I would say it’s about a year ago I started seeing the memes of Cyntonia Brown. A wanton headline that could’ve been taken from an episode of Law and Order: SVU. In the contained a picture of what looked to be a cute little black girl dawning pigtails and a prison jumpsuit. Sights that off that bat invoke a feeling of heartache and outrage. The image and the words combined to enrage me. I studied the confused look on her face, and read the text, and I was in complete and utter shock.
This is, an appalling tale to say the least when you take this meme at face value. It motivated me to do something that we’re lacking in the day of instantly sharing via social media these attention grabbing headlines and memes. At the time I started to do a little research on Cyntonia Brown, there wasn’t too much about her. Just some old local news from Nashville, and few quick stories on the major news networks. There was a documentary that PBS did as well. But, through all the digging, I was able to find her story. The full story, or as about as full as one’s life story can be when you go to prison for 1st degree murder at 16. It detailed her mother’s tumultuous life, the ups and downs with her adoptive family, her drinking at a young age (she says she started drinking around 9) her run ins with the law, and her brutal relationship with her boyfriend “Cut Throat. ”
Social media was ablaze with the #FreeCyntoniaBrown hashtag. But, I don’t think the majority of the people that shared the meme and hashtag knew much about the young lady pictured other than the horrifying text in the picture. The true ballad of Cyntonia Brown is one that most won’t be able to swallow in the binary age of the “perfect victim”.
The consequences for young women who don’t fit the “perfect victim” narrative are significant — both in terms of being harshly punished for self-defense, or being framed as “traffickers” themselves and then threatened with long sentences under new laws ostensibly passed for their own protection. Even if not subjected to punishment by what we call “the criminal legal system” — because we believe there is no justice in this system — many of the new “trafficking” laws passed at the state level over the past decade may force them back into foster care and other systems that they have fled because of the harm they experienced. Or, coerce them into “treatment” that does nothing to address the conditions under which they entered the sex trade in the first place. If they don’t “comply” with what is expected of them as “perfect victims,” then they, like many other survivors of violence, find themselves caged in a cell instead of receiving the support they need and deserve.Prosecuting and incarcerating survivors of violence puts courts and prisons in the same punitive role as their abusers, which compounds and prolongs victims’ experience of ongoing trauma and abuse.
If you didn’t follow the case, or bother to read the very informative investigative article written by Brantley Hargrove for the Nashville Scene, then you don’t know the half. You don’t know that Cyntonia was on a two week coke bender when she shot 43 year old real estate agent Johnny Allen in the back of the head. Hands interlocked behind his head execution style. You don’t Cyntonia sold crack. Cyntonia wasn’t totally “sex trafficked”in the way people would like it framed. She was a young girl that was part of the “street economy” of the trading sex for money. Part for survival, part to support her habit. None of these things make her guilty, but her innocence shouldn’t be based on her perceived childlike appearance and an overstating of facts. There is a human story about Cyntonia Brown that engrossed me more than tabloid like circus that was swelling in the hive mind of the internet. A story that has layers that you can’t digest in just 140 characters. For us to truly understand why this now 30 year old woman is deserving of justice, we must see her now, a grown woman, world weary woman who’s spent her 20’s behind bars. We must understand the factors that lead her, and many like her down a path of self destruction. We must ask ourselves questions like, “Is it truly just to sentence a child to life in prison when they truly don’t understand the consequence?” If you don’t know her total story you don’t know her mother was just a 16 year prostitute who was while Cyntonia was in the womb drank heavily. It doesn’t explain that doctors felt Cyntonia has boarder line personality disorder. It doesn’t explain that Cyntonia lives in a state where austerity measures cut programs that could help people like Cyntonia before they become part of the Adult prison system. that more and more are incarcerating youth and charging them as adults. Cyntonia Brown shouldn’t exist in a vaccum.
It’s a scenario that plays out in Judge Green’s courtroom with increasing frequency. In recent years, she’s found herself transferring more and more juveniles to adult criminal court — 48 in 2006 and 70 in 2009 — as a consequence of repeated budget cuts to an already anemic state agency doing more and more with less and less. Interesting question: What percentage of Tennessee’s current inmate population passed through the juvenile justice system as minors? Ask DCS, the state Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole. None of them will be able to tell you, because no one is tracking the only figure that might tell us if our efforts at course-correcting juveniles work at all.
- Bradley Hargrove in his article “Life Begins at 16”
Look, Cyntonia Brown is a complex issue. As the writer Brantley Hargrove writes:
“An entire field of research has cropped up around the issue. Scientists have been examining the brains of juveniles and confirming what should be obvious — the regions of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control are poorly developed in someone Cyntoia’s age. It makes little scientific sense to treat a 16-year-old girl the same way you would a 30-year-old woman. Opinions among legal scholars are split on the likelihood of life sentences for juveniles in general being ruled constitutional by the high court. But already, challenges are being heard in Missouri, Michigan and Iowa.
Still, the dilemma remains: How do you adequately punish someone who isn’t a grown-up for a grown-up crime with irrevocable grown-up consequences? And even if they’re capable of change, should such a person be allowed a chance at rehabilitation and redemption — let alone a shot at re-entering society? These were, and are, the questions facing Cyntoia Brown.”
The modern media business is all about identifying demographics and serving them a steady diet of affirming opinion. If you feel negatively about any group or subject, we will serve you information that enhances that feeling. When you’re angry, we’ll make you angrier.
When we think you’re thinking on your own too much, we’ll nudge you back toward the sensational and the non-reflective. The goal is to keep you spinning in an endless cycle of disgust and impotent anger. It’s the ultimate Orwellian trick: a consumer business in which the product is your own frustration. You are our power source. The unhappier you are, the more money we make.
-Matt Taibbi, Hate, INC
Complex issues deserve true, informative discourse. This poor girls story has been severely misinterpreted and distorted to fit a clickbait news format. That misinterpretation is allowing masses of people to ignore a more intricate tale of a child facing a life behind bars. I understand that old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”, but as news becomes more and more about the salacious headline and less about reporting, internet news outlets are pandering to our shorten attention spans. Our consumption of “Snackable Content” is as rotten for social discourse as the name would infer. Temporary moral outrage to clickbait-y headlines keeps us constantly spinning our wheels in the wrong direction. So quick to swallow the next tidbit of outrageous information, we never focus on cause and solutions. Just outrage and disgust. In this case, there is NEVER any talk about the fact that a girl, at 16 diagnosed with a personality disorder, was sentenced to life in prison. That might be a more nuanced conversation. But then, we’d have to digest more the bite sized morsels we’re given.
“In the Internet age, we in the press have mastered the art of monetizing anger, paranoia, and distrust. We’ve learned how to wind you up for profit.”
Matt Taibbi, Hate, INC.