Six weeks after he was released from a Chinese prison, after spending three years incarcerated in a foreign country for a crime he did not commit, Detroiter Wendell Brown told his story to the world. The 32-year-old did not want to rush his healing process, but felt he could not pass up the opportunity to speak at TedxDetroit.
Brown was one of over 30 speakers who took to the Masonic Temple’s main stage in Detroit Wednesday. Now in its 11th year, TEDxDetroit showcases artists, tech experts, and entrepreneurs from all over the country — all speaking for less than 18 minutes — sharing their ideas to hopefully inspire others. In between sessions, attendees visited TEDxDetroit Labs — a business expo, art gallery, science fair, MarketPlace, and more, allowing those to connect with speakers, performers, and makers in real time.
Brown’s riveting 13-minute speech was followed by a standing ovation from the audience, sharing the stage with Matt Liston, a filmmaker and sports activist who helped bring international attention to his story in late 2017. Hand-written letters were the only way Brown could communicate with Liston and his mother, Antoinette Brown, who was in the audience. And although Brown had not seen his family in years, his letters came from a place of strength and positivity.
An excerpt of one of his letters home read: “I love you all to life, grace, peace, prosperity, love, and an abundance of blessings in the name of the most high God.”
“I wrote those words while isolated in a foreign country,” Brown said on stage at TEDxDetroit. “Although I had done no wrong, I was forbidden to have contact with my family, friends, and the outside world in general. There was no toilet, no food, and no other English-speaking people. But I had a choice. I could be negative and allow my situation to control my thoughts and feelings or I could choose to be positive and conquer anything that’s not worthy of me and my life.”
Brown, a former Ball State football player, was coaching football over in China with the Chongqing Dockers and was enjoying a night out with some friends September 24, 2016, when, according to witnesses, he was provoked by a group of locals who were upset that Brown would not party with them. One of the men reportedly escalated the incident by throwing a glass bottle at Brown, who retaliated out of self-defense. The local police were contacted following the altercation, to which Brown was the only one arrested. The man demanded more than $100,000 in compensation for damages to his eye or else he would pursue the case in court. Brown had been in jail ever since. There is a 99.9 percent conviction rate in China and Brown’s trial was in July of 2017, but it had taken a year for the verdict to be announced.
In June 2018, having already served two years in prison, Brown was sentenced to four years in prison, but was given credit for time he had already served, good behavior, and restitution to the bar fight victim funded by a GoFundMe and Ball State alums. He was released September 24, 2019 and reunited with his mother, son, family, and friends.
I was the first to report on Brown’s story in April 2017, but with the help of Liston and others, Brown’s story gained international headlines, that fall, eventually prompting his release more than a year and a half later. Liston, who attended Ball State as well, became connected to Brown’s family and his story, and felt it was his duty to assist in his release.
“Wendell’s story changed and inspired me,” Liston said. “He was stuck in prison for 14 months and nobody was coming to help him. I reached out to his mother, who had been working for over a year trying to get attention on her son’s story. I wanted to contribute in anyway I could.”
Brown just needed the world to know of his situation. So Liston created a number of short videos he placed online and apps in several countries, including China, that went viral. He built a small team that used their unique skill sets to work tirelessly to help Brown acquire his freedom. Now Liston said he is working on a documentary about Brown’s experience.
“For me, personally, seeing and hugging you for the first time, and you calling me ‘brother’ is an extreme example of an extreme positive,” Liston said to Brown on stage.