“Innocent until proven guilty” is a foundational tenet of American democracy, but no such protection existed for Kalief Browder. Arrested in the Bronx at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, unable to make bail and held due to a prior offense, Browder spent over 1,000 days in pre-trial detention at infamous prison facility Rikers Island. His case was later dismissed, but tragically, he took his own life at age 22, spurred on by severe PTSD.
On Wednesday night, Jay Z, executive producer of a new six-part documentary series about Browder’s life that debuted last week on Spike TV, discussed the project at Spike’s New York studios, telling the crowd that this story lays bare a pressing need for criminal justice reform. “His death is here to teach us to save a generation of kids,” the rapper asserted. “I say this about the movie. It’s hard to watch, but important to see.”
The rapper talked about Browder’s life and the urgent importance of changing the prison system with another of the film’s executive producers, Harvey Weinstein; the two were also joined by CBS anchor Gayle King, New Yorker writer and legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin, comedian Michael Che, New York Times‘ reporter Michael Schwirtz and others. “Time and Punishment: A Town Hall Discussion With Jay Z And Harvey Weinstein” aired live on Spike TV before the premiere of the second episode of Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
After spending years at Rikers – including roughly 800 days in solitary confinement – without being convicted of a crime, Browder was discharged. Following his release, he brought a suit against the New York City Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney and the Department of Corrections with help from lawyer Paul Prestia, who also spoke during “Time and Punishment.” But the horrific treatment Browder endured at Rikers – in addition to the extended periods of solitary confinement, security camera footage obtained by The New Yorker and aired in The Kalief Browder Story shows Browder being violently beaten at the hands both other inmates and correctional officers – led him to hang himself.
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A 2014 New Yorker profile of Browder caught the attention of numerous public figures including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senator Rand Paul and Jay Z. When he introduced measures in 2015 that aimed to prevent similarly horrific abuses of justice from occurring in the future, de Blasio declared that “Browder’s tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island’s culture of delay.” Senator Paul cited Browder’s tale a number of times in speeches as an example of America’s failure to uphold the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees, among other things, the right to a fair and speedy trial. Jay Z, who met with Browder before his death, was subsequently driven to work on The Kalief Browder Story.
Framed by windows overlooking the neon madness of Times Square, two news tickers ran steadily behind Jay Z and Weinstein Wednesday night, reminding viewers that a new episode of Scandal was imminent. The small crowd included four of Browder’s siblings – Akeem, Nicole, Deion and Kamal, who all appear in the series – along with a peppering of women wearing red in honor of International Women’s Day.
King moderated “Time and Punishment” – more panel discussion than town hall meeting, as there were just two audience questions – with a firm hand, asking forceful leading questions and occasionally cutting off her interviewees or talking over them. When she repeated a phrase from Jay Z but changed his language – “It’s hard to see, but important to hear” – the rapper smoothly stepped in to correct her. “You did a George Bush thing with my words,” he joked, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Weinstein and Jay Z, who remained onstage as a cast of panel members rotated through the two chairs to their left, displayed different rhetorical approaches over the course of the evening. Weinstein, compact and grizzled, distilled his comments into impactful jabs. He described Browder’s treatment at the hands of the law as “racial prejudice and … economic prejudice.” When a clip of Rudy Giuliani was played, Weinstein was even more succinct, describing the former New York City mayor as “an eyesore.” Later he added, “[Browder]’s a hero … he stands against everything.”
In contrast, Jay Z, slender and still youthful despite his 47 years, stressed the wider applicability of Browder’s story – for parents, for the black community and for the battle against a racist criminal justice system. “You have to watch this and then walk into your child’s room and just look at them,” he said. He returned twice – even after King attempted to move past the point – to note that Browder’s first offense, which involved joyriding in a bakery truck, would not have had the same legal consequences for a white culprit, likening the mistake to a suburban kid skateboarding where he wasn’t supposed to.
Jay Z also offered one of the night’s most hopeful statements. “We put people in office; we make the laws,” he reminded viewers. “These government officials? They work for us. They speak to us like we work for them, but we are the power. Three million people watched this the first week; we need it to be 20. We need everyone to be talking about this. That’s how this stops.”
“This project would have been unheard of a couple years ago,” Jenner Furst, who directed The Kalief Browder Story, told Rolling Stone after the event. His collared shirt was buttoned all the way to the top (red again, for International Women’s Day), jeans were cuffed and hair slicked back. “The fact that we’re honestly talking about racism and the criminal justice system, and it’s being beamed into 100 million homes right now? That’s a moment that we all need to cherish and honor.”
He praised Jay Z, Weinstein and Spike TV for pushing to extend The Kalief Browder Story‘s reach beyond just the activists and news-hounds. “News stories are very important,” he allowed. “The New Yorker article changed the culture. But to look into [Browder’s] eyes and to see his smile and to see his journey on this David and Goliath story? That’s going to affect you differently. To understand this in a long-form way and sit with his mother, without looking away? That could change your life.”
Furst then offered a galvanizing statement of his own, echoing Jay Z’s words from earlier in the night. “There’s got to be an awakening across the country,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be looking at the White House or senators. I think it’s about looking at what’s happening in your county, your town, your city, right now. If Americans can think small, they can do much bigger things.”