Cyntoia Brown and The Deeply Flawed American Justice System

In 2004, a 16-year-old girl from Tennessee named Cyntoia Brown shot a man named Johnny Allen in the head. She was not a murderer, but the result of a lifetime of misery and injustice.

Cyntoia Brown never had a fair chance at life. Before she was even born, her mother Georgina Mitchell, who herself was the result of rape, was an avid drinker while she was pregnant at the age of 16. When Cyntoia was born in 1988, her birth mother kept her for eight months while still drinking and picking up the use of crack cocaine. She was soon after given up by her mother and spent her early years of childhood bouncing from foster homes until she was finally adopted at two years old. [1]

Because of her mother’s actions, Cyntoia is assumed to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. Women who are pregnant or who are trying are advised to stay away from alcohol, as it travels quickly from the mother’s blood to the fetus. While affecting a child’s physical (such as facial feature deformation and low body weight) and mental (lower IQ, difficulties with learning), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can have a strong part in diminishing a person’s quality of life. This alone gives substantial doubt of her actions, decision making and overall direction in life. [2]

Despite her adoptive mother’s efforts to create a stable home, Cyntoia was damaged from her early childhood and suffered from emotional baggage. She later ran away from home in 2004, at the age of 16. [1]

Naturally, once she ran away, Cyntoia got involved with the wrong people, thus the beginning of a hellish string of events. She became the property of a then 24-year-old man named “Kut-throat”, who physically and sexually abused her, as well as forcing her into sex trafficking to make money to fuel their drug addictions. The 16-year-old girl, still a child, was repeatedly drugged, beaten, and raped as a prostitute by various men. [3]

Eventually, Cyntoia was taken by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent. Allen then took her to his home and proceeded to rape the drugged 16-year-old girl for several weeks on end. She said that she was scared and feared her life, as she had found an astonishing amount of guns around Allen’s home, and he acted very strangely around her. Fearing for her life, Cyntoia built up her courage, took out a gun from her purse and shot Allen in the head, killing him.

She stole his wallet, truck, and some guns, as she planned on returning to her pimp and thought if she maybe had something to bring back he wouldn’t beat her. Cyntoia drove away to meet her pimp at his hotel room and was soon found and arrested by the police. Despite being only 16, she was tried as an adult and was convicted of first-degree murder with a life sentence (60 years before a re-trial) in prison. [4]

13 years later, Cyntoia Brown is now 29 years old and still incarcerated. During her time in jail so far, she has had the chance to complete her GED and associate’s degree (with a GPA of 4.0) and is now working towards her bachelor’s degree and hopes to achieve a master’s. Lipscomb University, located in Tennessee, has a program with the local women’s prison called LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative For Education) which allows 30 students from the university to spend one night a week studying liberal arts alongside the inmates. In effort to describe the benefits of the program, an article on Brown by a Lipscomb student reads “The mix of students and specifically designed coursework provides academic and character-building benefits for both students at the prison and students from campus.” (lipscomb.edu). [5]

Most recently, Cyntoia’s case has resurfaced the internet with the hashtag “#SaveCyntoiaBrown”, leaving everyone in shock. Shared by celebrities such as Rihanna, LeBron James, and Kim Kardashian-West, the story of a naive 16-year-old girl from Tennessee who was gravely taken advantage of has caused a re-ignition of interest. Kardashian-West herself has even put her legal team to work in hopes of helping Cyntoia with her unfair, lengthy sentence.

An online petition has even been started to help her achieve clemency, with currently over 440,000 signatures. The petition was created by a fellow student of Cyntoia’s at Lipscomb University, who also works alongside her legal team. People around the world are enraged and saddened to see such a tragic story unfold, and Americans are starting to wonder how corrupt their justice system really is.

Putting the pieces together, it seems as though there are much too many aspects of the story that point towards a grave injustice for Cyntoia Brown. From the early beginning of her life, Cyntoia was unfortunately set on the wrong track and no effort was done to set her straight. Her mother tainted her quality of life before she was even born due to her substance abuse. As previously mentioned, children who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome usually have lower IQ’s and have a tough time learning with poor judgment. Brown was also the product of rape and trauma, same as her mother and grandmother.

It is a known fact that Cyntoia Brown has struggled mentally and emotionally throughout her life, which if anything should have made the prosecutors think twice as to whether she is a heartless criminal or a lost teenage girl with poor social skills.

Something which we should never forget while reviewing this case is that this whole incident involves a 16-year-old girl. A teenager, a child, whose brain and body is still developing. It was extremely idiotic and inutile for Cyntoia to have been prosecuted as an adult. In what sense is that fair? From a crime she committed at 16 (in self-defense), she will not be eligible for parole until she turns 69 years old, granted she gets it. Although Cyntoia may have a slim chance at parole, in America, a colossal amount of people are sentenced to life without parole, many before they turn 18. Every state legally allows youth under the age of 18 to be tried as adults, with an estimated 5,000 juveniles in adult prisons. [6]

The United States is, in fact, the only place on earth that still gives children life in jail without parole. There are an approximate 2,100 minors currently incarcerated in the U.S. which face spending the rest of their days locked up with no chance of getting out. Only 20 states have banned life without parole, leaving the majority America’s juveniles who commit criminal acts vulnerable to spending the rest of their lives incarcerated for a crime they committed in their youth. [7] This is an injustice, and one of the many flaws which the American justice system obtains.

Cyntoia Brown was robbed of having a normal childhood and overall life. No one, let alone a 16-year-old girl, should have to endure the pain, abuse, and suffering that she did. It is incredibly unfair that Cyntoia experienced the childhood that she had, but it is even more unfair that she is forced to spend the rest of her life incarcerated. A teenage girl forcibly turned prostitute who shoots a man in the head because he was abusing her and having illegal sex which she did not want is not homicide, but sheer self-defense. It is disgusting to think that a young girl is being punished brutally for defending herself and her own life.

The American justice system and we as a society have failed to help this young girl, and thousands of others just like her who have endured similar injustices. It is a true symptom of a decaying society. The story of Cyntoia Brown should not just be tragic or infuriating, but a wake-up call for us all.

 

References

[1] Jacobs, Tom “Life in Prison Begins at 16: The PBS documentary “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” asks the question: Who is responsible when family and society so fail a promising child that she turns to prostitution and murder in her teens?”, Pacific Standard Magazine, February 25 2011

https://psmag.com/social-justice/life-in-prison-begins-at-16-27624 Accessed November 22, 2017

[2] Unknown, “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)”, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, June 6 2017

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html Accessed November 22, 2017

[3] Loller, Travis “Attorneys seek new trial for teenage killer” Associated Press, November 13 2012

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2012/nov/13/attorneys-seek-new-trial-for-teenage-killer/ Accessed November 22, 2017

[4] Unknown, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story”, Independent Lens, PBS, February 7, 2011

https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/me-facing-life/film.html Accessed November 13 2017

[5] Shoun, Janel “Cyntoia Brown, LIFE student at local prison, is subject of film shown at HumanDocs” Lipscomb University, October 14, 2010

https://www.lipscomb.edu/news/archive/detail/13/19246 Accessed November 30, 2017

[6] Sainato, Michael “Cyntoia Brown and The Flawed Juvenile Criminal System”  The Real News, November 28 2017

http://therealnews.com/t2/story:20579:Cyntoia-Brown-and-The-Flawed-Juvenile-Criminal-System Accessed December 1, 2017

[7] Rovner, Josh “Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview” The Sentencing Project, October 13, 2017

http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/ Accessed December 1, 2017

Celebrities are criminals too

It often seems as though being a celebrity makes you “untouchable”. People who are in positions of power often like to use their status as a weapon. They threaten their victim’s success and usually end up getting their way whether it’s consensual or not. 


Woody Allen has been accused of pedophilia since 1992 (25 years) and has been involved in the creation of 32 projects in the film industry since. Bill Cosby has been accused of rapedrug-facilitated sexual assaultsexual battery, and child sexual abuse since the early 60’s, and still, awaits the verdict from his trial. R. Kelly was charged with statutory rape and child pornography in 2002, with actual video proof of him engaging in sexual relations with an underage girl, and was somehow found not guilty. In 2009, Chris Brown viciously physically attacked his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, and has come out with 4 albums since. 


Now, we have Harvey Weinstein, who is being outed for sexually assaulting and threatening the careers of multiple actors and actresses in the industry. The whole world knows about what despicable things he’s done. He has allegedly been fired from his job as a top film producer, and his wife is divorcing him. 

The worst thing with all these men previously mentioned, besides their crimes, is that they’ve all somehow managed to get away with it. What usually happens when a normal, mundane middle-aged man is found with possession of child pornography? Or when some guy serial-rapes 20+ women? Prison. Sometimes even capital punishment. Our entire society turns on them. They are considered the scum of the earth.


But when Woody Allen does it, he ends up with an Academy-Award winning movie grossing over $40 million worldwide. Ignition, R. Kelly’s top hit song, is still heard on the radio daily, even though he raped a 17-year-old girl on camera and urinated on her. Chris Brown beats up his girlfriend and wins a Grammy.


Even the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, has been proven of sexual assault and abuse of many women. But he’s a rich, white, socialite, man so we can let him be president of one of the world’s most powerful countries!


Although we always seem to forget, men aren’t the only ones who commit criminal acts and get pardoned. In this current season of the ever-popular television anthology series American Horror Story, popular actresses Emma Roberts (niece of Julia Roberts) and Lena Dunham both have brief roles. But did we forget that Roberts physically assaulted her boyfriend (and American Horror Story actor), Evan Peters? And didn’t Dunham sexually assault her younger sister many times and even write about it in her recently published book?


Our daily entertainment is built off of criminals. We pardon them because they said “sorry” and happen to be our favorite artist, or produce our favorite movies. But why? Why do we, as human beings, find that okay? Why didn’t Chris Brown’s record label drop him? Why do actors and crew still want to work on films with Woody Allen?


How can you say that Woody Allen is your favorite filmmaker while knowing that he’s an awful pedophile? How can you re-watch the Cosby Show and not feel disgusted every time Bill Cosby pops up on the screen? How can you not mentally see the scarring photo of Rihanna after Chris Brown pummeled her everytime you hear his voice on the radio?


It shouldn’t matter who the person is. Because justice is not served until they are convicted, or labeled as a pedophile or rapist. Harvey Weinstein should go to jail. Just like Ted Bundy did, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Just like every single person in the world who commits a crime and breaks the law. 


It is a colossal, throbbing slap in the face for every abuse victim there is to sit at home and watch Entertainment Tonight or TMZ talk about a man who has sexually abused multiple people, and that still has his huge, successful career. It would be daunting and horrific to watch your abuser live his life normally, let alone win a Grammy or an Oscar.


We shouldn’t show any more remorse to these people than we would to anyone else. Pedophilia is a crime. Rape is a crime. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse are all crimes. And until we deal with people like Harvey Weinstein as we do with criminals, we are allowing other celebrities in positions of power to feel like it’s acceptable to abuse people.

How The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air changed black culture in the 90’s

 

The 1990’s were a decade of monumental events shaping African American culture in North America to be as it is today. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, showing resilience and power as a leader. Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers, who were later found not guilty. The displeasure of the citizens of L.A was clearly seen and heard, as they caused the biggest racial prompted riot in the 20th century, causing the city of Los Angeles over $1 billion in damage with 54 people dead, 2000 injured and 8000 arrested. [1] Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G, some of the greatest names in rap history, were both murdered. Six African-American individuals became mayors in different states, breaking the cycle of Caucasian mayors. Mae Carol Jemison was the first ever African-American female to travel in space. Tiger Woods won the golf master’s tournament and became the first ever African-American to win. [2]

These are just a few of many, many more incredible accomplishments which the African-American community achieved within 10 years. Those 10 years were a great push for more negative and positive change to come in the 2000’s. Within the decade, a new television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was aired 1990 – 1996. Starring rapper turned actor/comedian Will Smith, this cult classic sitcom documented the life of young Will moving from Philadelphia to Bel Air to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Will’s trials and tribulations were shown on the show weekly, of him tackling high school, adapting to a ritzy neighborhood, and being black. The Fresh Prince was without a doubt one of the most eye-opening, entertaining, and informative shows for people of all races to have a revelation of what black culture truly is.

While being irresistibly comical and relatable, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air taught many lessons. During the nineties, all-black casts on sitcoms became the new and trendy thing for TV networks to do. In the eighties, sitcoms such as Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons and most notably The Cosby Show. Being close to bankrupt from his rap career in the 80’s, Will Smith signed a contract with NBC to start filming the show, based loosely on Will’s life and the producer’s.

The main characters on the show were the Banks family; aunt Vivian and uncle Phil, cousins Hillary, Ashley and Carlton, their butler Jeffrey, and of course Will. The Banks are your stereotypical rich family – they live in a lavish mansion, belong to country clubs, drive expensive cars, wear nice clothes, go to private schools and obtain fabulous careers. The only thing which divides them from the rest of their neighborhood is that they’re black. The show pokes fun of that continuously through the seasons and shows the struggles which they go through.

In Season 1, Episode 6 named “Mistaken Identity”, Will and Carlton drive down their father’s law partner’s fancy Mercedes-Benz to palm springs for him. On the way down, the two get stopped by a police officer. Being street-smart, Will catches on and follows the orders, yet a very naive Carlton who thinks they’re being stopped for speeding persists on communicating to the officers about the truth and how they aren’t criminals. After being held under arrest for a string of car thefts, their parents pick them up and all is well.

The turning point of this episode is when Will and Carlton have a conversation at home about their evening. For the first time, Carlton had experienced racial discrimination and was truly in denial. Being brought up in a safe, sheltered environment, he was protected and stayed out of trouble. Will, on the other hand, had spent most of his life in West Philadelphia slums and was no stranger to being a minority due to his skin tone.

After many statements made by Carlton to defend the police officers, Will tells him; “You just don’t get it, do you? No map is going to save you and neither is your glee club, or your fancy Bel-Air address or who your daddy is. Because when you’re driving in a nice car in a strange neighborhood, none of that matters. They only see one thing.” Will then points to his cousin’s face, implying that the color of his skin will always be seen before anything else about him. Carlton later asks his father if he would’ve stopped a car “driving two miles an hour”, and Phil replies “I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped.”, leaving Carlton in a state of confusion as to why he and Will were really stopped. [3]

This episode holds a very strong and important message about privilege, naivete, and prejudism which still remains extremely relevant in 2017. White police officers, especially in North America, have been well known to have a bias towards their own race. In 2015, 1134 African-American people were unnecessarily murdered by police officers in America. [4] Research shows that 69% of those people were unarmed, non-violent and only suspected of committing a crime, meaning that more than half of them were virtually innocent. And despite essentially committing manslaughter, 99% of the officers in the country have been convicted of any crime. [5]

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reminded us in this episode that people of color will always have a disadvantage due to years of racial based ignorance and stereotypes. It is embedded in our culture that black people are a threat. They have been accused of being thieves, thugs, criminals and so much worse due to astigmatism created by white people. White police officers think it’s acceptable to kill and abuse an innocent bystander because of the color of their skin threatens them. Police brutality is never okay no matter the reasoning, but having it happen due to someone’s race should be absolutely unallowed. When this episode aired in 1990, shortly before the Rodney King incident was publicised, it certainly gave NBC’s viewers of all ages, genders, and races a wake-up call about the racial injustice that Americans have been plagued with during all of history.

In effort to break down stereotypes put on African-American people and turn the tables on racial success, the Fresh Prince created many characters, plots, and storylines to show people of all races that your ethnicity does not change who you are, and cannot infringe into how you live your life.

The Fresh Prince certainly did question what being “black” really meant. Throughout the seasons, Will is always teasing Carlton for not being “black enough” due to him not living a stereotypical life of a person of color in the 90’s. In Season 1, Episode 23 “72 Hours, Will challenges Carlton to a bet that he wouldn’t last a weekend in Compton, Los Angeles’ most infamous neighborhood. Carlton takes on the bet, and soon enough fits in perfectly with Will’s friend group. After hearing what dangerous things naive Carlton was preparing to do, Will became concerned and brought him back home.

Yet again, the two cousins find themselves in a disagreement. Carlton tells Will “..you always act like you carry around some measure of blackness that I don’t live up to.” An attacked Will replies with “Wait a minute, you never judged me? You do everything except carry around a big ‘ol gavel. You act like I’m an idiot just because I talk different.” [6]

In another episode from Season 4, Episode 8 “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud, Will and Carlton try out for an all-black fraternity at their university. Will is loved by everyone and accepted, yet the guys dislike Carlton because of his background. During an argument, Carlton gives an unforgettable speech. “Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be. It’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don’t even know what that means. If you ask me, you’re the real sellout.” [7]

Will and Carlton are polar opposites. One being privileged, well dressed, poised and groomed, while the other is rough, wild, eccentric and quite ghetto. Will represents what most people think an African-American person would be like. He says things like “yo” and listens to rap music. He disobeys his parents and is free-spirited. Carlton, despite being as black as Will, acts differently. More white. He wears fancy clothes, studies hard at school, has an extensive vocabulary and always obeys the rules.

Having two main characters on one of the biggest television shows be so same but different at the same time truly opened up viewer’s eyes as to what stereotypes we subconsciously believe in. Black people can be intelligent, successful and ordinary. They can live in nice parts of town, go to good schools and be presentable. Carlton is not any less “black” than Will because he belongs to his school’s glee club. Will is not a thug or an invalid because he grew up in a slum, or wears his hat backward.

As human beings, we tend to assume things about people based on their looks and how they act. Our privileges and disadvantages should not divide us as people, especially as to how we treat and view others. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air consistently made it clear that your race does not define who you are. It is your skin color, and your heritage. It is not a synonym to describe your personality or how you act. As a society, we need to stop using race to divide each other, especially to those in the same race as us. As Uncle Phil says at the end of Season 4 Episode 8, “When are we gonna stop doing this to each other?” [8]

The nineties were a time of change and evolution. The events which took place during the decade shaped how the future 2000’s would be like for African-Americans in the U.S.A. The way which African-American people have been treated has changed drastically throughout the years. There has been positive change such as when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president in the U.S, and there has been negative change such as continuous police brutality against black people and the recent comeback of the Klu-Klux-Klan.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sent a strong message to Americans and viewers worldwide of being yourself, accepting your heritage and that anyone can live in a huge mansion and become a judge if they work hard enough, even if they’re a minority.

______________________________________

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/18/us/los-angeles-riots-fast-facts/index.html

[2] https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0583008/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men

[5] https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/

[6]  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582934/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[7] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582945/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[8] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582945/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

Unsolicited Opinions – My Blog

This year I’ve taken it upon myself to start putting all of my opinions, ideas, and thoughts onto a single platform to share with others.

I love to write things that make a statement, and that prove a point. Journalism has always been a strong interest of mine, and I have always admired writers and journalists who are brave and aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind. An incredible inspiration of mine is Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote iconic masterpieces such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and founded Gonzo journalism. Thompson created a new era of journalism that was so fearless and detailed that made the reader feel as though they lived through the stories themselves.

On my blog, you will see me writing about topics which I feel very passionate about such as feminism, social and criminal justice, human rights, and equality. My goal is to build a vast library of my writing and to write pieces that stand out from most mainstream articles or essays.

My Blog: https://emmanoakes.blogspot.ca/