On the ground at Wednesday's rally in L.A., a scene of both heartbreak and triumph.

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"People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth," Britney Spears intones at the top of her 2004 cover of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative," in a now-haunting spoken intro. "But the question is, can you handle mine?"

After having so much taken away from her - including that truth, it often seemed - the pop star spoke out on Wednesday, whether or not anyone was prepared to handle it. Directly addressing Los Angeles Superior Court judge Brenda Penny for the first time in her ongoing conservatorship case, she didn't hold back as she pleaded for the legal guardianship to end after 13 years of living under her father's control.

"I just want my life back," the 39-year-old said in her 20-minute statement, during which she detailed some of the traumas she's suffered (including allegations of abuse by her therapist) and rights she's been denied (including over her own body, as she stated she is not permitted to have her IUD removed despite wanting more children) among other degradations of the arrangement, which she likened to sex trafficking.

Spears' truth was disturbing and painful, but the very fact that she was finally able to share it was also a hard-won victory for the pop icon, which was not missed by the devoted fans who have long called out the abuses of the conservatorship and actively campaigned for her to be free to express herself and live her life as she chooses.

The #FreeBritney movement, which launched in 2019, aims to liberate the singer from her guardianship as well as raise awareness of conservatorship abuse and reform the probate court system that enables it. Spears' father Jamie has dismissed the movement as a "conspiracy theory," and it has taken the past two years of advocacy for the group to shake off that perception more widely. #FreeBritney got a boost in September, when Spears' court-appointed attorney Samuel D. Ingham III wrote in a court filing that his client "welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans," and the movement has gained considerable momentum since the February release of the FX documentary Framing Britney Spears; its first rally to take place in the aftermath of the film, held virtually, attracted over 1,000 Zoom attendees.

Britney Spears Rally
A protester at the #FreeBritney rally on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles.
| Credit: Rich Fury/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the movement's organizers and advocates gathered in person outside L.A.'s Stanley Mosk Courthouse, this time in anticipation of Spears' own testimony. As supporters noisily gathered on the sidewalk in front of the hot pink step-and-repeat banner - many carrying signs bearing the movement's slogan or Spears' lyrics, even more wearing Britney T-shirts adorned with the rose-shaped pins being passed around, a good handful with their hair tied in fuzzy pigtails, and at least one wearing a full "Oops!… I Did It Again" red catsuit with a Guy Fawkes mask - a tight row of photographers and videographers took in the scene. One longtime supporter standing near me remarked upon the robust media presence; in the movement's early days, there was no such spotlight on Spears' situation.

All eyes are now on the pop star's plight, however, and brand-new revelations ramped up the tension in the air as the rally began. The day before the hearing, a bombshell new report from The New York Times, which had obtained previously unseen confidential court documents, revealed that Spears had not only been quietly trying to reduce her father's role in the conservatorship for far longer than any watchers had been aware, but she had also expressed a wish that the arrangement be terminated entirely.

"When we read these reports that have been released by The New York Times, we are now validated in our feelings that Britney has been held hostage, essentially, against her will," said Jared Lipscomb, one of the many Spears advocates who came to the courthouse on Wednesday, addressing the crowd before the hearing began. "It is time to free Britney once and for all."

Britney Spears Rally
Protesters at the #FreeBritney rally on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles.
| Credit: Rich Fury/Getty Images

The courtroom - which Spears attended remotely, and the audio from which was publicly livestreamed - was experiencing technical difficulties, so the assembled activist-fans marched around the courthouse during the delay. The mass of fuchsia posters stopped in front of each of the building's imposing guarded entryways, chanting for Britney's freedom and an end to conservatorship abuse, a speaker tucked somewhere in the crowd blasting "Gimme More" and "Toxic."

About three-quarters of the way around the courthouse, tweets quoting Spears' testimony, which had finally begun, started to roll in. Marchers shared breathless updates as the group raced around the last corner, back to the step-and-repeat, where one of the organizers had accessed the livestream. Close to the speaker playing the hearing's audio, the crowd huddled together, straining to hear Britney Spears speak her truth about the last 13 years.  

The throng that had, minutes prior, filled downtown L.A. with cries of "Let Britney speak!" went silent for the familiar voice. Much of the audio was too faint for many listeners to hear, but tidbits moved through the crowd in whispers, inspiring quiet gasps. Powerful assertions like "I shouldn't be in a conservatorship if I can work and provide" and "they need to be reminded they actually work for me" drew cheers that rippled to the outskirts of the congregation.

After Spears spoke, the atmosphere was heavy from her devastating testimony, but simultaneously charged with righteous fury. "This is unlawful!" cried attorney Lisa MacCarley, an expert in probate law and advocate for its reform (who also spoke at length during February's illuminating virtual rally). "This whole conservatorship is a hoax! It's a scam! It's a fraud!"

The crowd applauded her assessment, but she was preaching to the choir. Though some attendees were visibly shaken, the overwhelming reaction was not one of shock at the darkness of Spears' account - #FreeBritney followers were already profoundly disturbed by her situation, and have been for years - but rather surprise that she said so much, vindication that her truth was finally out, pride that she'd reclaimed her power, and relief that she was receiving such vocal support on social media. (Someone read aloud that Mariah Carey had tweeted, "We love you Britney!!! Stay strong," and a voice in the crowd yelled back, "We know her!") One fan standing nearby turned to me and said, "I feel like we just witnessed history."

MacCarley would likely agree. "You have succeeded in bringing to light one of the most despicable injustices that I have ever heard of in my entire career," she told the crowd. "Young people of the #FreeBritney movement, you have been right all along."

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