On January 22 2021, a tweet from @DerenicByrd contrasting the justice system’s treatment of a 22-year-old white woman named Riley Williams versus a Black teenager named Kalief Browder spread virally on Twitter and Imgur:
Alongside photographs of Browder and Williams, Byrd wrote:
Kalief Browder allegedly stole a backpack at 16, spent 3 yrs at Riker’s Island without trial.
Riley Williams stole a laptop from Speaker Pelosi’s office and tried selling it the Russians. She was released to her mother
There are two justice systems in America #BlackLivesMatter
Who is Riley Williams, and What Did She Allegedly Do?
As of January 22 2021, Wikipedia maintained an entry for Riley Williams (which was tagged for possible deletion); it provided a brief explanation of Williams’ notoriety without attachment to any specific news story:
Riley June Williams is a woman who went inside the US Capitol during the storming of the Capitol building by supporters of the outgoing President of the United States, Donald Trump, on January 6, 2021.
She was identified by the United Kingdom-based ITV News as taking a leadership role in the attempt by insurrectionists to seize the US Capitol building. According to Scott Neuman of National Public Radio, video from the day showed her directing other insurrectionists to go upstairs, and leading them to Nancy Pelosi’s office … [Williams] has been accused by a former romantic partner of stealing a laptop from Pelosi’s office, with the intent of selling its contents to the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia, the country’s main spy agency.
Williams stood accused of more than one severe criminal infraction — allegedly participating in the January 6 2021 Capitol insurrection, “taking a leadership role” as the Capitol was breached, leading others to and entering the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the express purposes of seizing her laptop, taking possession of Pelosi’s laptop, and purportedly intending to sell the computer to Russian intelligence agents.
Williams’ very new and very short Wikipedia page was densely populated with information about her alleged actions, any of which alone, again, constituted a serious crime should she be charged and convicted.
One of the above tweets was in response to a January 21 2021 NPR tweet and news story about Williams and the conditions of her release:
In the article, NPR reported that Williams faced “multiple charges,” and noted that the presiding judge indicated that the “gravity of these offenses is great,” which “cannot be overstated”:
Riley Williams, the 22-year-old woman who is accused of participating in the theft of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop during the attack on the Capitol building on Jan. 6 , has been released from jail Thursday [January 21 2021], The Associated Press reported.
Williams, of Harrisburg, Pa., was arrested Monday [January 18 2021]. She faces multiple charges, including theft, trespassing and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson ordered Williams be released, with travel restrictions, into her mother’s custody. Williams’ case will continue in federal court on [January 25 2021] in Washington, the AP reported. “The gravity of these offenses is great,” Carlson said. “It cannot be overstated.”
NPR added that Williams was required to wear an ankle monitor, “and can only leave her mother’s home for work and some other court-approved reasons.” A lawyer for Williams, Lori Ulrich, affirmed Williams was present inside the Capitol building during the insurrection, saying to the judge:
It is regrettable that Ms. Williams took the president’s bait and went inside the Capitol.
PennLive.com included details of evidence presented in charging documents:
[Riley Williams] can be heard in the video repeatedly yelling, ‘Upstairs, upstairs, upstairs,’ and can be seen physically directing other intruders to proceed up a staircase,” the agent Jonathan Lund wrote. “The video also shows a stream of intruders walking up a nearby staircase.”
That staircase leads to Pelosi’s office, Lund wrote. He said surveillance video from cameras in the Capitol also show Williams inside the building’s Statutory Hall “pointing and directing intruders” during the melee. Other surveillance video shows her entering the Capitol with the mob, the agent said.
The court records include claims by an ex-romantic partner that Williams stole Pelosi’s laptop during the riot and tried, without success, to sell it to Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
For the theft charge, investigators say evidence includes social media chatter on the platform Discord, which includes her saying she stole from Nancy Pelosi and “I DOMT (sic) CARE I TOOK NANCY POLESIS (sic) HARD DRIVES I DON’T CARE KILL ME.”
The piece concluded:
Williams is facing charges of violent entry and disorderly conduct, knowingly entering or remaining in restricted buildings or grounds, aiding and abetting in the theft of U.S. government property and obstructing official proceedings.
Philadelphia Inquirer cited an affidavit detailing the allegations that Williams sought to sell Pelosi’s laptop to foreign intelligence agencies:
In an affidavit filed late Sunday evening [January 17 2021], agents said that her former partner contacted them several times last week after recognizing her in footage shot during the Capitol siege by the British network ITV.
Her ex also claimed to have seen video of Williams filching the laptop from Pelosi’s office and claimed she had bragged she intended to send it to a friend in Russia who would arrange for its transfer to the SVR, the Russian equivalent of the CIA.
That deal fell through, Williams’ ex told agents, according to charging documents in her case, and the laptop remains in her possession.
By all accounts, the claims in the tweet about Williams were true. Williams’ lawyer confirmed her client was inside the Capitol during the insurrection, she faced multiple charges in connection with the event and her alleged theft of Pelosi’s laptop, and she was released to her mother’s custody.
Who is Kalief Browder?
Like Williams, Browder is also the subject of a Wikipedia page:
Kalief Browder (May 25, 1993 – June 6, 2015) was an African-American youth from The Bronx, New York, who was held at the Rikers Island jail complex, without trial, between 2010 and 2013 for allegedly stealing a backpack containing valuables. During his imprisonment, Browder was in solitary confinement for two years.
Two years after his release, Browder hanged himself at his parents’ home.
Browder’s arrest, years of imprisonment at Rikers Island, and subsequent death by suicide have been extensively covered. Browder’s refusal to “plea out” and admit guilt for a crime he had not committed has since been highlighted as an example of myriad flaws in the justice system; a UMass Lowell page titled “The Cost of Pleading Innocent: The Kalief Browder Case” began with a brief and distressing summary:
Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was sent to Rikers Island, an infamous detention center in New York City, on a charge of stealing a book bag.
Browder spent more than 1,000 days there awaiting trial – including 700 days in solitary confinement – because he refused to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit.
After prosecutors finally dropped the charge in 2013, Browder earned his GED and began attending community college. But in 2015, after three psychiatric hospitalizations and two previous suicide attempts, he hanged himself.
The New Yorker profiled Browder’s imprisonment in depth, revisiting the story after Browder’s suicide and noting that they had obtained footage of Browder’s abuse at the hands of correctional officers in April 2015:
Last fall , I wrote about a young man named Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in February, 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell.
In November of 2013, six months after he left Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx … Ever since I’d met him, Browder had been telling me stories about having been abused by officers and inmates on Rikers. The stories were disturbing, but I did not fully appreciate what he had experienced until this past April [2-15] when I obtained surveillance footage of an officer assaulting him and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him. I sat next to Kalief while he watched these videos for the first time. Afterward, we discussed whether they should be published on The New Yorker’s Web site. I told him that it was his decision. He said to put them online.
Browder, arrested in May 2010, was released in May 2013 due to lack of evidence. On June 6 2015, Browder died. Browder’s Wikipedia entry, citing a book about his incarceration, explained:
On March 13, 2013, Browder appeared before Bronx judge DiMango. She offered Browder a plea bargain of immediate release for his admission of guilt to two misdemeanors with consideration of time already served. Browder refused the offer and was returned to prison. On May 29, 2013, DiMango freed Browder in anticipation of the dismissal of the charges against him one week hence. [The complainant] had returned to Mexico and could not give testimony against Browder.
It is currently unclear how long Browder was kept incarcerated after the DA’s office realized they could not prove their case at trial.
Browder’s brother Deion Browder authored a 2019 op-ed noting that their mother Venida died just one year after her son’s suicide:
The stress of fighting for justice and the pain over her son’s death literally broke my mother’s heart, resulting in her premature death at age 63 from complications of a heart attack. It was only a year after Kalief’s passing … We’ve also seen this happen to Erica Garner, who died in 2017 of a heart attack at age 27 after years of activism because her father was killed by police.
Venida Browder’s sudden death was not only additional tragedy for the Browder family. It caused additional delays in New York City’s settlement of a wrongful death suit in favor of the Browder family, once again prolonging their pain.
A popular tweet — one of several contrasting the release of Riley Williams with the imprisonment of Kalief Browder — maintained that “Kalief Browder allegedly stole a backpack at 16, spent 3 yrs at Riker’s Island without trial,” whereas “Riley Williams stole a laptop from Speaker Pelosi’s office and tried selling it the Russians, [she] was released to her mother.” If anything, the tweet understated the stark contrast in the respective arrests. Browder was held for three years (two years in solitary confinement) because he refused to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit (theft of a backpack). Williams’ lawyer confirmed that her client unlawfully entered the Capitol, and charging documents alleged that Williams stole House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop. While Browder was held for three years and died by suicide, Williams was released to her mother and allowed to work within days of her arrest.