Commentary Violence

Police Abuse of Sex Workers: A Global Reality, Widely Ignored

Chi Mgbako

Sex workers deserve the basic respect and protection from violence that each nation owes its citizens. But in many settings, police abuse of sex workers receives scant public attention despite its entrenched global reality.

December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

When we think of violence against sex workers, we conjure up images of dangerous clients and serial killers who target prostitutes.  Indeed, the origins of the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, observed on December 17, lay in the decades-long serial murder of sex workers by the Green River Killer.  While these are heartbreakingly real forms of violence against sex workers, one area that receives scant public attention despite its entrenched global reality is police abuse of sex workers. 

The illegal status of sex work in most countries has not eradicated prostitution.  Instead, criminalization has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to human rights abuses and created fertile ground for police exploitation, especially of street-based sex workers.

For example, in South Africa, where sex work has been illegal since the former apartheid regime criminalized it in 1957, police officers often fine sex workers inordinate sums of money and pocket the cash, resulting in a pattern of economic extortion of sex workers by state agents.  For some sex workers, the cost of a police bribe to evade arrest can equal an entire night’s worth of work.  In other instances, police have exhibited shameless levels of exploitation: In one reported example, a police officer in Cape Town demanded a sex worker give him money in lieu of arrest; when the sex worker told him she possessed only a meager 10 South African rand, or the equivalent of $1.25, the police officer even pocketed that pittance.

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In addition to economic abuse, police exploitation of sex workers manifests in other disturbing ways.  South African sex workers report that police confiscate condoms to use as evidence of prostitution; demand sexual favors in exchange for release from jail or to avoid arrest; physically assault and rape sex workers; actively encourage or passively condone inmate sexual abuse of transgender female sex workers assigned to male prison cells; and use municipal laws to harass and arrest sex workers even when they’re engaged in activities unrelated to prostitution.  “When you get arrested,” notes one sex worker, “they put you in the bad cells, with wet blankets, no food, no phone calls allowed. And not everything you had with you – money, cell phones, necklace – gets given back.”  Many sex workers get trapped in a cycle of arrests that only serves to drain state resources and further entrench sex workers’ vulnerability.    

Police abuse of sex workers is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. It is echoed in documented reports throughout the world, from New York City to Cambodia to Papua New Guinea to Eastern Europe and beyond.

Police are also often impediments to sex workers’ access to justice.  “To gather evidence of a crime against a sex worker, they have to first take it seriously,” argues one sex worker about the lack of police attention to reports of violence.  “If we go to the police to report abuse, we’re made fun of, we’re told ‘you deserve it.’ They chase you away,” notes another sex worker.  In addition, because of the continual police harassment they face, many sex workers don’t bother to officially report abuse to police.  Most sex workers’ experience with criminal justice systems is not as survivors of abuse but as “perpetrators” of the “crime” of prostitution.

Of course, not all police officers abuse sex workers.  There are police officers that seek to stop those who violate sex workers’ rights – whether they are clients, intimate partners, or police officers themselves.  But the moral stigma that is attached to the criminalization of prostitution often leads to the deeply offensive attitude, on the part of some police, prosecutors, and others, that sex workers somehow consent to abuse.  Prohibitionist legal regimes insist that all sex workers are criminals, making it almost impossible for society to view sex workers as legitimate victims of violent crime when it occurs.

Criminalization, sadly, has resulted in the invisibility of violence against sex workers to societies-at-large.  Decriminalization would allow sex workers to come out of the shadows and defend their rights, ensuring that the crimes committed against them by police and others will no longer be hidden. 

But even under prohibitionist regimes, much can and should be done to ensure that police cannot abuse sex workers with impunity. Police departments must train law enforcement to treat abuses against sex workers with the same attention and urgency they would give reports by any victim of violence. Police and justice departments must properly investigate and punish police officers accused of economically or physically abusing sex workers.  Formal police outreach to sex workers must ensure that those who have been the victims of violence, even while committing prostitution, will be given assistance and will not themselves be prosecuted for breaking anti-prostitution laws.

Sex workers deserve the basic respect and protection from violence that each nation owes its citizens.

News Race

#FreedomNow Protests: Police Union ‘Protects Violent Officers’

Michelle D. Anderson

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing a police officer who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Several activists demanding police accountability were arrested at a local police union building in New York City during a protest that began during Wednesday’s early morning hours.

Organized by the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) NYC, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, and The Movement for Black Lives, the protest was held at the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association headquarters building in Lower Manhattan.

The action was part of the two-day #FreedomNow national call for justice for Black lives. The movement seeks to counter failed policing strategies and disparities in health, education, and housing across the United States.

Rahel Mekdim Teka, the organizing chair for BYP 100 NYC, said in a statement Wednesday that police are trying to manipulate conversations on protecting Black lives by leading the public to believe law enforcement officers are at risk.

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Police officers in Louisiana were recently given hate crime protections after the state’s Republican-held legislature passed the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill. Texas is primed to become the next state to give law enforcement officers hate crime protections, even as violence against police has plummeted in recent decades.

“They are not at risk. Police officers are the threat. Police do not keep us safe,” Teka said. “Police do not protect us. They are the danger that keeps Black people unsafe. We [must] divest from institutions that do not value us and instead invest in Black communities.”

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing of New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Wayne Isaacs, a three-year veteran of the NYPD who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Isaacs has been placed on “modified duty” and assigned a desk job while the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigates Small’s death. The NYPD announced that the officer had been stripped of his gun and shield, the New York Daily News reported.

Monica Dennis, a Black Lives Matter organizer, tweeted protesters’ demands, charging that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association “only serves to protect violent officers.”

The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice announced that ten activists from its ranks and BYP 100 had been arrested during the protests. The group sought donations for a bail fund that had raised around 70 percent of its $10,000 goal as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch issued a statement about the protests and arrests on the union’s Facebook page.

He called the protest “a display of misdirected and misinformed anger that should have been pointed at City Hall, not the police officers who were on hand to protect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.”

Lynch criticized protesters for entering the lobby and not dispersing when ordered. He asked local politicians to support police officers and to denounce violence against law enforcement.

The event garnered mass participation at the headquarters, located at the same address as the New York Civil Liberties Union and several private firms.

The New York protest was among several similar actions across the country. In Washington D.C., protesters with BYP 100 DC and Black Lives Matter DC “occupied” the legislative office of the National Fraternal Order of Police, according to a notice on the BYP 100 website.

D.C. protesters wanted officers who supported their fight for justice and accountability to show solidarity by not paying their dues.

On Twitter, Mervyn Marcano, a communications strategist for the Movement for Black Lives, said the successful shutdown in D.C. had lasted more than six hours.

Clarise McCants, an organizer for BYP 100 DC, said in a statement that the FOP functioned like a college fraternity.

“Just like college frats that further rape culture by closing ranks to protect members who are sexual assailants, the FOP has proven that their primary commitment is to protect the worst of their members behind the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’—even in the most heinous of circumstances,” McCants said.

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.