The Way of Liberation

by Rev . Dr. Denise Donnell

Every person in the United States of America must watch it: The Kalief Browder Story. It’s on Netflix.

On May 15, 2010, sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder is arrested for stealing a backpack.

He spends the next three years of his life (1,126 days) on Rikers Island with no charge, no trial. On May 29, 2013, Kalief is released at 2:30 in the morning with nothing, not even an apology. Three years later, Kalief hangs himself.

He is murdered by the prison industrial system.

I’m not asking you to agree with me that the state of New York killed this young Black man.

I’m not trying to persuade you that one can take his own life yet be murdered by someone else. I’m asking you to watch the documentary for yourself, take a moment to reflect and draw your own conclusion.

Yet, as for me and my house, there is no doubt that falling prey to the sin of mass incarceration destroyed this young man’s life.

Scenes from the documentary keep me awake at night. How did we get here? Why do we continue to allow these things to happen? Why aren’t the perpetrators of this system of oppression, the supporters of this culture of power consumed by the evil in their souls? The answer to those questions is simple…racism.

Racism blinds, protects, lies, cheats, steals, kills.

Racism is a Rottweiler. I used to believe Rottweilers were destructive because they couldn’t help it. Their jaws would lock naturally, causing them to destroy whatever prey happened to get caught in their mouths. That’s a myth. Rottweilers don’t “get lockjaw.” Rottweilers keep a grip, not because the jaw locks, but because their will is so strong to bite and to hold.

Their jaws don’t lock; their brains do! Racism is a Rottweiler. Racism is not the natural way of being. Racism is not organic, nor is it unstoppable. Racism doesn’t lock its jaws; our brains do.

Here’s a headline I’m considering: “NYC Politician Wants To Name Rikers Island After Kalief Browder.”


On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder was physically beaten.
On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder was psychologically tortured.
On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder was starved.
On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder exchanged his childhood for a neurosis.
On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder spent two years…730 days…in solitary confinement.
On Rikers Island, Kalief Browder lost three years of his life for allegedly stealing a backpack, a crime he did not commit.

Why would we want to put Kalief’s name on Rikers Island?

Again the answer is simple, racism…internalized racism.

For as long as our cells can remember, Black and Brown bodies in the United States of America have been beaten, tortured, lynched, raped, stolen, sold, used and abused, maimed, murdered, assassinated, worked to death, demoralized, dehumanized, demonized. For as long as our cells can remember, we have been fighting, struggling.

So much so that the nature of our worth has come to be measured by how well we survive the horrors of this world.

Released from prison, Kalief Browder passed the G.E.D. on the first try.
Released from prison, Kalief Browder enrolled in Bronx Community College.
Released from prison, Kalief Browder worked to become a business owner, an entrepreneur.
Released from prison, Kalief Browder was a good student, punctual, humble, kind, attentive.

Why not put his name on this institution of higher learning rather than on a prison?

Indeed, to be Black or Brown in these United States of America necessitates we struggle, struggle to survive, to be seen as worthy, valuable, respectable, gifted, talented, intelligent, spiritual…human. That struggle is real, but it is not natural.

As we bind ourselves to like-minded people sold out to the cause of collective liberation, we must not only shift the mindset of others; we must reshape our own. The time is now to stop thinking of ourselves as mere survivors, those still able to function in the midst of hardship.

We are victors!

We can crush this system of oppression that holds us captive in our lifetime! But only if we believe it.