Akeem Browder celebrated what would have been his youngest brother’s 23rd birthday by smashing a pinata crafted to look like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“That’s what he deserves,” Akeem growled as he punched and kicked the papier-mache caricature.
Instead of candy, pictures of Rikers Island guards abusing a then teenage boy spilled out of the pinata’s hollow torso. As Akeem spread the images over hot footpath outside the Bronx Supreme Court, a rubber “Live For Real” bracelet wiggled around his right hand.
After spending three years at Rikers Island on charges of stealing a backpack, which were later dropped, Akeem’s brother, Kalief, killed himself at their mother’s house in 2015. He was just 22.
While navigating the darkness that inevitably followed, Akeem started the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, a grassroots collection of activists dedicated to the swift closure of Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex and one of the country’s most notorious.
Those involved meet regularly to plan events in hopes of drawing attention to Kalief’s death and convincing politicians to reform the criminal justice system the group believes caused it.
Police arrested Kalief in May 2010 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Then just 16 years old, he spent the next three years awaiting trial at Rikers Island. While there, video surveillance from the jail showed guards and fellow inmates violently attacking him.
'You think your clock is ticking, but at Rikers, you're being tortured and abused. You're missing out on life,' Akeem told Business Insider at the protest. 'That's what they did to him.'
When prosecutors couldn't proceed with his case, Kalief was released in 2013. In the years after his time behind bars, he struggled with depression and paranoia, eventually pushing the young black man to kill himself.
Now, Akeem wants the whole system to pay for his brother's pain. For the march on the courthouse, on Kalief's first birthday since his suicide, Akeem ordered three pinatas designed to look like three politicians: de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
In Akeem's mind, these are the people responsible, at the highest level, for Kalief's death.
Rikers Island sits on a nearly 400-acre island in the East River. The 10 jails across the facility, from juvenile to all-women buildings, hold nearly 10,000 inmates.
The campaign lists seven reasons New York State needs to shut the entire operation down:
- Rikers is racist.
- Rikers punishes poor people.
- Rikers breeds physical and sexual violence.
- Rikers abuses children and people with mental illness.
- Rikers acts as a prison, not a jail.
- Rikers is a waste of public spending.
- Rikers is a torture chamber.
As protesters marched around the courthouse, they carried signs with each of these points.
Statistics support many of the most eye-opening claims.
In 2015, violence hit an all-time high at Rikers, despite fewer inmates, according to the New York Daily News. Although it's likely much higher, recent federal statistics show the rate of sexual violence by staff and other inmates reported by women inmates at two Rikers facilities is almost triple the national average.
Across America, 60% of the people in jails haven't been convicted of any crimes, but they can't afford the bail that would allow them to await a resolution outside their cells. Rikers is no different. The campaign claims that as much as 79% of inmates are there because they couldn't post bail during their arraignments.
As the protesters marched down the footpath around the courthouse, they chanted: 'Justice for? Kalief Browder. Who'd they kill? Kalief Browder. Say his name and scream it louder.'
Many of the attendees also wore black shirts with #BYEKEN stamped across the chest in bold letters. The hashtag refers to Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. In April, he recommended no jail time for Peter Liang, the New York Police Department officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man, in a housing project stairwell.
Much of the community believed that Thompson, a black man, could restore Brooklyn's faith in justice. To start, he implemented the Conviction Review Unit, a group of 10 lawyers tasked with reviewing wrongful conviction claims in hopes of cutting down on the rising number of exonerations.
'He's gotta go,' Kim Ortiz, Akeem's right-hand woman at the event, said as she passed out fliers.
The group's tactics may seem brash. Most notably, about 20 members of the campaign stood outside City Hall in February carrying a mock coffin, emblazoned with Kalief's name. Members, however, agree on the necessity of media play.
'Nothing's ever going to change if we don't demand people's attention,' one of the dozens of protesters at the courthouse said.
Most politicians say Rikers needs reform. In fact, over the past several years, de Blasio himself spearheaded efforts to divert millions of dollars to build more complexes, improve mental health care, and implement 'supervised release' to cut down on the number of people awaiting trial in jail.
In early 2016, the idea of shuttering Rikers gained traction after a New York City council member mentioned the idea during a meeting. Cuomo even praised the 'big solution' to a 'big problem.'
De Blasio, however, deflected a permanent closure as unfeasible.
'That's why we've gotta keep doing this,' the same protester said. 'We can't give up now.'
The campaign's perseverance doesn't come without sacrifices, though. As Akeem handed out fliers, preparing for the protest, he said he'd been arrested seven times since Kalief's death.
'And they realise that every time they arrest me, I get another lawsuit,' he said. 'I have, like, two lawsuits right now for unlawful arrest.'
Akeem's lawyer, Wylie Stecklow, wouldn't comment on the arrests. But he did suggest that many New York City cops don't fully understand or respect people's right to protest.
When asked if he often sees police making arrests for protected free speech, Stecklow said: 'Except for days that end in Y? Yes, all the time.'
Before the protesters began their march that day, Stecklow, rolling up his sleeves, stood by as Akeem gave a short speech about proper conduct:
'The law is that (police) aren't allowed to arrest you or push you off the footpath as long as you're not blocking the pedestrians on the footpath. What we try to do is be single-file and things like that, but you just have to make sure that you see the width of the footpath, and people can walk around you and they have access to the street. That's the biggest issue.
'If the police decide that they want to stretch their muscles, we'll try to talk to them and deal with it. As long as we stay within the confines of the law, we should be fine.'
Several people at the event had visited court just that morning on charges related to free speech. Some had even spent time at Rikers themselves.
A man offering shoe shines on the corner, unaffiliated with the protest, said he spent a few months there for robbery.
'I deserved to be there,' said Robert, who didn't want to give his last name. 'It's one thing to want to shut it down, but you have to have some alternatives.'
After engaging with several pedestrians about the campaign's goals and petition, someone said the campaign found a good spot on the corner to begin its march.
Pulling the strap of his plain, white tank back onto a thin shoulder, Robert said, 'I know. I'm here everyday,' and went back to finding customers.
In addition to a lawyer, Akeem also keeps his friend Jose Lasalle, a member of the Copwatch Patrol Unit, known as CPU or Copwatch, handy during events.
Copwatch, as Lasalle explained it, is a volunteer organisation of 50 or 60 'brothers and sisters' that keep tabs on areas of high police activity or where complaints of harassment originate. Using audio and video equipment, they document police interaction with the community.
'I like to the use the 'pro,' Lasalle said, looking down at the GoPro attached to his belt. A quick smile revealed one gold tooth.
Despite Lasalle's jovial persona, he takes his role with Copwatch most seriously.
'It's like boxers. They shake hands before the fight,' he said. 'We will shake hands (with the police) before the battle begins, but after that, we continue the battle. We know it's them against us and us against them. But we respect our boundaries to an extent.'
One of the behaviours Lasalle watches out for is police filming protests. According to Stecklow, it's a violation of the NYPD patrol guide for police to film unless there's evidence of criminal activity.
About a dozen court officers, outfitted with guns and bulletproof vests, monitored the protests. A few were clearly recording with their phones. While court officers aren't held to the same behavioural standards as the NYPD, Stecklow said 'it shouldn't be done.'
Even before the protest began, Lasalle and Akeem bickered about what they could and couldn't do and how the court officers might respond.
'Just so you know, now that we're passing out flyers, this is going to be something they're going to approach us for,' Lasalle told Akeem.
'Well, I asked the attorney, he said we can pass out fliers,' Akeem responded. 'By law, the court has to uphold the right to protest and make space for us in plain sight of the court. That's criminal procedure law.'
As the march concluded, protesters gathered in the shade of the courthouse's multistory overhang.
Those carrying signs with the reasons to shut down Rikers encircled Akeem in numerical order.
Panting and sweating, Akeem began to yell each one of the seven points -- and the accompanying statistics -- from memory. The group echoed him.
When they reached the last reason -- that Rikers is a torture chamber -- Akeem said, 'Let's repeat that.' And everyone did -- a Pan-African flag billowing behind them in the humidity.
Speaking to Will Aronin, another attorney there, Stecklow commented on the police's lack of involvement in the event.
'I don't know if it's because the police just don't have numbers here or otherwise, but this is what First Amendment activity is supposed to look like,' he said.
After Akeem, a former Marine spoke, detailing his imprisonment at Rikers. A 19-year-old aspiring gospel artist, who knows Akeem from church, sang a rendition of a protest song to fight police violence. Even Aronin, who aspires to run for office one day, voiced his support.
As the last to speak, Akeem, for the first time that day, showed some emotion.
'My brother couldn't be the father he could have been,' he said, choking back tears. 'I will fight for you, Kalief. I will make them remember your name.'
Akeem then asked attendees to sign a poster-sized birthday card for his late brother. Because of intense depression, Akeem said, their mother couldn't attend the protest. Akeem wanted to give the card to her.
One by one, attendees knelt to sign their names and write messages of hope in black Sharpie.
As the protestors dispersed, Ortiz high-fived one of the lawyers.
'I didn't get arrested. Yay!' she said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story misidentified the origins of a song to protest police violence.
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