By Ellen McGirt
June 20, 2017

I’m taking you to church once again.

Last night I attended the Juneteenth Justice event at New York’s famous Riverside Church. The event was hosted along with the Union Theological Seminary, Auburn Theological Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, Drum Major Institute, Healing of the Nations Foundation, and The Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, Inc.

Along with extraordinary music and prayerful talk, “Spirit Alive” awards were given to Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and former president of Spelman College, and the four lead co-organizers of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland and Janaye Ingram.

I’ve included a link to the entire program, all of which is worth your time, especially if you have a church fan handy. But if you only have a few minutes, I’d recommend spending some time with Brittany Packnett, the extraordinary educator and activist and former Washington, D.C. school teacher who has devoted her life and career to issues of justice. She became nationally known for her work in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, and deserves the wider audience she’s getting.

Her nearly impossible task was to introduce the only posthumous award that night, one given to Kalief Browder. She delivered.

Browder was just 16 years old when he was arrested for stealing a backpack he swears he didn’t take, unable to raise $900 for bail, and ultimately imprisoned on Riker’s Island. There he was brutalized and beaten, attempted suicide four times, and kept in solitary for more than 700 days of his three-year incarceration. He ultimately died by suicide.

A six-part Spike documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story, executive produced by Jay-Z and Harvey Weinstein, tells his tragic story in greater detail. But it was Packnett’s duty to frame Browder’s life in bigger terms because those are the terms that frame the world so many people of color inhabit.

“I firmly believe that Kalief Browder stands as the most significant and consequential activist of my lifetime,” she began. “I often find it hard to discuss him because in his eyes I see too many men I know. Too many men I love, too many of my former students with whom I’ve lost touch,” she said. “I call Kalief an activist because it is improper and disrespectful for us to only remember him in death or even in bondage and in Kalief’s own words, he just wanted to stand up for what was right. That made him an activist, inside and out. For me, he is and will always be, a giant among giants of modern day freedom fighters.”

Packnett came bearing receipts.

She introduced herself as the daughter of two preachers. Her father, also a long-time organizer, had pastored at the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, a church founded by enslaved people, and where Dred and Harriet Scott found regular fellowship, back when they were real people seeking salvation and dignity, and not a short answer on a history test.

“Some of us activists chose this life because like me we were raised in protest, or we worship a God who loves justice and commands that we do the same here on earth,” she said. Others, because we understand that the victims could be someone we know or love. “Kalief Browder chose this because it was him.”

Her remarks begin around the 1:56:00 mark. Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, takes the podium to accept the award at 2:07:33.

I’ll give Packnett the last word, a balm for these difficult times: “Our spirits are bigger than the systems we face.”


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