They Were Laughed At For Their #FreeBritney Activism. Not Anymore
The #FreeBritney movement has spent years trying to draw attention to Britney Spears' fight against her conservatorship. Now, it's beginning to have a serious impact on guardianship law.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This was the scene outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Free Britney.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.
SHAPIRO: Supporters of pop star Britney Spears in her fight against her conservatorship held pink signs, waved flags and marched under the banner #FreeBritney. They say initially they weren't taken seriously, but as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, they plan on sticking around.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It used to be that when Leanne Simmons told people about her #FreeBritney activism, they'd laugh.
LEANNE SIMMONS: A lot of friends and family thought, oh, Leanne, grow up. You're not 9 years old anymore. Why are you so, you know, in love with Britney Spears? So I was a little embarrassed.
LIMBONG: She'd find solace online, on message boards and among friends on social media. But as she found out more about Britney Spears' case, disability rights activism and conservatorship abuse...
SIMMONS: I decided I'm just going to go in. And if people want to make fun of me, I don't care because I'm fighting for what's right.
LIMBONG: These days, Simmons is at real-life rallies, pulling and reading court documents, attending hearings and doing the hard work of grassroots organizing. And she's just one of a growing global movement. Pilar Vigneaux lives in Chile, and she wasn't even a super-hardcore Britney Spears fan. But she came across some #FreeBritney content on Instagram one day.
PILAR VIGNEAUX: Then I started reading and educating myself, and I don't know. It was something in me that - I couldn't stay away from what was going on.
LIMBONG: She's a communications professional in her day job, so she emailed the prominent activist account FreeBritneyLA and volunteered to help them send out press releases. The co-founder of that account, Kevin Wu, says that they used to be dismissed as conspiracy theorists. But after The New York Times and FX documentary "Framing Britney Spears" as well as Spears' own public testimony detailing her life under the conservatorship, people realized #FreeBritney was for real.
KEVIN WU: You know, it was frustrating that it took as long as it did, but it does feel vindicating that the movement and our concerns are finally being taken seriously.
LIMBONG: While many activists are lifelong Britney Spears fans, what really pushed them into doing something was an episode of the podcast "Britney's Gram" where an anonymous tipster gave some details about the conservatorship.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BRITNEY'S GRAM")
BABS GRAY: And we got this voicemail. And I feel like we should just play it, and then we'll discuss.
TESS BARKER: Yeah. Here we go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi there. I cannot disclose who I am.
BARKER: I noticed we had, you know, in our voicemail inbox, one that was, like, longer than the rest of them. So I hit play and, yeah, got goosebumps and went up to my husband, who was watching "SportsCenter," and was like, you're never going to believe what I just heard, and then texted Babs right away.
LIMBONG: That's Tess Barker, who, along with Babs Gray, co-hosted what was originally a more jokey and irreverent podcast. They've got a new podcast now called "Toxic: The Britney Spears Story," which is a more seriously reported deep dive into Spears' conservatorship. But working on that took them off the frontlines for a bit. Here's Gray.
GRAY: We're just really grateful for the people who took it seriously and took on #FreeBritney as a part of a cause because I feel like they really helped keep the momentum going when we were, like, busy working on this. I'm just - yeah, I'm grateful even though it is very surreal to think about.
LIMBONG: Rick Black is director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, which advocates for victims of predatory guardianships, and he says activism is among the hardest things he's had to do. And when he got in touch with #FreeBritney supporters...
RICK BLACK: I was so impressed with their maturity, their understanding, their tolerance of the diversity within their own group.
LIMBONG: People of all identities, of different professional backgrounds working towards a goal. And it's bigger than just Britney. Just last week, lawmakers proposed a bill addressing guardianship concerns and called it the FREE Act. Here's Kevin Wu again.
WU: I think there's a lot of work to be done to fix things. And the attention that this movement has brought is going to help move the needle in that direction.
LIMBONG: #FreeBritney has faced some internal conflicts, in-fighting, differences of opinion, people trying to co-opt the movement. But that's just a sign of how much #FreeBritney has grown.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTIME")
BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) I guess I need you, baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.