Notes from the Glass House: For Kalief
In conjunction with Coby Kennedy’s Summer 2021 exhibition Kalief Browder: The Box, Pioneer Works, For Freedoms, and Negative Space presented Beyond The Box, a four-part program series that considered the realities of mass incarceration through the lens of art and activism. Over the course of four weeks, Broadcast is releasing Beyond The Box’s accompanying video series, each paired with a newly commissioned text that further elaborates on the thematic pillars charted by For Freedoms: Awakening, Listening, Healing, and Justice. Below, for Healing, Jasmine Wahi details how American institutions fail the public.
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands, indivisible [with me invisible], and liberty and justice for some."
1. They say people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
But what if the stone-throwers imprisoned YOU within the glass?
2. Is the ivory tower a threat or a promise?
3. Can an institution founded on the premise of Whiteness ever be anything but the masters' house?
4. May 25th, 1993
Dear White Boy,
Do you dream in color? Or does your mind reserve Darkness for the stuff of nightmares?
A Shadow Shifter
5. June 6th, 2015
Dear Black Boy,
Do you travel this world knowing that I put a target on your back?
The American Justice System
I often wonder about the ways in which “we” occupy public space. The sub/unconscious cues for how we move through this world ricochet through our synapses during our waking hours. I wonder about the ways in which a society founded on White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy—a country that built its foundation on the backs of enslaved Black people—shapes our sense of space. The way we operate in public, and perhaps in private, varies greatly based on our placement on the matrix. Our intersections and multiple-converging-identities inform our experiences and interactivity with one another. Social conditioning informs our sense of space, place, and interpersonal communication.
When I think of dichotomies of public space, I am struck by the singularity of the word public. To which public do we refer to when we think about these municipal arenas? Who created this false paradigm in which we are all considered equal, in which we all have equity in the collective ownership of common ground?
When I think about public space, and the ways in which we occupy it, I think of America, the playground for hegemonic Whiteness, and America, the minefield for everyone else. I think about the American institutions that are in service of the public. I ponder how vast and idiosyncratic our public works are—the reality that a system in “the-service-of-the-public” is functional relative to who that particular “public” is.
When I contemplate this relativism, I am reminded of Kalief Browder. A sixteen year old Black boy who was riding on a city train during the upswing of Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. This child, Kalief Browder, arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, was a member of the public and taken in by an institution-in-the-service-of-the-public.
This institution-in-the-service-of-the-public beat this Black boy.
It/They beat Kalief and threw him in a box.
It/They beat Kalief and threw him in a box alone.
It/They beat Kalief and threw him in a box alone for 730 days.
It/They beat Kalief and threw him in a box alone for 730 days for a minor crime.
It/They beat Kalief and threw him in a box alone for 730 days for a minor crime that he didn’t commit.
As Kalief’s father said, “When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!”
[An Aside: It was this same institution-in-the-service-of-the-public that gently handcuffed Dylann Roof and dotingly fed him fast food burgers shortly after he murdered nine Black worshipers in a house of God.]
When the institution-in-the-service-of-the-public is grounded on rules etched into the books of Slave owners, which public does it serve?
Is there a place in an institution for safety and salvation?
In the municipal space, our “public” systems are segmented into parts that run both parallel and perpendicular to one another. There is the justice system. There is the transport system (these two converged for Kalief). There is the education system. There is the culture system. Housing. Finances. Etc. etc.
Where does one find an antidote to a public’s peril in the thick plait of institutions-in-the-service-of-the-public systems?
When I think of safety, I think of art. (not the art world)
To be seen is a form of safety.
To be art is to be seen.
To be erased is a form of violence.
When I think of Kalief Browder, I think of his drive to change institutions-in-the-service-of-the-public. I think of how he bore the wounds inflicted upon and around him for a larger public service. I think of how we must memorialize his experience, both for him and for the public.
I think about the ways we have commemorated Kalief, not only his life before but also his life after the change inflicted upon him. The Kalief 2.0, shrouded in the un-ebbing breath of solitude. It is through the artist, and the institutions that strain against the birthright of Whiteness, who create change against the machine.
I think about a memorial to Kalief 2.0, a memorial to our unattended and violated publics, and I think about Coby Kenndy’s The Box. The box is glass-clear and sharp edged. Kalief’s real life box was not so beautiful or so clean.
But a box is a box is a box, with no start and no end, with no exit, no escape.
In a glass box you cannot hide yourself or from yourself.
To gaze upon a Black boy in a box is to gaze upon your participation in violence.
To gaze upon a Black boy in a box is an indictment of your segregated public.
They say people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
But what if the stone-throwers imprisoned YOU within the glass? ♦
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