In December 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Cyntoia Brown would have to serve 51 more years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. However, Black Lives Matter (BLM) Nashville was not having it, and Brown's freedom became their priority. In their eyes, Gov. Bill Haslam had one job left to do before leaving office on January 19, 2019: Grant 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown clemency.
On January 7, 2019 — just one month after the court's decision — Gov. Haslam granted Brown clemency. BLM Nashville activists Justin Lang, Brittany Paschall and MarTáze Gaines told Blavity Cyntoia Brown’s clemency was not due to the efforts of a single individual or organization. Rather, achieving her freedom was indeed a collaborative effort.
"It is the result of Cyntoia’s advocacy for herself, and over a decade of organizing from Black woman-led organizations both locally in Tennessee and across the nation, such as No Exceptions Prison Collective, Free Hearts, Survived & Punished, National Council for Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, SisterReach and many more," the BLM Nashville team told Blavity.
Although Brown has already been incarcerated for 15 years, the Tennessee Supreme Court's decision was the tip of the iceberg for many who had been advocating for her release for years. Immediately following the decision, BLM Nashville took matters into their own hands, making moves that would incite what Congressman John Lewis would define as "good trouble."
"We held a conference call and determined that our response should be to find an upcoming event where we could confront Haslam and demand clemency directly in person," the BLM Nashville team said.
After discovering that Gov. Haslam would be attending a conversation on higher education at a local library, they made plans to disrupt his meeting.
"Having no other option, we organized a disruption of Haslam’s event in less than 18 hours. Our plan was to secure tickets to the event, be first to the mic during the Q&A, and shut the event down if we were not given an adequate response."
The activists were not expecting recognition and response to their protest to become as widespread as it did in just a month. Their activism ultimately led to Haslam’s office reportedly receiving over 6,000 calls per day.
"We encouraged folks to contact their governors, elected officials and clergy while continuing to call Haslam, activating multiple pressure points to force his hand," they said.
Before they knew it, Tennessee legislators, clergy and other organizations, like the NAACP Youth and College Division and the National Survivor Network, were circulating petitions and mobilizing communities for Brown's freedom.
Representatives + Senators Day: #Clemency4CyntoiaBrown https://t.co/O2pkT6HKNr pic.twitter.com/HtU9JaQiq1— BLM Nashville (@BLM_Nashville) December 19, 2018
Today at 1 pm the IMF will hold a press conference at American Baptist College in the Susie McClure Library and Chapel. pic.twitter.com/UO83WxN2cW— BLM Nashville (@BLM_Nashville) December 20, 2018The group also organized a "National Week of Action for Cyntoia Brown," which received massive support across social media.
It’s the National Week of Action for Cyntoia Brown! Visit https://t.co/5RMqKN3YBD for more details. #clemency4cyntoia #clemency4cyntoiabrown pic.twitter.com/YycJ6Kmvav— BLM Nashville (@BLM_Nashville) December 18, 2018
"We struggled to ensure our narrative focused on a critique of the prison system as one that wrongly incarcerated Black people — that Cyntoia needed to be freed, regardless of whether she 'properly reformed' herself, as she should have never been incarcerated in the first place," the BLM Nashville team said. "We work to disrupt a perfect victim narrative to challenge the idea that prison is legitimate for anyone."
Cyntoia is set to be released on August 7, but BLM Nashville recognizes that there will be many others still serving time with unnecessarily harsh sentences who should be granted clemency, as well.
"We are celebrating her clemency as a victory, while acknowledging the need to continue uplifting other 'Cyntoias' and critiquing the unjust practices of incarcerating survivors for experiencing harm."
The BLM Nashville encourages everyone to find other Black women and girls who have been criminalized and punished for surviving domestic and sexual violence in our own states, in addition to advocating for their lives.
"It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win."
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