THE BLOG

The Intersection of Race, Class and the Constitution: Kalief Browder

06/22/2015 10:45 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

As a member of the millennial generation, civil injustices have shaped my patriotism, my cultural perceptions, my activism and the lens in which I view my rights as a citizen of the United States.

The Kalief Browder case shows us that though rights are in place, those rights are not afforded to everyone. How does a young person of color align itself with the values of the United States, the Constitution, when it can be so flagrantly violated without repercussion? What does it mean to live in a democracy? What does it mean for someone like me, like Kalief Browder, to live in a democracy?

Reflecting on the Kalief Browder case reminds me of how small I really am, how little power we have in enforcing laws that are already on the books to protect us and how little impact we have on the ability to influence decisions that government agencies make. These feelings are in direct opposition of what the United States democracy is supposed to be -- a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Kalief Browder case reminds me that no one like me was at the table when the Constitution was created, no one gave any thought to my rights when the United States Constitution was ratified -- how do we come back from such a history? The residue of these facts lie within the details of Kalief Browder's interaction with the criminal justice system. We have not come back.

The Constitution was created to protect citizens from the government. But what does it mean to people who do not have the capital to enforce the protections of the Constitution? What good are rights, if they are not afforded to everyone? What good are rights, if, when they are violated, individuals have no agency, unless they have capital? What good is knowing your rights, if a system provides you no legitimate way to enforce them?

Though we do not have all the details of the case and likely the public never will, we do know that Kalief Browder was arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. His bail was set to $3,000 dollars, which his family could not afford. He was charged with stealing a backpack. Browder was held for the next three years before prosecutors in the Bronx decided to dismiss the charges. But once he was in the system, and despite efforts by his lawyer, even the initial bail offer was denied.

The Kalief Browder case conflates the 6th amendment and the 8th amendment. Where the 6th amendment states:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.

This means in no uncertain terms, that Kalief Browder, should not have sat in a prison for three years, while awaiting a trial that never happened. Everyone has the right to due process, a right to a speedy and fair trial. This right is considered one of the most important in the Constitution. Without it, criminal defendants could be held indefinitely under a cloud of unproven criminal accusations. The right to a speedy trial also is crucial to assuring that a criminal defendant receives a fair trial.

Kalief died.

The 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, but also mentions "excessive fines" and bail. $3,000 to an upper-middle class family MAY be feasible but, particularly in today's economic climate, where more than one in four blacks live in poverty, $3,000 is excessive; particularly for the crime for which he was accused.

While some can speculate on whether Kalief did commit the crime he was accused of, his past run-ins with the law or what he did to be placed in solitary confinement while at Rikers, those questions remain irrelevant as we look at the ways in which the amendments of the Constitution conflate. Kalief Browder should have never been held in prison awaiting a trail that never happened and he had the right to a speedy trial absent of excessive bail.

This is a clear case of class intersecting with our Constitutional rights. One must consider the ways in which race and class are inextricably linked as more than one in four blacks live in poverty, while fewer than one in 10 whites do. What types of people are able to afford the cost of realizing the protections of the Constitution?