What the stories of Kalief Browder and Richard Barnett tell us about America

TOP: Richard Barnett in House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office with his feet on her desk. BOTTOM: Portrait of Kalief Browder

In 2010, Kalief Browder, a seventeen-year-old Black boy from the Bronx was arrested during a stop-and-frisk for allegedly stealing a backpack containing valuables. Though the backpack was never found on Browder, he was detained at the local precinct and interrogated by police officers. After more than thirty-six hours, he was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault, and because he was found in violation of his probation from a previous youthful offense, he was not released from custody. When his family could not raise bail money, he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial.

What followed was an aberration of justice that underscores the broken legal system in this country. Browder spent the next three years in Rikers Island, where he suffered abuse, starvation, and torture at the hands of corrections officers and fellow inmates. More than two of those three years were spent in solitary confinement. Browder’s case was never brought to trial. His staunch refusal to admit guilt to the robbery meant that he also refused to take a plea bargain. And so years of his life were swallowed up by Rikers Island. Eventually, the DA found they could levy no charges against him, and he was released. Two years after his release, Browder died by suicide.

The story of Richard Barnett stands in sharp contrast to that of Kalief Browder. On January 6th, 2021, Barnett was part of a group of insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol Building at the behest of Donald J. Trump with the intent to capture and harm lawmakers who were voting to certify President-elect Joe Biden. Barnett infiltrated the Capitol Building armed with a stun gun. He made it to the offices of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, where he was photographed languishing in her chair with his feet propped up on her desk. He is also reported to have stolen property in the form of an official letter. When he was interviewed about the theft of official government property, he replied, ““I didn’t steal (it). … I put a quarter on her desk, even though she ain’t (expletive) worth it.”

Two days after the attempted coup at the Capitol Building, Barnett turned himself in at the Benton County Sheriff’s Office in Bentonville, AK. He was charged with disorderly conduct and theft of public property, as well as unlawfully entering a restricted area with a lethal weapon. Immediately following the charges, in an act of White supremacist audacity, federal magistrate judge Erin Weidemann ruled that Barnett be released from jail on a $5,000 bail and placed under house arrest. When interviewed about her ruling, Weidemann stated, “He appears to be a law-abiding citizen, for the most part, although there have been incidents that do cause the court concern with him being armed at rallies.”

This, right here, is the story of two Americas, perfectly encapsulated. This is the same America where you are five times more likely to be arrested if you are Black than if you are White. This is the same America where Black people make up 13% of the population, but a full 34% of those incarcerated. This is the same America where a White man can infiltrate the Capitol building- arguably one of the most sanctified symbols of our democracy- with a deadly weapon, hunt through the hallways for elected officials who disagree with his views, put his feet up on the desk of one of the most senior female lawmakers in the country, and be called a law-abiding citizen. This is the same America where a young Black boy can be swallowed up by the carceral system for three years of his life and never be convicted of a crime.

In the days after the order for Barnett’s release under Judge Weidemann’s direction, Chief US District Judge Beryl Howell stayed the ruling. Judge Howell ordered that not only should Barnett remain in jail, but that he be transferred immediately to Washington, D.C. so that the case can proceed. Regardless, the original aberration of justice withstands. A District Magistrate looked at an armed insurrectionist who breached the US Capitol Building and called him “a law-abiding citizen”. Other Capitol insurrectionists have received similar treatment, which betrays America’s predilection for treating White criminals as “law-abiding citizens”. One need only point to the case of Eric Munchel, aka “Zip Tie Guy”, who could be released from federal custody as early as Monday and ordered to home detention. Public defender Caryll S. Alpert said of Munchels’ presence at the Capitol uprisings: “This is one snapshot in time and it doesn’t represent who Mr. Munchel is”. When Eric Munchel infiltrated the Capitol building, he was clothed in tactical gear and in possession of a taser and hundreds of zip ties. It seems abundantly clear that Munchel was intent on taking lawmarkers captive, had he had the opportunity, but both Alpert and Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Frensley said it is “unclear what his motive was… it’s not clear what his intent was.”

Or furthermore, let us examine the case of Capitol rioter Riley June Williams, who was caught on camera stealing a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office. A tipster claimed that Williams intended to sell the laptop to Russian operatives. On Thursday, Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson ordered that Williams be released from federal custody and placed under house arrest. Williams’ defense attorney Lori Ullrich said that these claims were “overstated”, despite the fact that Williams was caught on camera stealing the laptop.

The stark and brutal differences in the way that our criminal justice system treats Black and White people is well-documented and the number of examples goes on, and on, and on. Prison abolitionist Angela Davis asked “Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?” The answer is yes, yes, a thousand times over. Yet in stark contrast, White people are frequently protected from the violence of the prison system.

Prison abolitionists advocate for community-based transformative justice practices to address instances of violence and harm. In this reimagined world, justice is restorative — it seeks to reinstate balance and harmony within the community when a wrong is committed. But in America, that envisioning of justice is seen as “radical”. Then, there is the fundamental question of whether a criminal justice system that is guilty of such blatant and horrific acts of racial inequality and oppression can be ever be relied upon to mete out “justice”.

The recent examples of Richard Barnett, Eric Munchell, and Riley June Williams, and a justice system that is all-too-eager to absolve them of domestic terrorism underscores the deep divisions in how criminals (and non-criminals) are treated. The American criminal justice system swallows up Black and Brown people at an astounding rate while being quick to exonerate White criminals as “misunderstood” “confused” or “law-abiding”.

Kalief Browder was at Rikers Island for more than three years before his eventual release. He was never brought to trial. He was never convicted of a crime. His family points to the trauma of his incarceration as the reason for his multiple suicide attempts before he died on June 6th, 2015. In a 2014 interview with the New Yorker, he said “I’m not all right. I’m messed up… I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel.”

He concluded, “There are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back… I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

Anti-racist scholar and educator. White lady.

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