What does the tragic story of Kalief Browder and his family say about white supremacy and U.S. national oppression? What does the tragic story of 14-year-old Jesse Romero say about U.S. capitalism?
Because it is white supremacy that incarcerated 2.4 million New Afrikans in 2014, making up 34 percent of the inmate population. New Afrikans, although a minority making up 12 percent of the country’s population, are the most over-represented ethnicity/nationality in jails or prisons. One in 15 New Afrikans are currently behind bars.
Because it is U.S. capitalism that commodifies all things and dehumanizes all people. It is mobile and virus-like, growing wherever it detects a vulnerability. Here, in Boyle Heights, U.S. capitalism’s most local and honed manifestation in the eastside of Los Angeles is gentrification. It is gentrification that materially displaces proletarians, mainly oppressed nationality proletarians, and other oppressed groups, and ideologically reinforces that violence through its cultural hegemony. It was U.S. capitalism, specifically gentrification, that murdered 14-year-old Chicanx youth Jesse Romero in cold blood in 2016. Fifteen people have been killed in Boyle Heights since 2016, all Chicanxs or more recent immigrants.
Gentrification needs to literally displace and dispose of bodies, of undesirables, of used-up proletarians and the oppressed. First, the gentrifiers will buy the original petite-bourgeoisie out of the working class neighborhood and prepare the area for the new petite-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie, often majority Euro-Americans, and as this transitioning is happening, agents of the state commit colonial-style cleansing by literally eradicating Chicanx bodies from the barrio, from the hood. Gentrification killed Jesse Romero to have one less brown body for a new white re-imagining of Boyle Heights.
In 2010, when 16-year-old New Afrikan Kalief Browder was thrown in jail, into one of the country’s most corrupt and abusive jails, Rikers Island, nothing fundamentally unique or historic had occurred. It was and is normal.
Kalief would go on to spend three years incarcerated, without being found guilty, without trial and constantly awaiting trial, waiting on the spineless public defenders, the sadistic prosecutors of the Bronx District Attorney, the omnipotent and arrogant judges (one of which would go on to become the Bronx District Attorney, enemy-of-the-people Darcel Clark) – without being found guilty, behind bars – spending most of those three years (approximately 800 days) in solitary confinement. Again, still, nothing fundamentally unique or historic had occurred.
When Kalief kept refusing countless plea bargains, contrary to the advice of his public defenders, the presiding judge and the Bronx District Attorney, when he went to bed starving in solitary confinement, his mind slipping further and further away, reliving the ultimate trauma of his constant abuse and the chaos of the uncertainty of his release from solitary confinement, of the supposed coming trial date, of his release from Rikers Island, of freedom, of peace – even then it was nothing fundamentally unique or historic. It was and is normal.
And when Kalief, two years free from Rikers Island, was driven to take his own life by hanging himself in his Bronx home – a home which his family would later lose after the abrupt death of his mother, Venida Browder, from a heart attack – that, too, was nothing fundamentally unique or historic. It was normal.
Normal for the entirety of the Black Nation of the U.S. – where most will see the inside of a jail or prison cell at least one time in their life, and where all have been or will be affected because of the reality of mass incarceration: the legal, repressive state apparatus of national oppression.
But Kalief’s death was not a suicide.
He was murdered by the normality of anti-New Afrikan violence of U.S. white supremacy. The only reason Kalief’s story is news, the only reason he has become recognized as the martyr that he is, is because of his refusal to surrender to that normality, his unshakable commitment to his innocence. He refused to enter a plea of guilty, and he refused all plea bargains. That isn’t normal.
And when the U.S. capitalist state detects an abnormality, an interruption in the hegemony of its omnipotent legality, of the judiciary, of law enforcement, it quickly attacks that abnormality to neutralize it or to kill it. It needs to. U.S. capitalism needs to literally neutralize or kill anything that authentically challenges its hegemony. In the case of Kalief Browder, the judiciary, the legal arm of U.S. white supremacy, punished him. It attempted to neutralize Kalief by keeping him in jail for a.) asserting his innocence defiantly in the court room and not accepting plea bargains, and it attempted to kill him by b.) punishing him for not accepting the normality of Rikers Island “program,” the highly-calculated guard-and-inmate extortion agreement.
It is one thing to protest, it is quite another to revolt.
Kalief and his family attempted to sue the City of New York, the District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Corrections. Kalief and his family saw the grave injustices and initially said, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Venida, in the beginning of the 2017 documentary, “Time: the Kalief Browder Story,” expressed astonishment that this could happen to her son, in 2010, in the New York City, in the U.S. But toward the end of the documentary, after Kalief is martyred, after the birth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, she quickly sees that, no, it is not an anomaly; it is systemic.
Other people in the documentary, such as Van Jones, Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”), ACLU officials, law experts, even former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, all agree that it is systemic. But what is interesting here is the interpretation of what “systemic” means. For most, if not all, in the documentary, systemic merely means a largely legislative reform or fix – i.e. raising the age youth can be tried as adults from 16 to 18, banning solitary confinement for youth (but permissible for adults?), expediting the time to a fair trail, reforming certain prisons or jails, promising to review protocol for correctional facility workers and guards. For the bourgeoisie, this is an acceptable interpretation of “systemic.” For the proletariat and oppressed masses, this is, while obviously alleviatory, a dead-end in and of itself. What good is a reform if our society is still, when not brutalizing, displacing and murdering New Afrikans and Chicanxs, funneling them and us through jails and prisons? This is a focus on the judiciary, on merely one aspect of white supremacy. White supremacy, as a part of capitalism, is composed of a multitude of intricate machines and institutions but it ultimately can be divided into two parts: ideological and base (or material). Legislative reform, although appearing to affect material change, actually only reinforces the ideological legitimacy and its reproduction. It is largely ideological and does little-to-nothing to deeply affect the base of capitalism.
Without an armed, highly organized and disciplined revolutionary organization capable of destroying capitalism, capable of establishing and defending the dictatorship of the proletariat and capable of aiding the liberation of all the oppressed nations in the U.S. prison house, all reforms, however necessary, are destined to be used against actual revolutionary organizations and movements as evidence of functioning bourgeois freedom.
Maoists call this entity, this necessity, a Communist Party, and while the U.S. has a exhaustive list of so-called “communist” or “socialist” parties, in reality none are capable, so none currently exist.
Akeem Browder, now the main head of Kalief’s case, is seen in the documentary leading a BLM rally on the streets of New York. Akeem, like Venida, like Kalief, had always known in their heart, in their bones, in their blood, that the U.S. was never built for them, although it was built by them. The whole system – U.S. capitalism and white supremacy – is culpable for the deaths of Kalief and Venida Browder.
The whole system is culpable. The whole system has blood on its hands for all the millions of New Afrikan comrades rotting in jail, hanging by the noose, being shot to death on the streets, pushed through the violence of necessity into the arms of reactionary camaraderie in the streets, pushed to self-destruction through alcohol and drug abuse.
This is not an isolated incident. This is not a story about how the highly sophisticated U.S. judiciary dealt with an anomaly of wrongfully incarcerating a poor, working-class New Afrikan youth. This is not a story about how all the pressure and heartbreak of losing her child, twice (first to Rikers Island, and ultimately to his own hand), caused her health to deteriorate and ultimately kill her. This is not the story of how a 14-year-old Chicanx youth was shot to death by pigs, then handcuffed for show, left to die without any medical care, as a symbol of what happens to a Chicanx or an immigrant if they dare to get out of line, if they dare to refuse normality.
This is a story of New African genocide and settler-colonialism on U.S. soil. It is not new. For the Black Nation, it started when the first African was stolen and brought to the U.S. in 1619, and the descendants of those slave catchers are now largely still running this settler-colonialist project we call the U.S. For the Chicanx Nation and other indigenous nations in the southwest, it accelerated after 1848, with the U.S. aggressively absorbing more than half of Mexico, ripping Mexicans from underneath Mexico and imposing a settler-colonial state, equipped with courts, armies and vigilantes, upon them.
But it has developed in its sophistication, in its cruelty and in its violence so much so that we now call it normal. But the capitalist state is afraid. It has seen more and more cases of Kalief Browder and Jesse Romero; it has seen rebellious movements spring up, taking their rage into the street in broad daylight; it has seen the communities of Boyle Heights and the Bronx rise up, although briefly, with the glimmering spark of revolt.
It is the task of communists to be among the masses, especially the most oppressed, side to side with those surviving every day under U.S. capitalism and national oppression. It is the task of the communists to take that rage, anger and refusal to surrender to normality and to turn it into something massive, into something highly organized, into something capable of once and for all destroying U.S. capitalism and white supremacy. Imagine if there were actual communist – Maoist – collectives and mass projects or organizations in every city in the country with strong mass bases not only to react when there’s an injustice or brutality, but to strategically launch community-defense offensives. And imagine a national network of that. It is the task of the communists to have an imagination, and to more importantly transform that imagination into a material force, into a weapon for the people.
It is the task of the communists to take that spark of rage and turn it into the fire of revolt. Avenge the Kalief Browders and Jesse Romeros of the U.S. and lead the people away from reform and to revolution!