We Won Clemency for Cyntoia Brown—Now Let’s Free all Survivors

Courts are punishing Black girls and women for surviving. These four women, and so many more, should be free.

Brit Schulte

Chrystul Kizer (Photo courtesy of Chrystul's mother and popular defense campaign.)

In seven months, Cyntoia Brown will be released from prison, having been granted a full commutation to parole by exiting Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Cyntoia has already served 15 years of a life sentence. When she was a teenager, Cyntoia experienced continual violence and was engaged in survival work. At the age of 16, she shot Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old client who she says initiated their interaction by talking down her rate for paid sex. Allen would later become violent, according to Cyntoia, causing her to fear for her life and take actions to protect herself. She won clemency as a result of a sustained grassroots mobilization rooted in the belief that Black women should not be punished for surviving — using any means necessary.

However, there is still work to be done: In the coming months, we hope to see challenges and further pressure on the State of Tennessee for actual justice and reparations. The fact remains that Cyntoia’s conviction and sentence will continue to be present on her record and she will spend the following 10 years on parole — a punishment that, despite the absence of physical bars, is punitive and meant to create different sorts of shackles. Still, the granting of clemency, after the denial of Cyntoia’s most recent appeal, is indeed cause for jubilant celebration: It’s a spark of hope that sustained collective action of everyday people can free those kept from us by state violence.

On the same day Cyntoia’s clemency announcement was issued, the abolitionist writer and organizer Mariame Kaba launched a much needed online transformative justice resource portal, Transform Harm.” Resources such as these fly in the face of punishment-minded systems that seek to limit our capacity to heal and end harm. Resources such as these ask us to think beyond carcerality and confront the realities of sexual violence and other harms by engaging in long-term, process-based work to address the root causes of such harms. Resources like these help us hold space for complicated stories of survival outside of police and court intervention.

A critical part of this long-term community work is organizing to free those people who are ensnared in the prison system for defending themselves against sexual, criminalized work-related and gender-based violence. Kaba has written about and amplified Cyntoia’s case and others through her grassroots work with Survived and Punished, a national coalition that supports and works to free criminalized survivors and abolish gender violence, policing, prisons and deportations. Kaba and other organizers continually emphasize that Cyntoia’s case is not atypical. What follows are four other cases in which the racist, misogynistic and whorephobic courts do precisely what they were designed to do: punish Black women for surviving.

Alisha Walker is a 25-year-old sex worker from Akron, Ohio. In January 2014 when she was 19 years old, Alisha says she was attacked by a client, Alan Filan, in his Chicago home. According to Alisha, Filan became angry when Alisha refused unsafe sexual services, punching her in the face before grabbing a knife from the kitchen. Alisha says she managed to wrestle the knife from Filan, stabbing him. Filan was found dead in his house three days later.

Alisha was portrayed as a manipulative criminal, and her labor as a sex worker used against her by the media and Illinois State’s Attorneys. She is currently an inside organizer (meaning she does her work from behind bars) with the Support Ho(s)e collective, a grassroots collective of sex workers and accomplices. Outside members the organization, of which I’m a part, coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker defense campaign. We work to maintain material support for Alisha with commissary aid, and political organizing to get her free by advocating for clemency from new Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.

Alexis Martin was 15 years old at the time of her arrest in 2013, accused of playing a role in the murder of a man who she had earlier reported to her probation officer for kidnapping her and forcing her to engage in sex work and sell drugs for his profit. Even though juvenile court recognized Martin as a victim of human trafficking under Ohio law, her case was moved to adult court, and at 16 years old she was sentenced to 21-years-to-life.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a non-profit legal organization that provides representation for people marginalized by the criminal justice system, issued a statement implicating the Ohio Supreme Court in a disastrous miscarriage of justice. According to the statement, under Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law Alexis was entitled to a guardian ad litem, a person who gives recommendations about a juvenile’s best interests and the most effective responses from the court, like addiction treatment and mental health services.” However, the statement notes, Alexis never received a guardian ad litem, and she didn’t know she was entitled this type of advocate.”

Kate D’Adamo is an organizer and advocate with the harm-reduction policy and consulting group Reframe Health and Justice. She tells In These Times that, although former Ohio Gov. John Kasich refused Alexis clemency, organizers must be resolute. What is needed most is to remember Alexis Martin,” D’Adamo emphasizes. Social media has a short attention span, that doesn’t always do well to keep those with 21 to life in mind. We’re going to need to continue writing letters and keep calling, and while the outgoing voicemail may change, our resolve cannot.”

GiGi Thomas, a long-time human rights advocate and former sex worker, has been incarcerated since 2015 for actions she says she took to defend herself. According to Darby H., a friend and advocate of GiGi’s, She is in a prison that she says is characterized by racism and transphobia, as well as extremely poor medical services, which are provided by a private company. She continues to push for better policies from the inside, is organizing with a group of other trans women and gay, bi, queer and gender-nonconforming men, and she appreciates all the support people have shown. She always welcomes letters, even if she can’t respond sometimes for lack of money to buy stamps and envelopes.”

Chrystul Kizer, a young person recently transferred to Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Wisconsin facing felony charges, is the latest case to come to this writer’s attention. At 17 years old, Chrystul says she had to defend herself on June 5 of this past year against the violence of an older white man who has been accused of ongoing physical and sexual abuse of multiple other young people. If convicted, Chrystul could face life in prison.

January 9 was one of the first Call to Action” days on behalf of Chrystul. Organizers provided call-scripts and other case information to empower people to demand the charges against Chrystul be dropped and she be freed immediately. On a call with defense campaign organizers, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley characterized Chrystul’s experience being trafficked as a young person as being irrelevant because she was hired as a prostitute.” Yet it is precisely the violent exploitation that Chrystul faced that created the conditions for her act of self-love and survival.

We understand the DA’s statements and the charges as invoking unjust narratives about Black girls that must be rejected,” the Free Chrystul Kizer Defense Campaign said in an in a emessage to In These TImes. Black girls in Milwaukee (and everywhere) should have a right to survive and thrive. Chrystul needs the opportunity to be supported in safe, healing spaces in the community — not the prospect of additional trauma, assault and solitary confinement in a Wisconsin penitentiary.” Chrystul’s mother, Devore, has also set-up a crowd-sourcing page to help support Chrystul and their family as they fight these charges.

As organizers and advocates, we must celebrate every win, even when it means more work. The freeing of Alexis Martin, Alisha Walker, GiGi Thomas and Chrystul Kizer depend upon concerted efforts, unapologetically shirking perfect victim” narratives, and acknowledging the complicated realities of survival. Acts of violence can be acts of self-love and a refusal of disposability. We must champion, at all times, how survivors wish to tell their stories, and how their journeys to healing and freedom take shape. We must decriminalize survival.

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Brit Schulte is a lecturer, curator, community organizer and underemployed art historian. They are currently based in New York.
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