Cyntoia Brown and the Retraumatization of Assault Survivors
Photo credit: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story
At just 16 years old, Cyntoia Brown killed a man to save her own life. After a traumatic childhood full of abuse, Brown became one of many Black and brown girls forced into prostitution. She ended up killing one of her clients, Johnny Mitchell Allen, in self-defense in Nashville in 2004. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, where she has worked tirelessly for years to appeal the sentence.
On Thursday, 30-year-old Brown lost her latest bid for freedom.
Despite nearly two dozen states banning life without parole for offenders under 18, Tennessee is standing by its heartless decision to imprison minors convicted of first-degree murder for at least 51 years before allowing them eligibility for release. Brown was only a child when she made the life-changing decision to protect herself. Now she’s paying the price. In recent years, activists and celebrities have advocated for her freedom (including Rihanna, LeBron James and Snoop Dogg). But we’ve learned that not even the world’s biggest stars can influence and overturn a system designed to not only harm but punish Black and brown survivors of sex trafficking and other forms of violence.
Before the murder, Brown lived with a sex trafficker (a pimp) named “Kut Throat.” This man, who trafficked, raped and abused Brown worked to make sure she knew her supposed place as a woman of color.
“He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” Brown once testified.
A measure of emotional and verbal abuse is necessary when manipulating and violating a person into sexual abuse. Kut Throat knew this well, and so do the nation’s lawmakers. Still, Tennessee Supreme Court justices abandoned Brown, just like the nation’s leaders often abandon Black and brown women and girls who have survived assault.
Thursday’s ruling in Brown’s case is only an illustration of how the criminal justice system functions to retraumatize Black and brown sex abuse survivors and punish them for defending themselves. Brown was just a girl when she chose her life over that of a man who intended to do her harm and the state has chosen to confine her to a carceral space for daring to stop a man who wanted to rape and likely kill her.
Prosecutors have argued that Brown intended to murder Allen and rob him, a lackluster excuse that has been used in their thinly-veiled attempt to discipline Brown for not remaining a slave. Because sexuality is directly linked to power, the American criminal justice system functions to determine not only what is considered sexual violence, but who can say “no” to and defend themselves against this violence. In most cases, Black and brown women are not allowed to say “no.”
Forty percent of human trafficking victims are Black and 52 percent of juvenile prostitution arrests are of Black people, according to the Voice of Black Cincinnati. This is likely because Black and brown women are seldom allowed the label of “victim.” As hypersexualized stereotypes of Black and brown women and girls have conditioned all people to see us as always inviting of and ready for sex, it is difficult and an act of resistance for us to say “me too.” Brown was a victim of sexual abuse, not a criminal. And now she is boldly fighting for her right to be called a survivor.
The decision the Tennessee Supreme Court made on Thursday was not some righteous upholding of the law, or a righting of a wrong. It was a declaration that the bodies of Black and brown women and girls are never safe, never protected and never given justice. From the time we were stripped of our clothing and put on display in markets, to our labor in the convict leasing system, to now, the female Black and brown body has been abused and devalued as an expression of white power — which has permeated the psyches of all in society.
I wish to write in hopeful terms, expressing that good always triumphs over evil, and mourning will soon turn to joy. But that is not the case for most Black and brown women survivors. And that was not the case for Brown on Thursday. Of course hashtags and Facebook posts, though helpful, will not change this system, policy changes and reform are necessary. One way to take part in this change is to register to vote, regardless of negative feelings about political parties because only registered voters are selected to be part of juries. These juries help to convict and exonerate people accused of crimes — you can help change the course of someone’s life. And if the social media outpouring of support is any indication of a changing tide, we can find a glimmer of hope in the knowledge that the public perception of Black and brown victims can change. Perhaps not in this lifetime, or the next, but it can.
Brown’s case will now go to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court share its opinion.
If you or a Black woman you know in the New York area is a victim of sex trafficking, please reach out to Black Women’s Blueprint at: 347-533-9102/3 or 646-647-5414.