why cyntoia brown is the most important case in american politics right now
From Rihanna to Kim Kardashian West, as more celebrities post about the injustice of Cyntoia Brown, a former child prostitute currently serving life for a murder she argues was self-defence, we examine what must come next in order to #SaveCyntoiaBrown.
If you follow pretty much any major celebrity on social media, it’s likely that you’ll already be familiar with the case of Cyntoia Brown. The 29-year-old, who is currently serving a life sentence for first degree murder, has been circulating on the accounts of some of the biggest names in music and fashion this week; Rihanna, Kim K and Cara Delevingne among the thousands who are speaking out and sharing her story.
This sudden social media storm makes a lot of sense -- Brown’s story is a shocking one. In 2006, she was sentenced to life in Tennessee Women’s Prison after she was found guilty of murdering 43-year-old estate agent Johnny Mitchell Allen with his own gun, when she was 16.
According to prosecutors, “dangerous” Brown committed the act to steal Allen’s money and his pick-up truck. The jury sentenced the teenager to life behind bars, with no prospect of parole until she turns 69. Only, of course, that’s not all there is to this story.
Up until that point, Brown had been working as a prostitute, after being sexually abused and forced into the profession when she was child. On the night of Allen’s death, she had been ordered by her pimp -- known as ‘Kutthroat’ -- to get out on the streets and make him some more money. “He said that I was slipping,” Brown told the judge at the time. “That I was starting to become a slouch, and that I needed to get out and get on my grind and get some money.”
“Kim Kardashian even stated that she would be calling her attorneys to find out what could be done 'to fix it.'"
Brown ended up meeting Allen, a man 27 years her senior, after he picked her up for sex. A former military sharpshooter, he allegedly took her back to his house and began showing off his gun collection, before grabbing her aggressively between her legs. “It just sent these chills up my spine,” Brown recalled during the trial. She claimed she shot him in self-defense after seeing him turn away “to get a gun.” Although she was technically a child at the time, the court decided to try her as an adult.
In the 13 years since, Brown’s story keeps getting sporadically picked up and publicised. Articles have been written and a doc -- titled Me Facing Life, Cyntoia’s Story – made about her back in 2011. All of these things have helped spark some awareness, but that quickly seems to flicker out without having any effect on her actual sentence. And now -- for reasons that aren’t all that clear -- her story is back in the headlines.
It started with a tweet from Kim Kardashian. “The system has failed,” the reality TV star wrote to her 57 million followers, along with a picture of Brown. Rihanna then quickly followed suite. “Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way??” the singer wrote. “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child's sentence I hope to God you don't have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already!”
Both posts were liked and shared by hundreds of thousands of their followers. The hashtag #SaveCyntoiaBrown started trending, and news outlets began turning their attention, once again, to the injustice of Brown’s case. Kim even stated that she would be calling her attorneys to find out what could be done “to fix it”.
“Now that our attention’s been grabbed, we need to keep proactive, and stop her case sliding back into the shadows.”
The deluge of high profile interest managed to get back to Brown, who was apparently really pleased by the news. “We were very, very appreciative of the fact that such an incredible number of celebrities would join our plea,” her lawyer, Charles Bone, told the New York Times on Tuesday. “She was thrilled by the fact that people really cared.”
Now, obviously, this sort of publicity is a great thing -- especially when you consider how easy it is for a case like this to get buried under the never ending trash chute of news and not heard about again. In fact, we’re already starting to see results: since it was shared earlier this week, a petition calling for the President to pardon Brown has (at the time of writing) reached nearly 300,000 signatures. But will this be enough? And what happens when, inevitably, another more fashionable social cause grabs our attention?
This kind of new-age hashtag activism divides a lot of people. At its best, it can raise millions for charity (#icebucketchallenge) and spark incredible, globally-minded social justice movements (#BlackLivesMatter). It can also overturn criminal sentences; like in the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who was taken off death row after international outcry, and Making A Murderer’s Brendan Dassey, who was exonerated after his story began making waves across social media. At its worst, it can expose our ever-shortening attention spans and reveal a lot of vain, surface-level virtue-signalling (anyone remember #Kony2012? What happened there?)
“For her case to be reconsidered, the Tennessee parole board and state Governor Bill Haslam need to be convinced -- which means that people need to be writing to him personally.”
For this reason, it’s easy to get cynical about how long Brown will be the focus of our attention, and whether this media whirlwind will actually make a difference to her sentence. So, now that our attention’s been grabbed, we need to keep proactive, and stop her case sliding back into the shadows.
It’s worth noting that, since being in prison, Brown has been studying for a degree from Lipscomb University’s in-jail program, and has been mentoring other female prisoners. She has also been described as a “model prisoner” who encourages those around her to be “their best selves”. For her case to be reconsidered, the Tennessee parole board and state Governor Bill Haslam need to be convinced -- which means that, as well as signing the petition (which has already exceeded the number of signatures needed to reach his desk), people need to be writing to him personally.
Bone, who has been representing Brown pro-bono for the last seven years, is continuing to fight for her retrial, and is keeping -- despite the odds -- optimistic about her chances: “We’re hopeful that either the court or the legislature or ultimately the governor will consider her case favorably and shorten her sentence as much as possible.”