young man who planned to rub elbows with the big wigs on Wall Street. With goals of obtaining a business degree, Kalief’s aspirations not only involved his own achievements, but his family’s as well.
Ahead of its premiere, four of Kalief’s siblings — Akeem, Nicole, Deion and Kamal — revisit memories of their upbringing in the Bronx (they joked about their mother’s “bad” driving, and unforgettable family BBQ’s), the marvel of their mother’s strength, their resilience against the neglect of the justice system and the moment Kalief began to smile again.
Comfy Uptown Beginnings
VIBE: What was it like growing up in the Bronx?
Deion Browder: Growing up in the Bronx for me, and I’m just speaking for myself, I didn’t experience what the surroundings entailed as far as poverty level or anything like that. For example, living in my mom’s house, it was a regular home environment. We had family events growing up, fun times with our siblings. She walked us to and from school everyday. She made sure she was present. I can’t say that growing up I experienced any let downs of the surroundings that’s going on around us.
Nicole Browder: We spent our summers inside. The block that we lived on was really quiet. It wasn’t infested with any crime or stuff like that. I noticed that as time went on it changed, but I left at a very early age. I would say at 13 years old I ran away. My mom would walk us to school, and it was kind of annoying because I wanted to show my friends that my mom’s not holding my hand. When my mom drove us, she didn’t know how to drive so I was always nervous in the car.
Akeem Browder: She was a great driver to me.
Nicole Browder: She was really bad.
Deion Browder: When she was rushing us to school [laughs].
Nicole Browder: Oh my goodness it was bad. She drove like a man.
Akeem Browder: She was a great driver to me.
Nicole Browder: And you know you’re supposed to go slow and easy and steady, but no, she dodged cars. You follow all the signs and you stop at the stop sign, and she sometimes just ran it. But other than that, growing up with my siblings was cool. We had fun, especially when our father [Everett Browder] wasn’t there. We had a lot of good memories when he wasn’t there.
Kamal Browder: They used to blame stuff on me. They would ask, ‘Who did this?’ And they would say, ‘Kamal!’ Half of the time I wasn’t in the house, and it was still, ‘Kamal! Kamal!’ But like they said, our mother used to drive us to school. What I don’t understand is why did she drive us to school when our school was a block away? We all used to go to [M.S.] 129. She would say, ‘Kamal get in the car…okay you’re here.’ That was just wasting gas. But we had fun when our father wasn’t there. Sometimes when he was there, I’m not going to say we had fun, but we had our moments. We were all eating one day and my father told one of us to shut up. He told us to shut up one more time, and he dropped his food. You heard it drop, so we were all laughing. He came downstairs and slapped the food out of Kalief’s hand and said, ‘If I can’t eat, then you can’t eat.’ My oldest brother felt bad, and got him a baloney sandwich.
Akeem Browder: They obviously have a different experience than me. I’m older than all of them. My mom, in my defense, drove excellent. She was speed racer to me. That’s where I learned how to drive. The Bronx to me, in my opinion, since my mother had so many kids, we were each other’s friends or enemies, but we didn’t really have street smarts because even I left at 13. I didn’t even know the Bronx. I didn’t even know there was a Manhattan, actually. I didn’t know any other borough but the Bronx. For them, they went to school a block away. We went to school in City Island, me, Raheem and my older brother [Shihahn Browder]. The school bus came and picked us up. We were really a sheltered family. You had so many kids you had to have somebody in the house that you get along with, but nobody on the street. As far as drugs or the environment of poverty, we didn’t have that experience. My mother did a good job of raising us as far as what she could control. She did what she could to get us in a good school, and the Bronx didn’t really affect us, at least me, until I got older.
What was the meaning of family before the loss of your brother and mother, and did that change after?
Akeem Browder: My mother was the soul survivor of the family. She kept the family together, and we’re doing our best now to keep each other together in our mother’s name, and for the sake of family. Family is very important to me, but family has a different aspect for every family in America. We’re a made up family, but we’re family nonetheless, meaning my mother created this family where she took kids in, and even if she didn’t adopt them she loved them all. We have brothers and sisters that until my mom passed, they would either call once a year, once every couple of years, and they still say, ‘Hi mom.’ We felt the love for our mother, and now that she’s gone it’s hard for all of us. My older brother who’s not right here at the moment, we’re all suffering from it. I know my older brother Raheem, whenever I got in trouble he would protect me. If anybody in school would pick on me, he would be a shadow for some reason. He would pop up out of nowhere. The fact that we couldn’t protect our youngest brother Kalief, at least in my opinion, it was like, ‘Man, you pick on my brother I’m going to do something to you.’ But you can’t do anything because he’s in jail, and the people who’re picking on him are officers and people that you can’t get to. It left a sense of loss.
What were some of Kalief’s ambitions?
Nicole Browder: He wanted to open a business, he was very business-minded.
Akeem Browder: He was very aware of his health. His physique was something that he took pride in. He would workout in solitary confinement, and when I visited him he would have no food. He got small at one point because they were starving him, and I said, ‘Kalief you’re not eating?’ He told me they stopped feeding him, or when they did feed him every four meals. So four meals later; breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and then lunchtime he would get a tray of cabbage, but he was still working out. He said, ‘At least I ate healthy.’
Deion Browder: I think one of the things Kalief wanted to do, and I had this conversation with Kamal and mom, he said he wanted to own a brownstone and rent it. That way he always had income coming in. He wanted to go to college and get his business degree. That’s something that he was passionate about. That’s something he spoke on a lot. ‘This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to get there.’ He made sure even while he was mapping out his own goals, he had a conversation with Kamal to make sure Kamal mapped out his goals as well. Not only was he setting himself up for what he wants to do with the future, he also looked backward to make sure Kamal had a future as well. I think that’s something that he prided himself in. He looked after Kamal a lot. Not only did he want to focus on his own, and have his own business, own a brownstone and rent it out and continuously make money, get a degree, but he also wanted to make sure that the people around him succeeded as well.
Akeem Browder: Whenever he did an interview and they would pay him whatever, he made sure my mom was taken care of or the house, period. He would make a sum of money, get himself a TV, little stuff, and would say, ‘The rest I don’t need, here mom you need it.’ We always grew up having, but we had it because people around helped us a lot. Jay, our neighbor, he would come in with hand trucks full of boxes of food because he knew our family, and he owned a church. He’s a pastor and went into the military. He would come in with truckloads of food. He bought my mother one of those big freezers, those industrial-sized ones, and he would load it up with food every month. Since we always had to rely on other people, Kalief, and I’m sure just like all of us if we ever got to be something big and we’re wealthy, we would want to take care of the family.
The Rikers Effect
When you learned that your brother was arrested and placed at Rikers for alleged theft, what was your first plan of action?
Akeem Browder: I didn’t find out until the next day.
Nicole Browder: I thought they would let him go, honestly. I didn’t take it seriously. ‘It’s just a backpack mom, don’t worry about it. They’ll let him go.’
Deion Browder: She panicked a lot. The smallest thing she panicked about, and got really worked up with. I think I was at work when I got the phone call. She told me what happened and I said the same thing Nicole and everyone else said, ‘It’s something minor, he’ll be out.’ It wasn’t a concern for me right then and there because as a teenager we all get into different things. It’s like, ‘He’ll be out, don’t worry, relax, calm down.’ At the same time the focus was also on her because she did get so worked up that sometimes her health could be affected, so at the same time even if the situation is bigger than what we make it at that point, the goal at that moment was to calm her down so this way the situation doesn’t explode into he’s in jail or he’s arrested, now she’s in the hospital because she’s stressing. Our responsibility as a family was to make sure she was calm at all times so this way we can sort out the situation and not have to worry about, ‘Is something going to happen to her.’ I told her, ‘Calm down, let’s figure out what’s happening. Let’s go down there and figure out what’s going on.’ That was my response to it.
After learning about your brother’s situation within Rikers, when he was released were you cautious to ask him about what transpired there?
Nicole Browder: Absolutely.
Deion Browder: I never brought it up.
Nicole Browder: Never, it’s like walking on eggshells.
Deion Browder: His first day home I didn’t even speak on it. I was coming home from work, and he was sitting at the dinner table eating cereal or something like that. When I walked in the door, we greeted each other as if he never left. He said, ‘Hey what’s up?’ I just sat on the couch and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ It was my first time seeing him in so long because while he was at Rikers I wasn’t able to see him. He wanted me to stay home because of my lifestyle. He didn’t want me to go in there and make a bigger problem for him while being in there. I respected that and didn’t go and see him. In the few times that I did go to court to see him they never brought him. I actually forgot what his face looked like. When I saw him, the conversation was more about the way he looked, how he changed, and how big he got. I tried not to bring up any situation that happened because you can tell it bothered him. I let him come to me on his own terms about what happened to him. I let him express himself to me when he was ready. He had my mother who he spoke to on the regular. He had Kamal who he shared a lot of his problems with. I let him take the steps to go to Kamal or my mother. When he came to me and spoke about it, that’s when we had more of a conversation about it.
Akeem Browder: And everyone has a dynamic with him. I have a different dynamic with my sister than I do with my both of my brothers, and probably vice versa with all of us. When Kalief came home, that day we went driving around to all of these different civil attorney offices. When my mom said he was getting out, they didn’t know he was going to come out that day. That day made three years. If they would’ve went one hour or one day over, it would’ve been unconstitutional. That day was already set that he was going to get out, it was just unbeknownst to us, and you realize that after he was only going to get three years for his so-called alleged crime. If they would’ve got a sentence, they would’ve been fine, but he didn’t want to take a sentence so they had to release him that day and no later. That day was unknown to my mom. When he got out, I rushed and picked him up and we went driving around. That same day, every attorney told him no, that they can’t take his case because the officers had the right to do what they did. It was my thought that every one of these civil attorneys in Manhattan were contacted and said, ‘Don’t represent him.’ But Paul Prestia, who represented me in 2009, since he was a friend of mine after that, I said, ‘Can you see what you can do?’ We went to his office in downtown Manhattan, and Kalief was very talkative right away. Every other attorney would sit there and have him, ‘Oh what happened?’ and he would talk, and they would say, ‘That’s normal.’ We were hoping for anything because I knew this was unlawful, and when we got up to the office Paul immediately made moves. I think what the city didn’t do was contact every attorney to make sure no attorney represented him. They didn’t think a criminal defense attorney would turn his firm into a civil defense so that he can represent him, and that’s what happened with that particular situation.
Kamal Browder: I remember the first day Kalief came home, I’ll never forget it. The first thing he said was, ‘Yo Peanut!’ I used to hate that name. He would say, ‘Peanut!’ I said, ‘Oh that’s Kalief!’ He said, ‘How you been, man?’ I said, ‘I’m good.’ I used to visit him with my mother at Rikers until it got to the point where I used to tell her to make up stories because I got tired of going. Me and him were close, I didn’t even have to come to him. He told me all of his problems. Stuff he wouldn’t tell my mother he told me. We talked all hours of the night. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to work just to chill with him to make sure he was okay. I used to do security. When he went out, I went out with him just to keep him company. When I found out that he died, I was at orientation for work. I didn’t want to believe it. I called my next-door neighbor, David, and he confirmed it. I just broke down crying.
Did you ever notice Kalief struggle to get back to that energetic, happy, ambitious person after Rikers?
Deion Browder: Yes, you really had to be there to see it. It was crazy. In the beginning I had to really figure out what’s going on, what’s happening here. I had to speak to Nicole at some point, and she said, ‘This is what’s going on.’ It was hard for me to believe that…I didn’t see him in jail. My mother would tell me the stories when she went. There were times when I would take my mother’s phone, because my phone was off, and I would take her phone when I went out and he would call while I was out to speak to my mother. I would speak to him instead, and he wouldn’t talk about any of his experiences in Rikers. He would just say, ‘How are you doing outside?’ We never really had conversations, so I wasn’t aware of all what he was going through. A lot of the stuff I’m seeing now I’m seeing for the first time. When he was there, for me it was like, ‘Why is he acting this way? What is he doing?’ I had to speak to Nicole about it one day and she said, ‘He’s really going through something mentally. Something is really bothering him.’
It was tough to see that, to see someone who came out originally when I first got home to see him, he’s fine, and then week after week he week he got worse and worse. He didn’t want to be bothered with nobody. It was really difficult to see him that way. Towards the end you saw him in a whole new light. It went from him coming out from you not seeing any of these problems or struggles to him going through a huge phase for a lengthy period of time, to him then transitioning into someone who went to school everyday, to talking with business aspirations and goal-oriented. The transitions that he went through, it was like a rollercoaster to see something like that. It was hard because you were physically there to have to deal with it. Sometimes I didn’t want to deal with. I stayed in my room and locked my door because I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I didn’t know what he was doing. I had to lock myself in the room sometimes.
Akeem Browder: Kalief and I both experienced Rikers. I was 14 when I experienced Rikers. I was working there when Kalief was there. I was an engineer at Rikers, and it was for the Department of Corrections, but I was often at Rikers and other jails. While I was there I would see him, and he would try to get my attention, but then I’d see him on the visit floor. One time I visited him when he was in solitary. My mom didn’t come that time. We talked, and he would tell me the books that he was reading. That was all he could do. If my mom would send him a book then that was everything for him. I realized everything he was going through, because if you weren’t there, you can’t fully grasp what happens in jail or in Rikers period. If you haven’t been on Rikers it sounds fallacy, it sounds fiction. To go through it, and I wouldn’t want anyone to go through it, but then you would understand what happens. While you’re in solitary confinement or in jail period, you’re mixed with different people who come from different backgrounds, different boroughs, and quite frankly different age, size and frequency. You have different realms of everything and you’re exposed to all of this. It’s all violent.
When he came home, there were certain things that he did that I knew. I would pick him up in the middle of the night, like one or two in the morning, and just let him sit there. You don’t need to talk because people in jail like to talk a lot because we felt like we weren’t getting heard. You’re sitting in jail, nobody really wants to hear from you, and you get the feeling that no one cares for you. It’s like how can you be taken away from society, regular life, to be put in some place that’s like a gladiator school? That term is very vague because gladiator school, you can only imagine what you would go through. When you’re there, there’s no more imagination. You’re actually fighting for your life. You have people you don’t know wanting to kill you. You have people who you don’t know wanting to rape you or anything that they want to you. Then you look at the dichotomy of it because you see an officer and you think, ‘On the street, they’re supposed to protect you,’ and in jail they’re allowing you to get hurt. It’s a weird dichotomy, a flip situation. It’s like living in a different realm. I understood what he was going through. It’s just the help was necessary. The help that he needed wasn’t provided.
He appeared in court over 30 times. How did you pick up and start the process of getting him released or proving his innocence after every denial?
Akeem Browder: We put it in a speedy trial. They never afforded him a speedy trial. Then bail got taken from him because he had a probationary hold. There was no process that we could do and he had a…
Kamal Browder: A public defender.
Akeem Browder: A public defender, and this guy in my opinion was a total jerk. He knew the case was felonious, but in their defense they have so many cases. They say that you’re just another number, and that’s true, but when that life is being tortured and threatened and you have a mother calling you, family calling you, you have a case that’s lasting three years, you have the defendant crying out, you’re supposed to do your job. Due diligence was not afforded to him, and unfortunately it’s like that for anybody that’s going through the system. As long as you’re black or brown-skinned, you’re getting done dirty.
There should be no reason why an adolescent, a youth, pre-teen, should be subjected to some form of cage as if we’re just animals. —Deion Browder
An Attempt To Heal
In the beginning of the docu-series, Kalief smiled before he sat down to tell his story to the filmographer. When was the first time you noticed that he began to smile again?
Nicole Browder: I noticed when he started going to school, there were changes. No matter what demons tried to attack him in any way, he always tried to move forward. I don’t know what person could go through torture, come out, go to school faithfully, pass his GED, go to college and live a sort of normal life. When he went to school, that was his happy place. I noticed when I would call my mom a lot, I liked to call her during the day because when I did call her he was home. He would act a little bizarre with his behavior. I would talk to her and say, ‘Mom, it’s pretty quiet in here,’ and she said he was in school. I noticed there was a change, and he battled a lot. There were times my mom would tell me that he didn’t want to go, but he would still go and ride his bike all the way to the school, and ride it all the way back home.
Deion Browder: Just to save money.
Nicole Browder: Just to save money, and here I am mad because I can’t get the newest car out, you know what I’m saying? You don’t really have it bad when you look at his story. You really just don’t have it bad in life.
Deion Browder: One thing he loved was his nephew, R.J. As a matter of fact, he had two things he enjoyed in the house. When he was outside at school, of course that was his break, but when he was home and my nephew came over, he enjoyed playing around with R.J, and R.J enjoyed playing around with him. They had their special moments. We also had a cat in the house named Max. He took pride in that cat. The cat got hurt at some point, and he was very upset and he wanted to protect it. He had a few things in the house that brought him joy. My nephew took pride, interest in Kalief. He always wanted to play with him. In the household, that’s when I started to see the smiles start to come along, and that’s when he started to branch into school. He was very into family events. That was his thing because he said he missed out on a lot. One thing he spoke on heavy was the fact that he missed Nicole’s wedding. He was really into going to my older brother’s house just for dinner, or when they came over and my mother did the big dinners that he missed being at Rikers. I think the smiles started to come more when he saw that we all came to support him in certain things. It was fun to see that.
Nicole Browder: The biggest thing was that he wanted a Bar-B-Que.
Deion Browder: Yes for his birthday.
Nicole Browder: But he didn’t get to see that, unfortunately, but we did one in remembrance of him.
Akeem Browder: I took pride in knowing that he was crazy smart, he was an intelligent kid, and he read a lot. He brought home every book that he had. When he came home he ended up becoming a tutor in math in his college. He wanted to take care of his family, especially my mom. Kalief always wanted a job. He wanted to do something and make money. I said, ‘Kalief, you just came home, focus on school.’ He saw the benefit to it, but then he needed things like shoes or boots or coats, and it was winter time. He would say, ‘I need this job,’ or ‘I need to make money.’ I told him that’s going to come, don’t worry, your lawsuit is going to bring you what you need financially, but focus on school. I wanted to keep him on that because that cheered him up. He didn’t really go out, he would stay in the house a lot. I remember one time he called me and I was on the phone with my best friend. I three-way the call, it was 11 o’clock at night, and he’s in the front of the house, and this is how naïve he was. He was getting talked to by two white girls in a car, and I say that for a reason only because my mom’s neighborhood doesn’t have any white people, and they were in an Impala going in the opposition direction on the street. They got him in the car, and I said, ‘Kalief get out of the car.’ I was driving towards my mom’s house. He said, ‘It’s good bro, I got it.’ I said, ‘Kalief those are cops.’ He had a paranoia that they were watching him, but I don’t call it paranoia. If someone is actually watching you, it’s not paranoia.
He had his good times, and then his bad times were based off of truth. His bad times weren’t fictional. He did flip out thinking that people were watching him on TV on certain channels. Those came with the stigmata of going to Rikers and being in solitary, but it got overlooked. Unmarked cars were always parked on the corner of my mother’s block. When they would drive-by they would point at him with a hand expression as a gun. These are police. He had his good times, but it was overshadowed by a lot of negative. People don’t realize that the main thing in my mind is that Kalief is one story that finally got to be told, but I am his brother, and I went there first. The same traumas that he went through. I wasn’t there for three years, but I’ve been in solitary. It was only a week’s stint, but a week can bring… you had the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections that went through solitary, and after four days he needed therapy. One story got to be told in a family where two people went to jail. The surviving rate of telling your story is very low. Fortunately he got his story told.
The Emotional Toll Of Making TIME: The Kalief Browder Story
How hands-on were you all with this docu-series?
Deion Browder: We were all very hands-on. Jenner [Furst] made sure he sat down with each one of us. We all put heavy hands into the making of it, sharing exactly what we’re sharing with you now. The stories, the struggles and having to relive it. We all put the same amount of effort into making it. No one shied away 100 percent, except for the few like Everett [Browder, adoptive father], and my oldest brother.
Akeem Browder: He lives in Washington state.
Deion Browder: We all played a part in it somehow, but the ones who were really there to see what was going on played heavy into the production of the documentary.
Akeem Browder: They took a lot of film of all of us, but on top of that they did reenactments of certain things like the fact that I worked on Rikers. They rented a jail so that we could do reenactments of certain scenes. Everyone had different aspects in this. The fact that my mom who went to Rikers, they had her re-take that bus ride, recorded her on the bus going through security. This is hard stuff to relive, but my mom put a lot of effort in. This was her way of getting justice for her son. ‘We’re going to tell on you,’ basically. That’s what you do, you make people aware of things that they think is just a movie. You can see a movie about a jail and think it’s just a movie, but in real life, my mom just like any other mom in America went through stuff that no mother should. They had her reenact when they would pat search her. She would tell them how they would search her and shake her bra. Why would you put a mother through this type of stuff? She’s not carrying any weapons, the officers are carrying weapons and drugs.
Nicole Browder: They do it to 16-year-olds. I went there once to visit someone, a boyfriend, and they violate.
Akeem Browder: No one should have to go through that. You’re just visiting your loved one, but the reenactments had her drained because it’s mentally and emotionally draining. My mother had a bad heart, too. Though she wanted to tell the story, it took a toll on her. We had to reenact a part where they got a look-a-like for Kalief, and we were in the hospital because I went to visit Kalief in December of 2015? Was that when he got shot? It was December 21, before Christmas, am I wrong?
Deion Browder: It was more summertime-ish.
Akeem Browder: When he got shot, I rushed over to the hospital, and they weren’t letting my family up there. My mom went back home, and I said, ‘They’re not letting you up?’ I rushed back to the hospital and I didn’t care, no one was going to stop me. You’re going to have to put me in cuffs if you want to stop me. I went up there and he was calling my name. I didn’t need anyone to tell me where he was because I knew what floor he’s on, and I heard him calling my name. I rush and he’s behind the curtain, and they drugged him. They didn’t have his name, they had him labeled as John Doe. Since they didn’t have his name they had to sedate him, but he’s on medication so you can’t sedate someone that you don’t know because they could be on a medication that could affect them, and it did. It affected him because now he’s more irate and boisterous. When you get shot you’re supposed to be relaxed, but they had him in intensive care and dosed up. He was looking at me just as clear as I’m looking at you, and he didn’t recognize me. He kept saying, ‘Akeem, Akeem,’ and I said, ‘I’m here Kalief. What’s going on? What happened? Who shot you?’ I was irate myself. You hurt my brother I’m going to go after who did this to take some kind of vengeance or justice in my own hands. He just kept looking at me and calling my name. A lot of the reenactments we had to do brings light to this stuff. It takes a toll on you.
If they would’ve went one hour or one day over, it would’ve been unconstitutional. That day was already set that he was going to get out, it was just unbeknownst to us, and you realize that after he was only going to get three years for his so-called alleged crime. ~ Akeem Browder
Nicole Browder: My mom was really brave when she did this documentary even though she was tired a lot. She got in front of that camera and she owned it every single time. When I was approached I was a little hesitant. I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to do it, but I just felt like the need to do it. When I did it, it was too much to handle. There were a lot of things that were coming up where I said I didn’t want to answer that, but for this documentary to be authentic, you have to be 100 percent honest. Doing that was the easy part, but reliving it was the hardest. As time went on, hearing my mom, it’s like this woman was already there for him all of the time. Every single Saturday, I would never forget, she would go there and she would call me because of the stairs. She would say, ‘The stairs are too long,’ because of her heart.
Akeem Browder: All day, it became a job. She would leave out the house and come back 12 hours later.
Nicole Browder: She would bring him underwear, clothes, books, commissary.
Deion Browder: She had a huge, heavy bag.
Nicole Browder: And carry that, she was Santa Claus.
Akeem Browder: Sometimes she would get all the way there to then find out he can’t have a visitor. They would shut down the jail at certain points. I remember I was there when she came to visit and I told her they’re not letting anyone out. She didn’t get to see him. They could put it on their website so you don’t have to travel all the way to Rikers Island, because if you’re taking public transportation it’s about two hours to then find out that you can’t see your son. It takes two hours to get there, but then you have to wait for transportation onto the island. You have to take this bus that transfers you to a main building. Then there’s like a place where they hold all the people. Five different buses come in to go to these different jails. They would pat people on this bus, then you would get there and there’s this long process to go through this long line as though you’re in a supermarket, but it’s something extreme, then to find out that you’re going through this line and that house isn’t having any visits. They will make you go through the whole system to find out you’re not having a visit.
What were your initial thoughts on the New Yorker‘s piece?
Nicole Browder: [Jennifer Gonnerman] did a fantastic job, she brought it to light. Besides Paul when he was representing Kalief, Kalief actually sat down with her. I actually had a conversation with her, maybe a couple of weeks ago. She said, ‘Nicole, you have no idea, your brother really opened up to me about a lot.’ I said, ‘That’s really good,’ but then she told me that at times it seems like he would talk and go to something else, all in the brain I guess. She did a very fantastic job. Kalief was actually there to tell her the story instead of us. It was even more intense when I read it. I’m really grateful that she did that piece with him. Because of that we’re here today.
Akeem Browder: Marc Lamont Hill did his story as well, and as great of a story that she did, she took so many hours of footage and audio and she wrote the piece. Then Marc Lamont Hill, Rosie O’Donnell, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Z, everybody came to his rescue or late rescue. However, when it came to the New Yorker, when we wanted to do the film, she didn’t cooperate with helping, which kind of stagnated… she has nine hours of what they call negatives, what they didn’t use in the editing process. Jenner Furst approached her with this astronomical figure to buy the footage, he didn’t want it for free. She turned him down. He came to the family and asked me and my mom, ‘Why don’t you go and talk to her because you’re family.’ My mom wrote a letter, I wrote an email to her, and she didn’t want to give up this footage. We didn’t say we wanted to use it for the film, we just wanted to see our brother. I didn’t get to see him for three years in real life. I want to see his different expressions, his laughter if he laughed, if he cried, and yet she didn’t want to give it up even to us. We promised that we wouldn’t use it, and we said we would sign something and we just want it as a family.
Still to this day we haven’t gotten it. I’m very appreciative that she took the time, but it’s advantageous. If I can tell a really great story, and get it published then it does me justice because I’m a great reporter. But be a great reporter and also do right by the person you’re reviewing or interviewing so that justice could come not just from the court, but from what you did as well. I still want to see my brother. I want to see that nine hours of footage, I want to hear his voice. We love our brother, I love my brothers here that are still alive, and I love my mother. I want to see what you got, not to use it, just to have it. My mom was really hurt from that.
Nicole Browder: Yes she was, I can vouch for that. She was really hurt.
Akeem Browder: Everyone gives her so much credit for the piece. She was the first one to get him. That could’ve been VIBE. VIBE could’ve taken him first. I don’t know how anyone here would’ve reacted, but she said she didn’t want to give it up because she’s going to use it in future things. Maybe she’s going to do another article. I’m speaking for myself, I want to see my brother. Not to use it, just to have it. I don’t give her credit, and I never will. Anybody could’ve done his story.
Within episode two, journalists mentioned that publications like the New York Times would write about the injustices that went on in Rikers during Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s terms. They essentially ignored the stories. Did you think Kalief’s story would be ignored and no change would come?
Nicole Browder: Yes, because our now mayor [Bill de Blasio] said that he had mental illness and it’s a problem. I felt very offended when he said that, very offended. That kid did not have no mental illness, okay? We were all tested when we were younger because we were adopted. If they knew there were some struggles, they would’ve told my mom and I’m sure [Kalief] would’ve known. Before he went in there, he had no mental struggles at all. He was fine. He was a kid, and for this man to sit up there and say that, I was very appalled. He didn’t know Kalief. It felt like a general thing, like he brushed it off to just say, ‘It was mental illness.’ It was not mental illness. He suffered, he was rejected, he was starved and beaten. I would like to say to those people who agree with him, and him himself, I would like to see him sit in a cell for a week straight, go through the same thing and come out and see if he comes out normal. I felt really offended when that was said.
Akeem Browder: Like Nicole said, he didn’t know the family, he didn’t reach out to the family. You’re the mayor.
Nicole Browder: He didn’t even apologize, nothing.
Akeem Browder: I actually sat in a conference down on Wall Street late last year. Everything that was said was that they don’t have the finances to shut down the jail. He never tackled speaking about Kalief when his family member is sitting right in front of you, saying responsibility is not just on the justice system, not just the courts, but the Department of Corrections had a responsibility to hold a mental health review of that young man, of my brother. They never evaluated him, even after slicing his wrist, they didn’t evaluate him. They wrapped it up, beat him up, threw him in his cell naked, threw out his stuff, and locked him in there for more days. You gave this mental condition to him. Now you put it off as a mental health problem? The problem with that is Rikers Island is not a mental health facility. If he had mental health issues, why was he in jail and not in a mental health facility? The city failed Kalief on a mental health level, on many humanity levels, and then on a justice level. Even the precinct in our neighborhood failed him. There’s a lot of problems, and the lawsuit is not only suing the Department of Corrections, it’s the Department of Justice and the Department of Mental Health mentioned in there. Certain departments in the Department of Corrections, and the mental health unit are in the lawsuit, the precinct, and D.A. [Darcel] Clark. She was the judge on his case, and she kept him in jail, denied him bail because what she said was she’s going to teach him a lesson. They wanted to teach this little black kid a lesson. Every one of them has a responsibility, and what they do is put it off on mental health.
Nicole Browder: And this is because of a backpack. This is what I feel and I’m going to be honest. When Kamal got in some beef in the street, and Kalief went to save him, this was maybe a week before he passed away, that terror in his mind of going to court, I guess because they got arrested and got released right away, must’ve ate him alive so much. I honestly believe that drove him over the edge because he had court on a Wednesday. I’m not sure if it was a couple of days before he left this Earth, but that drove him over the edge. I know it did.
Akeem Browder: He spoke intensely about it. He always said, ‘I know they’re trying to bring me back.’ For him to be back in the jail cell, even if it was just that one day. Ever since Kalief passed, in the year 2016 I was arrested 11 times from driving and marches that I did [with Black Lives Matter in New York]. We did a lot of public protests. Just the thought of being re-arrested, you’re sitting in that cell and your body starts to shake again. These are things if you’ve never been arrested or been to jail, your body is remembering that trauma and puts you through a slew of problems. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you stay up for the first three nights, and then on top of that your fear level, you’re on high intensity. With Kalief getting out, even if it was for just one day, I can imagine all the things that he went through just sitting in that cell. Then my mother, the trauma, the post-traumatic stress that she had after going to visit him, and now he’s back in the jail cell was intense. The attorney, he lives in Jersey. He called and said, ‘Akeem what’s going on? What precinct is he in?’ I’m like, ‘Get your behind down there and get my brother out.’ Every time they turn around, ‘He was in school. He got into a fight.’ They said it was a fight, it was a verbal altercation. Cops came and arrested him. It wasn’t him fearful that he was paranoid. No, people were arresting him every time he turns around, or watching him with a car, or putting him in view of a cop. It’s traumatizing. It’s reacting to his post-traumatic stress.
Nicole Browder: He was like an egg, he was ready to crack. He was that fragile. He had to go to court, and he didn’t make it to the court date. I know that would drive me over the edge. He was already paranoid.
The Beginning Of The End
Did you ever see any signs of him contemplating suicide?
Akeem Browder: He attempted while he was home.
Deion Browder: He attempted multiple times in the house. You see one of the attempts in the trailer with the white shirt, one of his attempts to cut his neck. He made many attempts, and he did it secretly. He didn’t want anyone to know when he did them.
Nicole Browder: Unfortunately, I always felt that there would be a time that this would come to an end. I knew it would be an unfortunate end. I told Deion this is serious, if you guys don’t get him any help, he’s either going to hurt you guys or he’s going to unfortunately hurt himself. My mom got him out of the facility, I think it was St. Barnabas at the time. I think he was in a mental division. I got mad at her because she took him out, but then I understood from seeing your child suffer for so many years, going to jail and visiting him, you want to save your child. I always felt it was going to happen. I had those internal instincts, and I just kept it to myself. You just try to think positive. I didn’t think it would be that fast because things were going good for him, and I thought, ‘Okay maybe there is some hope,’ but it was so severe.
Akeem Browder: For a person that’s incarcerated, the statistics are not unknown when it comes to suicide. When it comes to men and women, people who went to jail experienced suicide at least once in their life after the fact. But there are a slew of things that happens to a person that is previously incarcerated. For women, nine times out of 10 they fall into prostitution or sex scandals. When I came home, suicide was definitely a thought. It’s a problem that when people come out of jail they are left with their own recovery. The parents or the family or themselves, if they don’t have anyone, we’re left with the responsibility to clean up the person they damaged. Kalief needed help. They admitted guilt, yet we’re still going through the lawsuit. How is that if you’re charged with stealing a backpack, we can arrest you immediately, however, when we realize that we’re wrong, say sorry, and send you home, and yet immediately justice doesn’t come on the returning end, even if it’s just saying I’m going to send you to a counselor or therapist or something that can get you help so that you don’t commit suicide. We know from the years that we’ve had Rikers Island open or practicing solitary confinement we know that there is a suicide factor and they did nothing.
Actually they did do something. ‘They’ being the system, because I say the system isn’t just the Department of Corrections or the Department of Justice. The system put him on medication that had a 17 percent risk factor if you administer it between the age of 11 to 21. They would be 17 percent prone to suicide, and he committed suicide. It’s not a coincidence that he committed suicide. I’m not mad at him for what he did. I hate that we all suffered, but he suffered as well and he felt that was his only chance to get out of this mental jail. But they knew what they were doing. If we push him just the right amount, we’ll break him because they broke him in jail so they knew how to break him. When he came home, they knew how to break him. ‘Let’s keep on introducing cops in his life, then put him on this medication that we know is going to create suicide.’ He’s 21-years-old. ‘We’ll give him the medication, the influence, and the rest will play out on its own. And then we’ll break the mother at that because we already know the mother’s heart is at a 25 percent,’ and then it went down to…
Deion Browder: Nineteen.
Akeeem Browder: Nineteen percent. They are experienced with, and ‘they’ being the system, and every system that’s involved, they are experienced with breaking people down. It’s no wonder we all have depression in our family now. They’ll go through every one of us before they try to settle a lawsuit. That’s the fear factor for me right now, that one of my brothers is next or myself because I already attempted back in December. I can’t take the fact that my mother is gone, I’m depressed from it. Then my older brother who I look up to, he’s too depressed to help me out. The system knew what they were doing, and to clean it up they said we’ll take out every one of them before we do something for them, and we’ll make them look bad. Luckily, Jay Z, Jenner, Weinstein Company, they all came to help tell the story, and not just to tell it, but they gave my mom in her last year a really good ending. We didn’t know she was going to pass, but they got her to talk so much. That was her relief. She poured it all out.
Confronting America’s Solitary Confinement Problem
Jay Z mentioned that if there are more cases of solitary confinement similar to your brother’s then Rikers should be shut down. What are your thoughts on that statement?
Deion Browder: I think any facility that has youth in solitary confinement should not be open. There should be no reason why anyone over the age of 16 at all should be subjected to some cage like an animal. That’s why you have people who advocate for shutting down Rikers like Akeem, and everyone who stands behind it like President Obama. There should be no reason why an adolescent, a youth, pre-teen, should be subjected to some form of cage as if we’re just animals.
Nicole Browder: I worked with animals for a very long time. I don’t even believe in putting them in cages. The way I feel about that, and the way I feel about putting a human in a cage, is sad because if you look at the dynamic, Kalief is not getting fed and starved. I’m not saying this is like apples and oranges, but look at it like this: the cats or the dogs are getting food everyday and attention. They’re getting more love, and my brother didn’t get any when he was in there. When I was working with these precious babies, I treated them as if they were human and gave them compassion and a lot of love. When we had animals put away I would take them out and give them a lot of attention. Just to have that [set-up] for a human being, it just disturbs me as a person like, ‘Wow, you can do this to a child?’ You’re putting him in jail, to sit in a room with no education, even though he passed his GED, but nothing to do, take everything from him. They even took away his commissary. It was so bad.
Akeem Browder: They broke him.
Nicole Browder: They broke him so bad.
Akeem Browder: For a backpack. We put humans in cages and hide them away from other humans because Rikers Island, if you take the train you can see Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx. You can’t see Rikers Island. The map blotches that out as though it doesn’t exist because it’s out of sight out of mind. You get the human to be dehumanized, and then put them back in society where people who’ve never been to jail sees that guy or girl who you can tell there’s something wrong with them. They most likely just came out of jail because they have an ID when they come out that says ‘Inmate.’ New York is dehumanizing humans or previously incarcerated people at every turn of the way. I run Shut Down Rikers, an organization that Glenn Martin also helps with, Close Rikers, and we work side-by-side. When I started Shut Down Rikers it was because of what happened with Kalief. When I was working there, I resigned after a year-and-a-half.
After Kalief came there, I couldn’t do it. I was having a hard time just being there, working everyday. Being back on that bus to go over the bridge was just trauma. The filth, the smell, the attitude. You would see C.O.’s in their locker room with porn books. You guys get to go home, and you have porn books from the inmates that they probably took from a raid, and they have it in their locker room looking at it. This is an average life, it doesn’t just affect the inmates or the detainees there. It affects even the workers, and these workers live in our communities. I have two officers who live in my building, and they are ashamed of their job. When they come home, you see them on the street, and they don’t wear their uniform. They keep the pants on, but I know those pants and the shock-resistant boots. I know these boots because I used to be there. I know they’re officers. They’re just too ashamed to ever walk in the street with their uniform on. Either ashamed or fearful because they know the crap that they do to people. One of the officers who live in my building, I saw him when I was a detainee. It’s absurd how we can have this kind of torture chamber in New York City, or the United States because we’re supposed to be one of the top in the world, but we’re not. It’s all an American dream.
Nicole Browder: I watched Locked Up Abroad on MSNBC, and after Kalief went through that I wanted to educate myself. I noticed when they were doing the segments, there were a lot of criminals, but they never put on anybody that was like a Kalief or somebody who was really trying to fight for justice. I saw another episode where it was out of the United States, I think it was in Ukraine or somewhere, and they had beautiful rooms. They had TV’s, coffee makers, a desk, and they all got along so well. Why don’t we have that in the United States?
Akeem Browder: We love torture that’s why.
Nicole Browder: Exactly, it’s like they say, ‘We took away waterboarding,’ but it’s still here, but in this way, you understand what I’m saying? I looked at that and I felt so ashamed. I said, ‘Wow they have it really good.’ They had comforters on their bed, and they were all calm. They said they had a couple of bad ones in here, but most of the time it’s really cool. Our jails are like crap. I’ve never been to jail but I’ve seen it on TV, and it was really messed up, dirty, disgusting, the people are stressed out. You go to this other country, and the people are relaxing and painting. It’s peaceful, but they’re learning how to deal with society when they get out. You go to the United States, and you see these jails, they come out, and they don’t know how to live in society. Of course they’re going to eventually repeat the crime because that’s all they know.
What are some solutions you think the prison/judicial system can implement to prevent others from experiencing what your brother went through in solitary confinement?
Akeem Browder: The law was already in place to not do this to Kalief, and many like Kalief, and they did it anyway. I’m advocating for the Kalief Browder Law, which I helped put together, and I go up to Albany to lobby this knowing that there was a law where you couldn’t do this regardless. Torture has never been legal, but we’re making a law to make sure that it’s more than not legal. If we have any faith or hope in the system, we have to go through channels, and those channels take forever. It’s like turning a blank screen knowing that you’re not going to see anything, but you have hope. I have advocated for them to do something different like shut it down. That’s all I can advocate for. I can do what everyone else says, like ‘Hey you have to get into the law and make policy and make procedural law that’ll change,’ and I’ve written on 30 30. We don’t even have a speedy trial in New York City. We have a Ready Rule, which no other state in the United States has. Every other state has the constitutional speedy trial, and New York City thinks they’re better than everyone else and says we have a Ready Rule, which states that when I’m ready I’ll get to your case. Until then, get to the back of the bus, because we treat people like slaves in New York City, in America, but New York City is the top. People follow New York State’s lead, and we are showing the rest of this country that we can do what we want with them. They’re slaves.
In the first episode, an interviewee said since Kalief was born into the Child Protective System, an unseen eye followed his every move from school reports to legal documents. Do you feel like those unseen eyes were upon him again after he was released from Rikers? Like a sense of paranoia?
Nicole Browder: I grew up in the system. I was ACS [Administration for Children’s Services].
Akeem Browder: All of us, we were born into this system. That’s what Michelle Alexander said, because once you’re in the Child Protective Services, which back then was BCW [Bureau of Child Welfare], and BCW did a heck of a no job, they did no work really. They destroyed and separated families. Just like Michelle said, if you had a mother like Kalief’s who was addicted to crack, and instead of getting her the help that she needed to better herself, they put her on methadone. It’s just a form of saying, ‘We’re going to help you get what you need as far as drugs, but we’re not giving you help.’ Us, we are the result of what the system started. From there, you can see one system to another system to another system in everyone of us. Even if you don’t go to jail, they already have an unseen eye on you. They targeted Kalief, and that comes out in the following episodes because I was their ‘in.’ They got into our household through me when I was arrested at 13. In every city we have a police department. Every police department has a zone. In that zone you might have 30 or 40 houses, and every house has a folder. Once they’re in your house, once they have an arrest, complaint or disruption, it’s in your file. That file then is your way in, so they knew my mom already. They knew my brothers. They knew my family. When it came to Kalief, they were like we can put this charge on him, he didn’t even do it, but the mother’s going to pay up because they paid for me. When I was arrested they paid $50,000 for an attorney, and $50,000 bail. They thought, ‘We can milk this family again or we can break this family.’ Either way he’s going to take a plea. They didn’t expect Kalief was going to do the unthinkable. The unseen eye is always there.
One of the reasons why Kalief is no longer here with us is because they failed him, and they failed us. —Nicole Browder
Was he ever given counseling to help battle his demons?
Deion Browder: He went on his own accord.
Nicole Browder: Yeah, he went on his own. That’s a shame. He had to go on his own. It’s one thing when you don’t recognize you have an issue and it’s another thing when you do. He was strong. He knew something was wrong, and when he went, he went faithfully. They tried to put him on medication and sometimes he would take it, and sometimes he wouldn’t, which I believe you should never take that crap. I believe it only makes you worse. I’ve dealt with mental institutions before in my past, and thank God I didn’t have to take any medication. Medication or not I don’t think it would’ve helped. He was just that far gone.
Joseph Ponte, the NYC Correction Commissioner, called for the end of solitary confinement for those aged between 16-21. President Obama also called for an end to solitary confinement for juveniles across all federal prisons. This all came to be following the awareness of your brother’s story. Was this a bittersweet moment for your family? Knowing that if these laws were passed before your brother’s unjustified arrest that the mental and physical trauma he endured probably wouldn’t have been placed upon him?
Nicole Browder: I feel that it is bittersweet. I wish this would’ve been done a lot sooner because he was alive after Rikers for two years, and during those two years nothing was done. After he passed away, then some people wanted to say that [Rikers] needs to be shut down or some sort of reform. It’s bittersweet because it’s better than nothing at all, but we can just make sure that this doesn’t happen again. I think honestly it’s a start.
Deion Browder: I actually remember the day that [Obama] passed [that law], there was an article that came out that cited the Kalief Browder case. I remember how happy my mother was about it. We had this conversation that it was bittersweet that it took Kalief’s story of solitary confinement, but in light of that, Kalief’s story has been the head-way for this. I think that it’s actually a great thing to know that Kalief Browder is at the helm of everything. His story forced politicians and even the president to make such a reform like that. That’s going to help a lot of kids in the long run. I wish he was here to see the reform or change happen, but Kalief is smiling down on us knowing that we’re making progress with him, and for him.
In the trailer for the series, your mother said, “We’re supposed to trust the justice system. Where’s the justice?” Have you ever placed trust in the justice system at some point in fighting for your brother?
Deion Browder: I’ve never placed trust in the justice system while fighting for my brother because after the first two times they kept saying, ‘We’re not ready, we’re not ready,’ the trust went out the window. I thought, ‘What’s really going on? What’s really the story, and why are you keeping him inside the jail. What is it that we’re not doing?’ When my mother used to come home and tell me the stories, I didn’t believe that we should place trust in them. I felt that we needed to take matters into our own hands and figure out what we can do as a family to get him out of Rikers. My mother’s faith in the justice system was a little stronger in the beginning, and she really had hopes that he would one day come home, and that the courts would find him innocent. Her faith and trust was stronger than mine. In the end you saw the direction that it went, and the turn that it took. I don’t think I’ve ever placed trust in the justice system, even watching Kalief’s case.
Nicole Browder: One of the reasons why Kalief is no longer here with us is because they failed him, and they failed us. If I would’ve put my trust in them, I would just set myself up for heartbreak again. We dealt with this tragedy, and the only thing we can do now is try to avoid this from happening again. I’m praying for the best, but it’s most likely going to happen again, but if we just continue to persevere there could be some hope. The justice system is a corrupt system. There are corrupt employees. It’s a business at the end of the day. We can’t trust them at all. If they were these good types of people, they wouldn’t have told us that we need $3,000 for bail, for a backpack. It started when they took my brother in and they had no witness. You want me to trust them? No. Now because of the justice system, we no longer have Kalief here with us, and we no longer have Venida Browder with us. Now that leaves us with pieces to pick up, the family.
Nightmares, Premonitions And Kalief Browder’s Legacy
Nicole, in a past interview you mentioned that you had a series of nightmares. When did those begin?
Nicole Browder: I remember I was sleeping one time, and I just saw Kalief struggling in a yard. He was walking in a circle, and he said, ‘That’s it, I had enough. I’m just going to do it and get it over with.’ I was very saddened when I woke up from that. I think I had a feeling in my heart. I felt that this wasn’t going to end the right way. I always did. Some people could say, ‘It’s your imagination,’ but I believe some people have more of a sense of intuition than others, and that’s something that I have. I would like to call them premonition dreams. I had those a lot growing up. I can’t really explain them unless you went through them yourself. I always felt that this wasn’t going to end right. Of course it would be unexpected, but you never want it to happen. I came to peace with it, honestly. I said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to him. This is not right. Why did this have to happen?’ I can’t help what I dream or feel. The only thing I can do is to reach out to Kalief, or anybody that has a dream like that, and try to not tell them unless they want to hear it, but try to give them some sense of peace. I always had this very strong thing where I could dream about things that would happen later on. It’s always something that’s sad or depressing. It’s never like, ‘Hey you’re going to get married,’ or ‘You’re going to go on this trip to Hawaii.’ It’s always something about someone close to me that I dream of.
I wasn’t too shocked when I got that dream. I just didn’t like seeing him suffer, and I knew he was suffering. You see him suffering on the outside. I knew it wasn’t going to end right. He went to get the help he needed, but me, you, or anybody could never say, ‘Well I should’ve…’ because you never know. You weren’t in his shoes. I don’t advocate for suicide, but in his situation I totally understand, and I totally get it. I’m really at peace because he’s at peace, but I’m not at peace with the justice system.
What have you learned about the system throughout this process?
Nicole Browder: It’s a very corrupt system. There’s no compassion, there’s no empathy. It’s a dirty business. It’s all about money at the end of the day. Basically what we are, we’re loans. The city takes us in the system, they loan us, and the state pays them. We’re basically just property at the end of the day. We’re not signified as humans anymore. We’re just sitting there. We’re making them money. It’s legal slavery. Kalief was legal slavery, and you know what? They can’t get in trouble. When my brother was there, he was hardheaded which I loved about him, and he stood up for all of his rights. He didn’t have to do anything, he could’ve said no which he did. At the same time, every minute, second, hour, he was sitting there. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, in their pockets. You know who paid for that? New York City taxpayers paid for that. Us, the people who go to work everyday, paid them for legal slavery. That’s exactly what happened.
Deion Browder: First and foremost, black and brown-skinned kids don’t matter, and that’s not with just that, that’s with everybody. We don’t matter in society, and as long as it’s profitable for them, it doesn’t matter what crime you committed, if you’re innocent or not, as long as it’s good for them, they don’t care. It sucks because of the fact that Kalief, an innocent child, was placed in Rikers, and swept under the rug, was not cared about, and was left and forgotten about, while a family had to fight for justice for our brother. They didn’t care. As long as it’s profitable for them they don’t care, no matter how hurt the family will be, or any family in that matter.
When you discovered that Kalief passed, what went through your head? Do you remember the last conversation you had with him?
Deion Browder: I just moved into an apartment. He said, ‘Good luck on getting your apartment,’ because it was something I wanted for a long time, and I know it was something he wanted for a long time. I asked him if he was coming to the housewarming. He asked if there were going to be girls there, and I said I’m sure there will be, they’re my friends [laughs]. That was his main focus, seeing if some of my friends were going to come that he was interested in. That was one of the last conversations I had with him. The day that he passed, I was at work and I just so happened to walk past my locker. My phone started to ring while I was on my way to lunch. I picked up the phone, and my mother was hysterically crying, screaming out. I asked, ‘What happened?’ and all she kept on saying was, ‘Kalief, Kalief, Kalief.’ I said, ‘What about him?’ because the first thing that she said when she called was ‘Oh, oh goodness.’ She kept on saying that he’s dead. I said, ‘How do you know that?’ I didn’t know that he hung himself at that point. I just knew that she was screaming out that he’s dead. I said, ‘Is he breathing? Check his pulse.’ I heard a commotion in the background. That’s when I knew what she was saying was true. I felt a huge empty hole in my heart because I knew not only did we lose my brother, but I knew we were going to lose my mother at that point. She cared for him like no other person could. I was the first one my mother called. I had to take the liberty of calling the rest of my family which was hard because I had to tell each one what happened to Kalief. It was a tough day, I was shocked. I left work and I got uptown. When I got uptown I saw everyone in the house. There were a lot of people trying to comfort her. I was confused as to why everyone was in the backyard because I didn’t understand why it was open, or what’s going on back there. I walked to the back, and saw Kalief laying there.
Nicole Browder: I went over to the house with my boyfriend at the time. I went upstairs and I opened the door. I said, ‘Can I talk to you?’ and I sat on the bed. I said, ‘I heard you want to open up some businesses.’ He said, ‘Yes I do, how do you know about that?’ I said, ‘I know, I’m going to get you a cat or a dog,’ because I was working with animals at the time. I’m a firm believer that animals give you the best therapy than medicine. If you’re having a bad day, it’s always good to volunteer or go to a shelter, or have an animal. They have that spirit about them that no human has. You can actually connect with them. I thought that was something that would be good for him, having a little best friend by his side. He was all for it.
I expressed my concerns with how he was treated, and I saw him getting upset so I gave him a hug and I left the room. Maybe two or three weeks later, I was driving to work. On my routine I usually go to Dunkin [Donuts] and then my job. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. At 7:30 I reach Dunkin. I leave Dunkin and I pass by a school. Usually the traffic is really slow because it’s 25 miles per hour, but it was so bad this one morning. It was so jammed up. When I looked to my right there was a sheet covering a lady’s body. When I went to my job, I found out the lady committed suicide, I think around four in the morning. I heard she left behind four children. When I saw that, I felt that something was weird. I went to work and I expressed to my co-worker that it’s crazy, I can’t believe she did that, she must’ve been in a lot of pain. At around 12:20-something in the afternoon Deion calls me, but I’m not picking up the phone. I felt something was off. I stopped in my tracks and I finally answered it. It seems like I didn’t want to answer it because I felt like it was not a good call. He told me what happened to Kalief. I immediately dropped what I was doing, and I almost crashed my car because I was so upset. I left my job, I had to take a second and breathe, and I went to my mom’s house. All I could think about was giving my mom support. I was upset and hurt. I felt it was coming. I’m sorry to say this, people will think I’m crazy, but I felt that. At first I was angry with [Kalief]. I said, ‘Why would you do something like that?’ Then I felt guilty, like maybe I should’ve changed something. Now, I understand. I have nothing but love and compassion. I understand why he left.
We have a job in life. Sometimes that job in life becomes too overwhelming. We are supposed to handle that job. Whether Kalief was supposed to be in Rikers to learn something that he didn’t learn in his past life before, we don’t know. I feel that we’re going to meet again, and it’s going to be on good terms. He’s not even going to bring up Rikers. He’s going to be in a very positive mood. I’m going to see my mom, and we’re going to reunite. I feel he will probably come back again and try to finish what he didn’t finish in his lifetime. If I’m wrong, that’s even better because I don’t want to come back to this Earth. I never got a taste of heaven, but I know it’s a much better place than where we’re living now. But I feel for my brother. I’m physically on this Earth and we have to get justice for him, and for my mom. My mom cared for all of us, she would’ve done it for any of us. I don’t even have to think twice. Just go with the flow, have a voice and put your own input. They have the easy part. They’re resting in peace. We have the hard part and I’m happy. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course I’d rather have them here, but I know that they’re not in that hell, they’re in heaven. There’s no more suffering, there’s no more thoughts, there’s no more thinking he’s going to jail. The pain is gone immediately when you leave this Earth. I would just hate to see anyone go the way Kalief did.
Fighting In The Name Of Kalief And Venida Browder
What do you think Kalief’s legacy will be? How do you plan to continue the spirits of your brother and mother?
Deion Browder: He’s going to be known for being the voice of millions of 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, even adults that had the same struggles he went through, the same depression, the same heartaches, the same thought process, and even those who tried to make the same choices he made as far as committing suicide. His legacy will grow from there, and his story will continue to be told for millions that need his voice, that need that support. Even my mother’s legacy will be attached to that because she loved him, and he loved her very dearly. She fought tirelessly to make sure that his voice was not silenced. One thing I know I want to do, and of course incorporate the family, is to keep that going. He has a [memorial] scholarship and I want to make sure that continues. I want to make sure that we still put the awareness out there and I want to, together with my family, step into my mother’s shoes and be an advocate, and let this not just be a movement for a few months. Let this be a movement for a lifetime. As long as I’m on this Earth, I want to make sure that I work hard to keep his memory alive, and to keep fighting for what Kalief believes in.
Nicole Browder: His legacy will go on regardless because Kalief made an impact when he was in Rikers and when he left Rikers. I will continue to talk about it, bring awareness, change, meet-up with lawmakers if I have to change some laws. Our children’s generation and their children’s generation are going to grow up and know about Kalief. You know what’s a good thing? I can actually sit down and tell my grandkids or my children, ‘You know that’s your uncle?’ We speak very proudly and highly of him. That’s something I’m very honored to do. I’m honored to be his sister. I’m honored to be in his life. I’m honored to have the last name Browder. I carry that last name with a lot of pride. I carry his name with a lot of pride. I wouldn’t do anything to put it in jeopardy. His legacy will live on through me, through my children, and everyone. I just hope there’s not another person, but it seems that things in life just keep repeating. It doesn’t stop, but you look forward. The best thing to do is to just carry his name.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Kalief said if his mother wasn’t present during his time in Rikers, he doesn’t think he would’ve made it. Can you describe your mother’s strength?
Deion Browder: I couldn’t even describe it. She was the anchor for everything, she’s what kept us afloat. She prided herself in her children. She was passionate about all of us, no matter what we did right or wrong. If a teacher said something bad about us even though the teacher may be right, she still didn’t like it because someone is talking bad about one of us. With Kalief, she was extremely passionate about making sure she was there for him just like she would do with any of us if we were in that situation. If it was not for her, I don’t know how any of us would get through anything because she was the person that guided us, the support system, the inspiration. She gave you a word of encouragement, and she was the being that was there. You knew if she was there everything was going to be okay. I think Kalief felt that with her.
New York is dehumanizing humans or previously incarcerated people at every turn of the way. —Akeem Browder
Akeem Browder: Thank God that we have a mother like we had. Imagine if Kalief didn’t have anyone. He didn’t have a father. He had family, but you look to the adult, and my mom was our mom no matter if we were adopted or not. I can’t imagine if we didn’t have her there. Now we don’t have her here.
Nicole Browder: Just imagine if we had our real mothers, we probably would be all messed up, probably be in the system, one of the victims in jail because that’s all we know. It’s a domino effect, big time. It starts now, and luckily we changed our lives. I was in the ACS system for a long time, and if I wasn’t strong I would’ve been a statistic. But my mom was strong, and she was always there for us. She was mom. We miss her, but we know she’s still around us, which gives me the motivation to keep moving forward. They’re still here, they never leave us.
‘TIME: The Kalief Browder Story’ premieres on Spike TV Mar. 1 at 10 p.m. EST