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 January 15, 2019

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.

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