Sentencing Survivors: The Trials of Joan Little and Cyntoia Brown

Cyntoia Brown. Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections

After spending almost half her life behind bars, Cyntoia Brown leaves prison this month, freed on the clemency she received in January. Brown was convicted in 2006, at age 18, for committing murder and robbery to escape an alleged sex trafficking scheme.

While it marks the beginning of freedom for Brown, this month also marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in the life of Joan Little, whose own escape from sexual violence — and its aftermath — have drawn comparisons to Brown’s.


A justice system that targets people of color makes Joan Little’s and Cyntoia Brown’s cases the exception rather than the rule.


The incidents that fractured their lives were separated in time by decades, but otherwise the details share numerous similarities. Both Brown and Little are women of color. Both lived in the South. And both gained strong public support from activists and celebrities who viewed them as women caught in a criminal justice system fraught with racism and sexism.

In the Hands of the People

The case of Joan (pronounced “Jo Ann”) Little represented a turning point in the way Black victims of sexual violence were treated in the courts. Throughout much of U.S. history, sexually degrading Black women has been part and parcel of maintaining the racial order in many communities — enough so that, as one Black newspaper observed in the 1950s, it was a “commonplace experience for many of our women … to be propositioned openly by white men. You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.” Continue reading

The Past Isn’t Always in the Past: Covington Catholic and the Politics of Race and Gender at Southern Private Schools

Nathan Phillips (center) leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March. Image (detail): Joe Flood

It was hard to miss the video that went viral on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

On January 20, footage of a white high school student, flanked by his classmates as he stood in front of a Native American elder, took the news and social media by storm. The student stood at a close distance, wearing an apparent smirk below his “Make America Great Again” hat. The Native elder stood calmly but firmly, beating a small hand drum and singing over the noise from the student’s classmates, many of whom also sported the iconic red baseball caps of Trump supporters. One classmate appeared to taunt the Native elder with a gesture mocking a “tomahawk chop.”


The March for Life incident is a troubling reminder of a history that links segregated private schools to the anti-abortion movement.


The scene was from Washington, D.C., where students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, were attending the anti-abortion March for Life. It was an event that coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March, a grassroots gathering of community leaders, celebrities, and activists to address the environmental and human rights issues facing Native American, First Nations, and other indigenous people.

The incident drew conflicting narratives as more footage was pieced together to show how Nick Sandmann, the Covington student, came face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, veteran, and activist. What gained general agreement was that tensions had first been elevated by verbal exchanges with another, smaller group identifying themselves as the Black Hebrew Israelites. A few members of that group could be seen subjecting the Covington students to inflammatory language and insults. Thereafter, people have been divided, often along partisan lines, on whether Sandmann or Phillips was the instigator of the face-off. Continue reading

Jesse Helms Is Dead: His Amendment Lives On

Here we are again, another dreaded anniversary — the Helms Amendment.

If you are a contemporary of that legislation’s author, Sen. Jesse Helms, you might also remember the title character from Sinclair Lewis’ powerful 1927 novel Elmer Gantry or the Academy Award-winning portrayal of Gantry by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film. Rev. Gantry was a evangelical preacher who used religion to destroy the lives of women. So did Sen. Helms.

2016 video frame: Global Justice Law Center

A year ago my fellow Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona blogger Rachel Port reminded us that on December 17, 1973, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act — today marks its 45th anniversary. In a nutshell, this legislation prohibits using U.S. foreign assistance funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Other journalists and bloggers have joined Rachel in documenting the severe impacts of this legislation and its companion “Mexico City policy,” aka the “global gag rule,” denying women abortion care, particularly in poor and war-torn corners of the globe. (For a taste of its horror, remember the example of the women and girls forced to bear the children of their Boko Haram rapists.) Continue reading

Due Protections: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act at 40

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Photo: Lynn Gilbert

Today, Susan Struck’s political positions are nothing that would stick out in a red state like Arizona. A few years ago, she joined the chorus of support for the once-threatened A-10 fighter jet program at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In a 2010 article on immigration, a writer noted her concerns about automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children.

Despite the rightward tilt that would be assigned to her views today, Struck was once at the center of a fight for reproductive justice, a cause taken up by a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, back when “The Notorious RBG” was still a lawyer for the ACLU. It was that fight that led to Ginsburg’s involvement in the writing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, a landmark piece of legislation that turns 40 this month.


Despite 40 years of protections, pregnancy discrimination hasn’t gone away.


Now retired in an Arizona ranch community, Struck first arrived in the Copper State at the end of the 1960s, when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Davis-Monthan. She told Elle in a 2014 interview that she reveled in her newfound independence from the family and church she left in Kentucky. “She went on the Pill and stopped attending confession,” the article recounts, and she spent her free time enjoying her sexual freedom and the chance to experience Tucson’s foothills in a newly acquired Camaro.

Still, Struck wanted more excitement, so she asked to be sent to Vietnam. She was assigned to Phù Cát Air Force Base, where she quickly hit it off with an F-4 pilot — and ended up pregnant. Struck understood that the Air Force gave officers in her situation two choices: get an abortion or be honorably discharged. It was 1970 then, still a few years before Roe v. Wade, but the armed forces had made abortion legal ahead of civilian society. Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: Jennifer Jermaine for State Representative, LD 18

The time to fight back — and fight forward — for reproductive justice is fast approaching. The stakes are high in this year’s state election, with candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and other races on the ballot. The Arizona primary election will be held August 28, 2018, and early voting began on August 2. Voters need to have been registered by July 30 to cast their ballots. Reproductive health has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who put our health and our rights first. Get to know them now in our series of “Meet Our Candidates” interviews, and make your voice heard in 2018!

Jennifer Jermaine has a long history of being politically engaged, advocating for women’s rights, public health, and other causes on behalf of nonprofit and social services organizations. But the last two years have brought two waves of activism that were transformative for the longtime Chandler resident, inspiring her to launch her own advocacy organization — and run for state Legislature.


“Health care decisions are very personal and private and should be kept that way.”


The first wave was the mounting protests in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The victory of such a far-right candidate prompted Jermaine to post a call for action on Facebook. Her idea was a network that would register voters and organize communities, a group she dubbed Stronger Together AZ. Within days, she had 10,000 members. By the end of the month, an inaugural meeting drew 1,000 participants.

The second wave was Arizona’s #RedforEd movement, which sparked strikes and walkouts this spring for better teacher salaries and school funding. Strengthening public education is the first issue Ms. Jermaine mentions on her campaign website. She seeks to represent Legislative District 18, which includes Ahwatukee and parts of Chandler, Mesa, and Tempe, “because the children of Arizona deserve fully funded public schools.”

Along with that focus, Ms. Jermaine is committed to standing up for civil rights and equality on behalf of women, people with disabilities, communities of color, and LGBTQ people. That includes recognizing women’s bodily autonomy and their right “to make their own health care decisions without government intervention or impositions.” Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: January Contreras for Arizona Attorney General

The time to fight back — and fight forward — for reproductive justice is fast approaching. The stakes are high in this year’s state election, with candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and other races on the ballot. The Arizona primary election will be held August 28, 2018, and voters need to be registered by July 30 to cast their ballots. Reproductive health has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who put our health and our rights first. Get to know them now in our series of “Meet Our Candidates” interviews, and make your voice heard in 2018!

Although January Contreras has never run for an elected office prior to now, she has spent her career close to politics and devoted to public service. Her experience has included advising Gov. Janet Napolitano on health policy and serving on President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls.

Last year, Contreras announced her bid to become the next Arizona attorney general, a position that serves as the chief legal officer of the state of Arizona. The attorney general represents and provides legal advice to the state and defends Arizona’s people and businesses in cases involving financial, civil rights, and felony criminal violations.


“We are our best when we work to protect the well-being and rights of all of us.”


During Napolitano’s tenure as attorney general, Contreras worked in the office as an assistant attorney general, with a focus on prosecuting criminal fraud cases. More recently, Contreras set her sights on leading the office, because she felt the state was at a “very important crossroads.” As she told the Arizona Republic, “for too long, the special interests have treated the office as their personal law firm.” As attorney general, Contreras wants to serve working families and small businesses and, as she told the Washington office of The Guardian, “fight hard” for “people in vulnerable positions.”

Fighting on behalf of those at risk is a cause that has been close to Contreras’ heart. Contreras has served on the board of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence and was instrumental in establishing the Council on Combating Violence Against Women for Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. More recently, she co-founded a legal aid organization for women and children who are victims of abuse, Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services (ALWAYS). In addition, Contreras has been a lawyer and advocate for youth in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from facing deportation. Continue reading

Book Club: Her Body, Our Laws

By 2014, law professor Michelle Oberman was no stranger to El Salvador. She had already spent four years making research trips to the Central American country, but that June she would need a local guide during her travels. An activist had volunteered to accompany her on the interview she needed to conduct, a task that required a two-and-a-half-hour trip outside the city to an area that is not well mapped — in fact, to a village where there are “no signs or numbers” to help visitors find their way among the cinder-block houses and the patchwork of land where the clucks and lowing of livestock punctuate the silence.


Paid maternity leave, monthly child allowances, and affordable day care and health care decrease demand for abortion.


Once in the village, it took Oberman and her guide an additional 45 minutes to find the house they needed to visit. Inside, a curtain was all that separated the main room from a small bedroom in the back. A bucket and outdoor basin served as a shower, and an outhouse completed the bathroom facilities. The living conditions there were not uncommon — not in a country where roughly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

That poverty was both the cause and consequence of a conflict between left-wing rebels and government forces that lasted from 1979 to 1992. In many ways, that conflict set the stage for the abortion war in El Salvador, the subject of Oberman’s recently published book, Her Body, Our Laws: On the Frontlines of the Abortion War from El Salvador to Oklahoma (Beacon Press, 2018).

From Civil War to Abortion War

In the early 1980s, the small republic of El Salvador was in the grip of civil war, while in the U.S., debates raged over the emerging Sanctuary Movement that was aiding Salvadoran and other Central American refugees. The movement began in 1981, when Quaker activist Jim Corbett and Presbyterian Pastor John Fife, both of Tucson, pledged to “protect, defend, and advocate for” the many people fleeing warfare and political turmoil in El Salvador and neighboring countries. Tucson was at the forefront of the movement as refugees crossed through Mexico and arrived at the Arizona border. Continue reading