Cyntoia Brown: 15 Years On – Free At Last?

In 2006, Cyntoia Brown was convicted of shooting and killing Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had “bought her for sex” for $150. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison.

Earlier this month, Governor Haslam granted her clemency as one of his final acts in office. She has survived 15 years of her sentence already but will now be released to parole supervision in August this year.

Cyntoia Brown has received a lot of media attention due to the specifics of her case. She was only 16-years-old when sentenced yet she was tried as an adult. She argued against her sentence by citing a 2012 ruling which stated that to give a child a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional.

The case raised an enormous number of questions and issues – why was a young girl so scared for her life that she shot a man dead? Why was she tried as an adult when she was only 16? And most uncomfortable of all – would this sort of sentencing have happened to a 16-year-old white girl?

There is no point hiding from these questions anymore. Silence on these horrific issues allows for them to continue.

It could be argued that the high profile celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Ashely Judd who shared messages of support for Cyntoia Brown on social media brought her case into the public eye. Of course, this did help, but in reality there has been a huge amount of grassroots support and momentum – raised predominantly by women of colour.

Democrat Stacey Abrams tweeted: “Justice has finally been served … This victory belongs to Cyntoia Brown & to the Tennessee human trafficking activists, especially Black women, who refused to concede to injustice & instead organized to create change.”

Although this change took 15 years to push through, cases like Brown’s show the influence the general public can have when they refuse to be silent on an issue.

But what happens when people do stay silent on an uncomfortable issue, such as race? Black women and girls are not being kept safe, and not only that, their voices are not valued as highly as their white counterparts’.

To put this into perspective, the docuseries ‘Surviving R Kelly’ aired in the US this month, documenting the life and alleged abuses of the global megastar. (Another documentary, ‘R Kelly: Sexy, Girls & Videotapes’, was broadcast in the UK in 2018).

Why have this man’s actions been allowed to continue for so long? Is it merely because of his money and influence, or it is because his victims have all been young black women? Had R. Kelly been abusing and violating young white women, would this have been allowed to go on for so long, with the same ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude?

It’s vital, although massively depressing, to remember that Cyntoia’s story is not unique. Since 2007, a national hotline for sex trafficking operated by Polaris has received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.

The Washington Post describes research showing that “black girls accused of crimes find less leniency in the criminal justice system.” A study by Georgetown University found that prosecutors dismissed an average of three out of every 10 cases involving black girls, but seven of 10 cases involving white girls. 

Now a 30-year-old woman, Cyntoia Brown is still not ‘free’. She won’t be able to vote, or apply for many jobs. She will be on parole for the next 10 years, and she will have to live with the horrors of what has happened to her.

But, she is one module away from completing a bachelor’s degree, and plans to set up an organisation to help stop other young girls ending up in her situation. Essentially, Cyntoia Brown is freeing herself, and hopefully she will feel some of the love that is pouring her way from all over the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cyontia Brown’s case, there is a documentary called ‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’. If you want write to Cyntoia, you can send letters to “Miss Cyntoia Brown #410593, Tennessee Prison for Women, Unit 1 West, D- 49, 3881 Stewarts Lane Nashville, TN 37218.

Facing 2019 With Bravery

I spent the first half of 2018 in the Middle East. Originally working to prevent and respond to child marriage among Syrian refugees, I spent most of my two and half years in the region creating empowerment programs to help girls respond to sexism and inequality. Inevitably, this work always circled back to confronting sexual violence.      

This summer, I returned to the United States to work for an organization supporting girls in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although a world apart, the girls I serve in Africa share experiences with the girls in the Middle East. In fact, in all of the places I’ve worked – from Indonesia to the DR Congo, from France to Ethiopia – girls and women share many of the same concerns and experiences of sexual violence.  

Because where there are men and boys, there is sexual violence.

In September, my focus settled in the US when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Although I followed the news closely, I didn’t watch her testimony itself. At the time I couldn’t. It was too painful and too triggering and I could not absorb another story – especially a story that involved someone who would, inevitably, become a justice on the Supreme Court.     

Fast forward to November, and I’m out on a run. As I was running past post-harvest wheat fields, I turned up my Tori Amos playlist to tune out the world.

And then her song Climb, a song I’ve heard hundreds of times before, unexpectedly knocked me back into the world, back to my work and to a call to action.  

“Kneel before your judges in reverence

Your penance for the woman you’d become

You knew if you talked there’d be a consequence

Your sentence for the woman you’d become”

I stopped running. There was something about Tori’s voice, the piano, the poetry that opened my heart to empathy, a pain that I knew was inevitable from the moment I had heard about Dr. Blasey Ford. I thought of the bravery of her testimony, how she sacrificed her privacy, safety and normalcy and how this heroism was met by a mixed response that included mockery, anger and death threats.

I realized that, by keeping her story at a distance, I was curtailing my own activism in favor of my own safe space.

Later that night, tucked away in my home office, I watched her heart wrenching testimony. I felt it, I held space for it and I absorbed it in my bones.

As I watched this brave woman speak, I thought of so many survivors of sexual harassment, abuse and assault – friends, family, colleagues, the countless girls I have met over the years in my programs, and even myself. What consequences we face for who we’ve become, and what work there is to do to ensure that the passage from victim to survivor is kinder to others than it has been to us.  

Approximately 90% of survivors of sexual violence are girls and women. A girl in Syria. A girl in Ethiopia. A woman in the United States.

If we are to be united by this trauma, let us make it a source of strength, power and motivation. Underneath the pain of this universal experience is a call to action.

RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and the leading authority on sexual violence, experienced a 338% increase in their sexual assault hotline traffic between Thursday, the day of the hearing, and Sunday. That Friday was the busiest day in their 24-year history.

This will not get easier in 2019. And so we must get stronger.

As I gear up for 2019, I am increasing my commitment to preventing and responding to all forms of sexual violence. What I do in my work is not enough. In times like this – times when triggers are omnipresent and misogyny is emboldened – I will volunteer more. I will advocate more. I will donate more to organizations like RAINN, even if that means making personal sacrifices to do so. And I will engage in better self-care so that I can absorb more stories when they hit, propelling myself into action faster.  

This will not be easy because there are consequences for standing up and speaking out. But if we are to climb over the walls of fear, the walls of doubt, the walls that protect perpetrators and isolate survivors, then we must face 2019 with bravery. As Tori sings, it’s a long, long climb. It is. But I’m ready.

The Trauma We Carry

Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed or sitting on a bus or just letting my legs dangle over the edge of the couch, I feel this warm and tingly sensation on the bottom of my feet – and I wonder if I’m feeling the warmth of the flames from the fires that burned my ancestors as witches.

I run my fingers on the perfect, flawless skin of my daughter’s cheek. She is sleeping, soundly, and for now, all her skin knows is the touch of love. All her body knows is affection, appreciation, being cherished. As my fingers trace the chubby curve of her cheek, I wonder: does your skin remember the strikes and punches that your ancestors have had to endure? I wonder if our bodies carry the memory of the trauma of generations past.

These past few weeks have been emotional torture for many women – because many of us have had to relive events we’d rather never have to think about again.

Our bodies carry memories of trauma. Of unwanted touches and gropes. Of someone grabbing us in the dark and the first thought in our mind being “will he rape me or kill me?”. Of strikes, punches, hits, kicks. Bruises that are no longer visible to the eye are still there underneath the skin. They are always there.

I remember the shortcut through a small park from the bus to my apartment that I used to always take over a decade ago – until something happened one night when I was walking home. After that, I took the longer, well lit route. I still avoid walking on paths or roads that aren’t clearly lit at night. And I didn’t say anything for a long long time – because I was sure no one would believe me.

I’ve been reading and hearing the stories of women from all over, and it has made me so sad, because I’ve realized our bodies are like fields of war. Hurting and aching from things that have happened, and things we feared would happen. And we don’t only feel the pain we’ve experienced, but that of others too. Our mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers. Friends and neighbors. Strangers online who are recounting stories eerily similar to our own.

We don’t know each other, but our lives are still impacted by the same violent and misogynistic structures and patriarchal powers that have normalized this kind of behavior throughout history. The structures and powers that for a very long time, allowed violence against women to take place in daylight, and then inside the home because it was a “private matter”, and then in marriage because a married woman has no right to say no to her husband, and then on the streets and nightclubs and dorm rooms because “boys will be boys”, and then in the military because “women should know what to expect if they join the army”.

While the laws may have changed, attitudes clearly haven’t – and we are still expected to carry our trauma in secrecy and in silence and simply just expect it, as if this is something we’ve signed up for, as people daring to exist and take space as females in this world.

And now, in 2018, we watch – not even in disbelief, because it has happened so many times before – how this kind of behavior is still normalized and brushed aside. And just like when #MeToo took off, people seem to be surprised by the magnitude of this problem. Surprised to see their family members, friends, neighbors, come forward with painful stories and memories of sexual assault and violence. And I wonder how long it will take before this no longer surprises us – before we actually recognize that this isn’t something abnormal or out of order. This is the order. It has been the norm throughout history.

For everyone reliving their own trauma right now – I am so sorry for you. I am so sorry for us. I am sorry we have to keep dragging our most painful encounters and memories to daylight over and over and over again for the sake of demanding a society that does not condone and normalize violence and sexual assault against women. I am sorry we have to keep reliving the trauma and pain of our ancestors – just to have the right to live a life free of assault and violence.

I believe her, because I am her. The generations before me were her. Almost every single woman is her.

Will my daughter’s generation be the first whose feet won’t feel the fire anymore?

Two Women Causing Ripples in American Politics

The American electorate seems to be more divided than ever. It is becoming more and more apparent that if you are a woman, lgbtqi+, Muslim, or not white, your voice is not being valued. Given all of this, I want to highlight two women who are refusing to be silent or intimidated within the American political arena.   

Ilhan Omar

Born in Somali, Ilhan lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years during the Somali civil war before her family were given the chance to move to Minnesota, USA, when she was aged 13.

After several years of community organising, in 2016 Ilhan faced a seemingly impossible task – to push through self doubt and take the leap to run for State Representative in Minnesota’s Senate District 60B. Up against incumbent Phyllis Kahn, and a male representative of the Somali community, Mohamud Noor, Ilhan ran on a platform focused on:

“cancelling student debt, banning private prisons, increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and cutting funding for “perpetual war and military aggression.” She supports passing a national bill of rights for renters, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act and automatically registering every eighteen-year-old to vote.” 

After she won the campaign, allegations surfaced around her marriage history (based on nothing more than a right-wing blog). The claims were found to be just as baseless as those made against Barack Obama and his birth certificate.

Are these sorts of media tactics new? No. Did they stop Ilhan from taking office? No.

In many ways, Ilhan is the embodiment of the groups President Trump wants to silence. In November, Ilhan will become the first refugee from Africa, the first Somali-American, one of the first two Muslim-American women and the first woman in a hijab to be elected to the United States Congress – this is progress.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Finally, the mainstream media has begrudgingly accepted that Alexandria deserves column space. Why? Because she won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district! And because she is a woman, Democratic Socialist, first generation American, Spanish speaking girl from the Bronx who beat the man tipped to be the new head of the Democratic party.

Alexandria has had a life many, many others in America have had – born to Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Bronx, she has worked the 18-hour double jobs. So if she is the poster child for what can be achieved with the ‘American Dream’, why do so many from both political sides fear her rise through the ranks?

The key points from her platform are: Medicare for all, fully funded public schools and universities, universal jobs guarantee, housing as a human right, justice-system reform, immigration reform, “new green deal” to combat climate change, and campaign-finance reform. 

Am I worried Alexandria will bow to the pressures of 21st century politics or give in to pressure from this administration? No.

“Well you know, the president is from Queens, and with all due respect, half of my constituents are from Queens. I don’t think he knows how to deal with a girl from the Bronx.” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In a climate where lunatics are running around New York threatening to call immigration on people because they are speaking Spanish, I think its vital to have a representative like Alexandria. In a climate where executive order number 13769 (the travel ban) is still being enforced, I think it is essential to have a representative like Ilhan.

Of course, I don’t want to get lost in identity politics, these women represent more than these two issues. And clearly, these issues are not going to be solely fought and won by individuals – they need help.

So get involved! If you feel an issue is worth fighting for please get involved in local politics and register to vote in the mid-term elections.

I’m sure no one needs reminding, but here are some examples of recent action by the current administration:

The current administration continues to try to silence and diminish groups they believe to hold little power – but women like Ilhan and Alexandria show that the tides can turn, and that there may be a storm brewing.