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For Tampa Bay’s Free Britney advocates, Spears’ words are ‘a crack in the earth’

The Free Britney movement is “the most public expression and revelation about the horrors of guardianship,” says one Florida advocate.
People pose for a group photo at a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa.
People pose for a group photo at a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 19

Britney Spears spoke last month in a California court hearing. Her Louisiana accent tumbled from her mouth, the words percussive and liquid and rolling headlong over one another.

In Tampa, Claire Kelly sat at the bar at Rocca, listening to a live feed through an earpiece and weeping over a plate of ravioli. Her boyfriend handed out cards emblazoned with the phrase “Free Britney” to diners around them.

What she was hearing, said Kelly, 44, was “a crack in the earth.”

June 23 marked the first time Spears had spoken out publicly against the court-imposed conservatorship that for 13 years has put decisions about her finances and health in the hands of others, most notably her father.

She alleged that she’d been strong-armed through tours she didn’t want to do, incapacitated by medication, forbidden from removing her IUD birth control.

“I just want my life back,” she pleaded.

Calls to “Free Britney” have been sounded since the early days of the conservatorship. But the movement has exploded in the past two years: on social media, in the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears documentary and at rallies across the country. A second Tampa march took place July 10, organized by Kelly and Timothy Rivera, 27, a longtime Spears fan who lives in Texas.

The movement has expanded beyond its central figure and toward a broader critique of conservatorship systems, including in Florida where they’re known as guardianships.

“The Free Britney movement is, to date, the most public expression and revelation about the horrors of guardianship,” said Sam Sugar, a doctor who co-founded South Florida’s Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships.

Related: Britney Spears, Netflix’s ‘I Care A Lot’ put guardianship abuse in spotlight

Since becoming a star at age 16, Spears has been an American symbol: an inspiration, an icon, a bad influence; a comeback story and a cautionary tale.

Now, in Tampa and across the country, Britney Spears is something else. She’s a cause.

Bijanca Star, 26, of Miami, and Claire Kelly, 44, of Tampa, chant during the #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa.
Bijanca Star, 26, of Miami, and Claire Kelly, 44, of Tampa, chant during the #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

‘We were duped’

The years before the conservatorship began in 2008 were famously tumultuous for Spears. News media and tabloids salivated over her divorce, child-custody battle and erratic behavior. The conservatorship began while she was under psychiatric hospitalization.

“To be the most photographed person in the world, I don’t know that anyone can truly understand what she went through,” Kelly said.

Over the next decade, Spears put out four albums and performed nearly 250 shows during a four-year Las Vegas residency. But fans were worried by uncanny meet-and-greets, sluggish and tearful performances.

They sifted through court documents and researched conservatorships. What they learned didn’t make sense: Spears was competent enough to perform, but the conservators, who drew their salaries from Spears’ income, said she was still incapacitated.

“We were duped,” Kelly said.

Framing Britney Spears, released in February, exposed the case to a broader audience. An investigation in the New York Times showed that Spears pushed for years to get out of the conservatorship. One in the New Yorker revealed she’d called 911 to report herself as a victim of abuse.

Related: Britney Spears allowed new lawyer in conservatorship case

So when Free Britney advocates arrived on the sweltering morning of July 10 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park — from across Tampa Bay, from Miami, Orlando, Texas and Los Angeles — they felt vindicated.

“People have called us crazy. They’ve called us conspiracy theorists. There’s been a shakeup in the fandom,” said Kelly. “All of a sudden, to hear it directly from her, there’s no denying it.”

‘A human rights issue’

They came with Britney everything. There was a life-sized cardboard Britney cutout and a backpack covered in faces of Britney. There was a professional Britney impersonator. People chewed watermelon bubblegum, Britney’s favorite.

The crowd swelled to 50 or so. Eye-popping pink dominated the tableau. Hugs abounded.

“What I love about Free Britney is it’s the most non-threatening,” said Bijanca Star, 26, who had traveled from Miami.

Claire Kelly, 44, of Tampa, wears Britney Spears themed shoes during the #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa.
Claire Kelly, 44, of Tampa, wears Britney Spears themed shoes during the #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Ralliers handed out postcard-sized fliers that argued for Spears’ competency and suggested six movies to “learn more about conservatorship abuses.”

“#FreeBritney is … A civil rights issue,” one read. “A women’s rights issue. A disability rights issue. A human rights issue.”

Elder and disability rights advocates have tried to shed light on this little-known corner of the probate court system for years. And in Florida, allegations of abuse have occasionally drawn media attention.

The most high-profile may be Rebecca Fierle, who faces aggravated abuse and neglect charges in Hillsborough County. In May 2019, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, she ordered doctors to cap the feeding tube of a 75-year-old man in her guardianship, despite his statements that he wanted to live. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.

Fierle oversaw 450 guardianships and was accused of signing do-not-resuscitate orders for several of them. The abuse and neglect case, in which she has pleaded not guilty, is ongoing.

Traci Hudson, a former professional guardian from Riverview, faces charges in Pinellas County after being accused of exploiting guardianships and power-of-attorney cases to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Such cases have led to changes in Florida law, including a 2020 bill that mandates court approval for do-not-resuscitate orders and requires petitions for guardianship to have more background information.

Related: Former guardian stole guns, money from Tampa Bay seniors, court records show

Spears’ case has drawn wider calls for reform from Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Republican Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and others.

It marks the most sustained media attention on guardianship that Sugar can recall, he said. But it doesn’t reflect most guardianships, which often concern older adults or people with disabilities.

“If every ward of the state looked like Britney Spears and had Britney Spears’ money,” Sugar said, “it wouldn’t be an issue in the state of Florida or anywhere else.”

It’s hard to predict the path of the movement, said Katherine Larsen, an assistant professor at The George Washington University and editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

“I would like to say that, yes, they would stay mobilized and focus on this” were Spears’ conservatorship to end, Larsen said. “But I kind of feel that, if it’s not linked to a particular person, that that interest would wane.”

The future could look different, she said, if the Free Britney movement can continue to draw the interest of people beyond Spears’ fanbase.

Timothy Rivera, 27, of Austin, Texas, leads a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa.
Timothy Rivera, 27, of Austin, Texas, leads a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Some ralliers in Tampa last weekend identified themselves as casual Britney fans compelled by aspects other than celebrity. Jesse Sage, 32, of Sarasota, said she was drawn to the movement because of parallels she saw between Spears and Marilyn Monroe, who at one point suffered harrowing psychiatric mistreatment.

The moment of Spears’ recent court statement that made Sage scream in appreciation, she said, was the star’s implication of a broken system.

“They’ll say ‘Oh, conservatorship is here to help people,’” Spears said. “But then there’s 1,000 conservatorships that are abusive, as well.”

‘We have her words’

Ralliers marched along the Riverwalk and ended at Xochitl Cocina Mexicana, where bartenders wearing Britney shirts served drinks from a themed cocktail menu.

“It’s just so special and cute,” Star exclaimed, “and also, we’re advocating for human rights.”

Kelly stood near the front door, surveying the crowd. She was moved by the turnout, she said, but not surprised.

“We have the black-and-white,” she said. “We have the court documents. We have her words.”

People settled into booths, slugged ice water. Someone propped the cardboard Britney cutout by the wall nearest the entrance, where it could look out over them.

People march along the Tampa Riverwalk at a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa.
People march along the Tampa Riverwalk at a #FreeBritney rally at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]