KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ricky Kidd sways to the rap beats of "Rockstar." Like thousands of others on the social media platform TikTok, he does the dance that went viral: pantomiming driving his Lamborghini, playing air guitar, all the cool moves.
But his TikTok re-creation has a message: It includes text bubbles telling the story of how he was finally exonerated after 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. August will mark the one-year anniversary of his release.
"I fought for my freedom every single day & never gave up ...," his video says. "I'm now devoting my life to help change our broken justice system. ... I AM RESILIENCE."
Now Kidd himself is an unlikely TikTok star. The video has over 5 million views, 800,000 likes, 17,000 comments and almost 8,000 shares.
Kidd, 45, who lives in Kansas City, made the video to push for criminal justice reform.
"To stop, to pause, to comment, to share, it really said to me that people care about wrongful convictions," Kidd told The Star. "People care about injustice in our country."
On this day, he was speaking via Zoom from an Airbnb in St. Louis, where he's campaigning for his cause.
Kidd said his 9-year-old granddaughter showed him the ropes on TikTok, but a friend helped propel his videos. He expected only a few thousand likes, but after only an hour, he said, his second video already had over 6,000 likes.
He now has more than 100,000 followers.
"It really made me triple down on my commitment to really be a justice advocate," Kidd said. "To be a voice for those who are voiceless."
Maintaining his innocence
On Feb. 6, 1996, three men fled the scene where George Bryant and Oscar Bridges were found fatally shot in Kansas City. Kidd and Marcus Merrill were charged.
Kidd had an alibi, and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, but he and Merrill were convicted. Kidd was sentenced to life without parole for robbery and both murders.
The Midwest Innocence Project took up Kidd's case, saying prosecutors withheld evidence.
An eyewitness later rescinded testimony. A 4-year-old witness identified Kidd under "suggestive" circumstances, a DeKalb County judge wrote in an order last August. The same order found Kidd innocent. It said Merrill, who confessed, as well as Gary Goodspeed Jr. and Gary Goodspeed Sr. perpetrated the crime.
Kidd was released on Aug. 15. But he wasn't eligible for state compensation because he wasn't exonerated through DNA testing.
During all those years in prison, he said he connected with the word "resilience."
"I just felt for everything that I had been through that I embody resilience," Kidd said. "The mental toughness, the fortitude, to be able to press forward despite everything that had happened in my life."
Never knowing when or if he would get out of prison, Kidd helped prepare other prisoners – especially those eligible for parole – for life outside. He said he helped them with job interviews and other practical skills.
Finally, when he himself could walk out of prison, he was wearing a suit, but changed into a T-shirt with the phrase "I am Resilience" on it.
And now, resilience is helping him in his time outside of prison. It's in his name on TikTok, Mr. Resilience, and it's in the name of his company, I Am Resilience.
He said he hopes to spread this message to others, in person and on social media.
"I really want to inspire people to not give up on themselves," Kidd said.
TikTok and beyond
TikTok has millions of users across the world who share dances, humorous videos, cooking tips, news and more.
But Kidd's popularity on the site comes as it faces controversy. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is considering banning TikTok because of its ties to a Chinese company and over fear of security issues. Recent Trump campaign ads claim, "TikTok is spying on you," and ask viewers to answer a survey on whether the platform should be banned in the U.S.
The administration's attacks come after TikTok users inflated the numbers for Trump's June 20 rally in Tulsa. Since then, TikTok has called on lobbyists to convince the administration of its U.S. allegiance.
But Kidd sees it simply as a way to spread his message for justice.
"I could've found a nice La-Z boy chair and really just kicked my feet up and watched Netflix for the next two years, but I decided to roll up my sleeves and get involved and get engaged and really try to push me and squeeze as much meaning out of life as possible," Kidd said.
Six weeks after he was released, he started his company I Am Resilience, doing motivational speaking and urging criminal justice reform, helping those wrongfully convicted like him and those with misguided charges.
He shared his firsthand expertise at universities, law schools, high schools, public panels and bar associations before the coronavirus pandemic limited travel and canceled in-person events.
Now, he's campaigning for the release of a friend. Lamar Johnson was charged with murder in 2004 in St. Louis, although no physical evidence linked him to the crime. The Midwest Innocence Project has taken Johnson's case and an eyewitness has recanted testimony, but Johnson is still in prison.
Kidd said he and Johnson met while in a correctional center and they confided in each other.
"Early on, each of us was scared to say that we were innocent because everybody says that," Kidd said. "You feel like you're alone. You feel like you're the only innocent person."
They made a promise to help each other get out. And Kidd is following up on that promise. He held a rally for Johnson on July 12 in St. Louis and met with prosecutors to talk about the case.
"Professionally and personally, I have a commitment to really see justice corrected," Kidd said.
Kidd plans to launch a few initiatives as part of his company.
On Aug. 15, he'll start a half-day course teaching people how to be resilient – his personal motivation – and how to be their own advocates. The course will include education about contacting state representatives, accessing court documents and understanding the appeals process.
He's launching resilience training for anyone experiencing challenging times.
He wants to create a nonprofit. Kidd said innocence projects can take people's cases only if they have been imprisoned for years. He said he wants to help people who can't afford a lawyer, people who are at the beginning of their sentences or people with wrongful charges.
On Aug. 1, Kidd plans to start a Freedom Lap tour where he'll travel to 10 states and share his story. He'll go live on TikTok and other social media platforms several times a day. He's ready to share some of the personal and emotional trauma from being wrongully imprisoned.
He's also found something he wasn't looking for in his life outside of prison: love.
He met Dawn Elizabeth at an entrepreneurship meeting, and the two worked with each other professionally at first. But Kidd said they found their outlooks on life matched – and their connection was like "the Fourth of July." The two are engaged and are expecting a daughter. They'll name her Harmony Justice to represent the way they live.
"While he does have other beautiful children, he was robbed of being able to see their birth," Elizabeth said. "I'm really looking forward to making those memories with Ricky and giving him back some of the memories that he never got to have."
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