On Tuesday, one of the first crisp fall nights in New York City, a long line of John Jay College students and community members are huddled outside the large wooden doors of The Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York. The historic place of worship has always been deeply invested in the civil rights movement hosting a range of notable speakers in the fight for equality from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Nelson Mandela.
But on this particular evening, everyone is here to see Cyntoia Brown Long, a former sex trafficking survivor who was released from jail in August after serving 15 years in prison, stemming from the time she was 16 years old. Brown, now 31, was granted clemency earlier this year in the 2004 murder of the man she shot and killed in self-defense, after he solicited her for sex.
Inside Brown is taking photos with the press, wearing a deep royal blue jumper with black 4-inch peep-toe booties. Her straight hair is evenly parted to the side. The scene summons imagery of a political candidate on the campaign trial. But this is not an election story. It’s a story of faith and transformation. In a few moments she will sit down to discuss her memoir, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.
Brown looks eager to begin and end, the day was filled with a series of interviews and meetings with supporters. As the sound of multiple cameras continue clicking around her, it’s clear she is now a woman many want access to due to her story, shared by millions of survivors across America and the globe. One can’t help but wonder if she is at times overwhelmed by the attention, even if it is an act of good faith.
As she takes the stage with the evening’s moderator, Dr. Tracy Alexander, a rap song plays in the background describing Brown’s journey, word for word. “Been in the dark for a minute I just need to see the light.”
Alexander begins the discussion by telling Brown, “We’ve been waiting for you for 15 years,” to the thunderous applause of the crowd. She describes Brown’s book as “gritty, deep and descriptive.”
“I just want to let you know that before I was in physical prison, I was bound up in prison of shame, prisons of anger, prisons of feeling that I needed to do certain things to be accepted by other people and God freed me from that,” Brown said.
Brown rehashes some thoughts discussed in earlier interviews, summarizing that her story began with feeling like an outsider as a biracial child growing up in Tennessee.
“I kind of felt like I was different…anger started to seep up within me,” she began. The road led her down a series of dark paths, coupled with her time in foster care, and dealing with the abandonment of her biological mother who suffered from addiction. She says at school she was cycled through the education’s system of neglect and was labeled as a problem, one that no one wanted to address
And then she met her trafficker, a Nashville pimp named Kutthroat, who honed in on her sense of low self-worth and lack of direction.
“I met a man who I thought at the time was my boyfriend, but I’ve come to know him as my trafficker now. I began having sex with men for money and one of the men that I met, I felt uncomfortable. I felt trapped, I felt that I was in a situation where I was going to be harmed and I acted to defend myself.”
Brown was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Johnny Michael Allen, 43, with the chance of parole after serving 51 years. “I had come to expect men to react violently toward me, and so I reacted in the same way,” she said. “I acted to defend myself and the courts didn’t see it that way.”
Her outlook on life, which was already categorized as cynical turned even bleaker, and she described moments where she felt “the walls were closing in.” One day, Brown said an epiphany occurred and she asked for what she needed. “God if you let me out of here, I’ll tell the whole world about you,” she said. But the journey still had a few more twists and turns to solidify her faith.
After exhausting all of her appeals in early 2017, Brown almost gave up until receiving a letter from former Christian rapper Jamie Long (now her husband), helped her regain the strength she needed to persevere. Two years later, after the work of numerous grassroots organizers, primarily led by Black women, Brown was granted clemency in January 2019 by former Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam.
During the question and answer period survivors of sexual assault and trafficking shared their stories and asked Brown on ways to cope. One of the women, a police officer, became emotional after recounting her own rape while also acknowledging the lack of trust between community and law enforcement due to the numerous shootings of Black unarmed persons.
Another survivor, a trans woman, thanked Brown for her visibility and what it meant to the LGBTQ community, who account for a large portion of the sex trafficking industry as workers and survivors, due to lack of economic support and being shunned by their support systems. A third sex trafficking survivor asked Brown how she was able to start to see men as humans and not as means to make money.
To that, Brown said she decided to take ownership of her narrative and refused to let the actions of the men who took advantage of her define her.
“Love was never on the table. Love is not killing yourself to please someone. It’s not giving of yourself so that you have nothing left,” she said. Now Brown said her focus is to help eradicate life sentences for teens and minors, specifically in the state of Tennessee.
“I’m just trying to share what I’ve learned. I’m just trying to share what God’s given me. I don’t put a title on it,” Brown said in response to whether or not she considers herself an activist.
“I know what’s in my heart. I know it’s in my heart to speak for the people who can’t speak for themselves. I know it’s in my heart to share the things that aren’t often shared that people don’t talk about, that people who want to talk about it, aren’t given a platform to talk about it on. I would just say, I’m here and I’m open,” she continued.
“God gave me a comeback. That’s redemption for me.”
PHOTO: Cyntoia Brown Official Instagram