Media coverage and demonstrations stemming from tragedies around the nation have brought necessary, and far too long delayed, attention to the pressing need to fix our broken justice system. They serve as a sobering reminder of the continuing gap between the constitutional promise of equal justice under the law and the unfortunate reality of disparate justice in too many of our communities. The problems aren’t unique to Baltimore, Ferguson, and Staten Island. We face the same injustices – if not worse – right here at home.
When I saw Kalief Browder’s 2013 television interview, I wanted to meet him. He was 20 and had just come home from a more-than-thousand-day stay on Rikers. Like a lot of people I know who are disappeared by the system, Kalief seemed like the same 16-year-old he was when he went in, but he had an inner strength, an ability to stand up for himself that I deeply admired. He explained why he wouldn’t cop a plea for a crime he hadn’t committed, even if it meant facing 15 years in prison. Offered immediate release from Rikers’s notoriously grimy RNDC, after more than ten months spent in the Bing (solitary confinement), Kalief turned the prosecutor down. He didn’t think it was right to admit to something he’d never done. This weekend we learned that Kalief, who reportedly had no mental illness when he was arrested, killed himself.
When Common and I wrote the song “Glory” for the stunning new film Selma, we drew inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries who strived and sacrificed to achieve racial equality in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. As I watched the final version of Selma, I did so with the backdrop of the streets of many of our major cities filled with protesters, crying out for justice after yet another unarmed black person’s life was taken by the police with impunity. After the events of the past few weeks, in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; Phoenix; and Cleveland, things feel eerily the same. While it is important to recognize and acknowledge racial progress through the years, it is also clear that we are far from King’s dream of equality and justice for all.