Still, We Were Here

Cain’s painting of Kalief Browder. / Omar Youseff

Kalief Browder, a young man I had known nothing about, until a painting of him took up both the halls of the Brooklyn College Library and my attention. An interview with Anthony Cain revealed not only his story, but the tragic yet consistent fate of African Americans in the justice system.

Browder is another African American who has suffered in part due to how justice is carried about in the United States. If you’re simply here to keep count, you can flip the scorecard and take your leave now. However, as for his story, that is one that is not only worth telling, it is worth over a thousand words. Cain’s picture of Browder expresses his journey. A young man at the age of 16 who was falsely arrested. His trial lasted around three years, which is a fact that threatens the very existence of the Sixth Amendment. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement in Rikers Island had conditions that ultimately led to a surviving depression that led the youth to his end.

This story was something that Cain would soon become fixated on. Watching television documentaries on Spike TV and through resources of the web, he became familiar with the boy.

“Every show became a part of me,” said Cain.  He says the face Browder would come to him every night in his sleep. He thought, “How could the justice system fail him like that?” Recreating that face and making sure that it was clearly him and making sure that you could see that boy in that face and that it would not become lost in a myriad of other victims of police violence was important to the artist.

“I asked a lot of people if they saw Kalief Browder in my piece until I got it,” Cain said.

This type of injustice is not the only one that fills this discussion these days. When asked about the police practice of “Rough Rides,” and other forms of injustice, Cain expressed a wish for more discussion on these types of violence and simply for more people to be aware of the struggles African Americans go through in something as simple as an arrest, even before one is convicted of any crime.

The scales in his photo are broken. I asked Cain why that is and he responded saying, “It’s just a system that is broken in both corners.” Both the prison system and the way people arrive there are problematic in his view. Cain laments the psychological breakdown the prison brings about and says that due to “improper treatment the entire system is broken.”

As our discussion progressed, Cain made it clear that he wants people to simply know of this boy’s story. He wants the people who see his painting that this is a persistent problem. Cain says that he wants to deliver a message that “people need to be involved with the community,” and that he hopes that it could inspire people to help others going through similar situations.

In closing, I asked Cain how it felt to paint this picture. He went on to say that the picture made him realize that that face could have been anyone’s. In painting it, he felt a release of joy and anger. I myself can only imagine the Browder face as if he knew he had this kind of support here.

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