Kalief Browder and I were born the same year. 1993. On Saturday 6 June, in New York, USA, at around 12.15, Browder jumped from his house, “feet first, with a cord wrapped around his neck”.
What I was doing at that time is anybody’s guess but at this point it doesn’t matter, because I am not black, and I do not live in the United States. That was his crime, and so my story is not relevant here. Apart from that shared year – 1993- and that other year, ‘2015’, which is now set firm against Browders name; and merely a chapter in mine.
So we share the same year. Yet here I am. There, he is not.
Before his death, America made him invisible. He was detained for three years in Rikers, New York’s main jail complex, without trial. Browder was accused – he said wrongly – of stealing a backpack. But Browder never stood before the law. Instead he was never truly there but pushed behind and inside the murky confines of the law, given a cell, abuse, neglect and a crippling paranoia that would last his short lifetime.
For the American judicial system, Browder, left in a cell for three years, was there when near the scene of the crime but then never there enough to receive his fair trial. And now, as a result, he is dead. On the same day as his suicide, across the country, the African-American battle to simply be there reared its ugly head again.
An after-school pool party in McKinney, Texas led to a still-image of a policemen’s knee driven in to the back of a black, 14 year old girl in a bikini. The story is still developing, and it remains to be seen what really happened. But for now what we appear to know is that a white woman was racist towards a few black teens and the police were sent for as she became violent. After that the police started “cursing and yelling” at the teenagers. Watch the video. At 1:31, one of the black boys says that they are just there for a birthday party but the officer “will see about that in a minute”; that they are there is suspicious. At 2:20, their presence is not just suspicious but inconvenient and their skin-colour, for this particular arm of the force, foreshadows running after them in “30 pounds of gear”. At 3:00, the police officer is hurling a black teenage girl to the floor and the video speaks for itself. Eventually he pulls his gun. It is difficult to explain what is happening because at times nothing is; and then police fury and then nothing until more anger and the brandishing of guns. The video ends with the policemen telling two black boys that, essentially, they were part of the mob because they were there.
The difficulty of being there for the African-American is no new ordeal. Ralph Ellison touches on it in his novel Invisible Man written in the 1950s and even this does not begin to give an idea of how far back this battle goes. For Ellison, the African-American is invisible because “people refuse to see” them. Ellison’s protagonist shrinks and blooms into society before realising that it cannot and will not accept him there and we find him writing his memoirs from a “hole”.
The cases yesterday do not show a country that refuses to see African-Americans. But for whatever progress America has made, it is still a country in which a significant section of society is faced with a crisis of what it means to simply be there. For the party in Texas, being there was to somehow upset the policeman and a few residents’ white-tinted peace. For Browner it was the same crime; to be black and to be there. Eventually for Browner, the US legal system surrounded him, gnawed at him, set to work on him like a figure in a nightmare, until he was exorcised. Like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, even the still-living girls and boys at the pool party, and many others, Browder is no longer there.