Inside the virtual #FreeBritney rally: 'This is not just a movement, this is a love story'
On Thursday afternoon, as Britney Spears' conservatorship had another hearing in court, 1,000 of her fans gathered on Zoom for a digital rally to #FreeBritney.
The #FreeBritney movement, launched in 2019 with the object of liberating Spears from the legal conservatorship under which she's lived since 2008, has gained greater national attention since last weekend's release of the FX documentary Framing Britney Spears, the latest installment in the New York Times' series of standalone docs The New York Times Presents.
The Samantha Stark-directed film tells the story of the pop icon's dynamic career, with a special attention to the capricious media treatment she's received throughout. The story ends with Spears' current legal situation, from which this dedicated group of activist-fans hope to release her.
Members of the #FreeBritney movement have rallied before, both in-person in Los Angeles and, during the pandemic, over Zoom. As Thursday's event began, one of the hosts played a vital mega-mix of various Spears hits. As fans signed on (many using Zoom backgrounds in hot pink, depicting Britney, or bearing the movement's name) the chatbox filled with greetings from different countries, encouragement to tweet @LASuperiorCourt, and frequent comments of #FREEBRITNEY. Within 15 minutes of its start time, 1,000 people had joined the Zoom.
Jake Sandt (a.k.a. Jakeyonce), co-creator of Deep Dive Productions' #FreeBritney docuseries, served as emcee of the event.
"People need to realize that this is Britney the human being we're fighting for; we're not fighting for Britney the pop star," Sandt said in his introductory remarks. "We are fighting for Britney Spears' constitutional rights that have been stripped away through the probate court system — and we're also fighting not just for Britney, but for everybody in the probate court system. This is something that affects some of our most vulnerable people."
The conservatorship began in early 2008, following Spears' public breakdown (which Framing Britney Spears depicts, rather shockingly, in the context of the cruel media attention the star received during and up to that point). Since then, her father Jamie has been the sole conservator of her person (though her care manager Jodi Montgomery has temporarily taken over this position since 2019, after Jamie suffered health issues) and the co-conservator of her estate (with attorney Andrew Wallet until early 2019, and alongside corporate fiduciary Bessemer Trust since November 2020). Spears cannot make meaningful personal, financial, or career decisions without the oversight of her conservator. She has repeatedly stated that she doesn't wish for Jamie to be in the role, and in November, her lawyer reportedly said in court, "My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father."
The official goals of the #FreeBritney movement (which Jamie Spears has dismissed as "a joke" and its supporters as "conspiracy theorists") are "to end the conservatorship of Britney Spears, raise awareness about conservatorship abuse, and advocate reform of the probate court system," and the event was committed to all three aims. Sandt first introduced Lisa MacCarley, an attorney and longtime advocate for probate court reform, to provide insight into Spears' fraught legal situation.
"This is not just a movement, this is a love story," she said warmly. "I think that your passion, your compassion, and your kindness shine through more than anything. You have made such a difference."
One of MacCarley's first points was that such a conservatorship should be a last resort, only imposed "if it is the least restrictive alternative," she said, adding that even if it were the only option in Spears' case, "that would not excuse the failure to follow the law" — meaning the star should have been both granted five days' notice before the conservatorship was officially imposed and permitted to hire her own lawyer. (As documented in Framing Britney Spears, the judge rejected her chosen attorney, Adam Streisand, citing a sealed medical report that declared her incapable of retaining her own counsel, and the court appointed Samuel D. Ingham III to represent her.)
MacCarley seemed especially disturbed by the court's denial of Spears' right to hire her own lawyer (which the singer still has never done), calling it a blatant violation of the U.S. constitution, the California constitution, and the California probate code. She didn't seem to find it wholly unexpected, however, based on the era in which it happened.
"The politics of California probate code at that point was so rancid that there were judges who were systemically and consistently picking their favorites — we call that cronyism — to represent certain celebrities. And these judges were also maintaining what we would later find out to be a secret blacklist of attorneys that they did not like," she said. "What happened to Miss Spears is that she got caught up in a period of time where there was no supervision, no training, and no accountability of any of the judicial officers, and they were free to pick and fire whichever attorneys they want."
When asked whether she thought that Spears would have an easier time getting out of the conservatorship if her estimated $60 million estate weren't so large, MacCarley replied, "There is no doubt in my mind [that] the fact that the court-appointed attorney [Ingham] is receiving $10,000 a week is a substantial and significant factor here… Nobody makes this kind of money. It should never have come to this."
Following MacCarley, producer and elder abuse activist Angelique Fawcette joined the Zoom to speak about her own experience advocating for Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, Fawcette's dear friend and the victim of an exploitative conservatorship; the attendees saw a video, too, from the family of Charlie Thrash, a man trapped in an abusive guardianship.
"I found so many similarities in Britney and Charlie's cases, even though they are as obviously different as two people can be," his daughter said in the clip. "Britney and Charlie were both taken into guardianship by lawyers not following the law and the judges allowing attorneys to get away with it. Why would this happen?"
The screen showed a document from her father's case that pointed to an alleged reason why: "Money."
"All you have in the probate court is a judge. There is no jury. So the ability for corruption is super high," Fawcette pointed out. "This has to stop. We cannot allow people to come into our lives and control us. If we don't take care of people right now, our grandparents are going to suffer. Our parents will suffer. We will suffer. Our children will also suffer. It will be an inward way [for people] to come in and just take what [they] want."
The rally came to a pause when activist Leanne Simmons called in with the update on Spears' case following the day's hearing. Some fans celebrated the news on social media — the judge rejected Jamie Spears' objection to sharing oversight of his daughter's estate with Bessemer Trust, which he has done has since November — but the mood on the Zoom palpably dropped, despite the vibrantly wallpapered screens.
"They went back and forth [over] the same thing that they always argue about," Simmons said. "That's all they ever do. While Britney's paying for it."
"[Ingham] is doing the absolute bare minimum in the last six months or so," Simmons continued, becoming more energetic as she went on. "Right now, these attorneys show up at these hearings, discuss the same things that they've already written in their orders and in their objections and all this stupid paperwork, and then the judge doesn't really do anything, and then we just have another hearing. I'm getting sick and tired of it — I know we all are — but meanwhile, Britney's life is hanging in the balance."
After the past week, during which Spears' case has been a subject of more widespread conversation and outrage than ever (some of the downloadable Zoom backgrounds on the #FreeBritney website read "the world is watching," quoting Ingham in a September court filing), it came off to some as rather anticlimactic when the increased public attention didn't bring about any meaningful change, and the hearing didn't address any of the major questions on people's minds. But the movement's supporters remain undeterred.
"We've got the attention of the media right now. We're all really fired up," Simmons said. "We cannot slow down now. Ride this wave of momentum — we've got a month to the next hearing."
Sandt moved to lift the mood with a quick game of Name That Song, and then the event wound to a close after MacCarley took a few more questions, echoing Simmons' call to stay active and passionate about the cause: "Keep making noise," she said. "That's the important thing." Both Simmons and advocate Kevin Wu expressed their hopes to bring the rally back to the courthouse, in person, for Spears' next hearing on March 17.
Britney Spears has very few avenues by which to publicly express herself, all of them extremely limiting. She's unavailable to journalists who might ask her what she thinks of the #FreeBritney movement. But its supporters are encouraged by that September court filing in which Ingham noted that the world was watching.
"At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy," the document read, "Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans."