2016 was a year in which police violence against people of color came further into the fore. Just this month, ex-Charleston police officer Michael Slager’s mistrial for the shooting death of unarmed Black man Walter Scott stirred fresh outrage among the city’s Black activists and community members. At the same time, a number of cases this year, such as the rape of multiple sex working and drug using Black women by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, as well as the sexual exploitation of Latina teenage sex worker Celeste Guap/Jasmine Abuslin by several Oakland police officers, highlighted the specific and ongoing violence police do to sex workers of color. For this International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers, Tits and Sass wanted to focus on this issue through this round table, which represents an edited and condensed version of a Facebook Messenger conversation sex workers of color Harmony Rodriguez, Shagasyia Diamond, Bambi, and Phoenix Calida had starting this summer. The second part of the round table is here.
Harmony Rodriguez is a Latina loud mouth queer femme native New Yorker, activist, hu$tler, and lover of hip hop.
Shagasyia Diamond is a Black trans sex workers’ rights activist. She is a Red Umbrella Project community organizer and the founder of Project Connection, a safe space for women of trans experience who seek to enrich their lives through support groups, workshops, and trips designed to heal women and connect them to supportive services. She is currently fundraising for the Harlot’s Ball benefit, a charity event to increase services for women of trans experience.
Bambi is a black and proud fashionista + stripper with burlesque aspirations who has moved often enough to never be able to really rep just one city or state. She always speaks up when she sees injustice and spends much of her time fighting it.
Phoenix Calida is a queer, afro latina activist and podcaster based in Chicago. They like wine and cats and they have the ability to make anything from scratch.
Content warning: Descriptions of rape by police below.
What are your experiences and your community’s experiences with police violence and exploitation targeting sex workers of color?
Harmony Rodriguez: I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. (BEDSTUY REPRESENT!) In Bedstuy, we were always taught that the police were to be feared and they were not there to help us. Nobody ever called the police. They were the ones that deported our fathers, locked up our brothers, and raped our mothers and sisters. From a very early age, I learned that the police were not to be trusted.
My parents were both immigrants that came to Amerikka [looking for] better opportunities. They were sold the American dream. I have five siblings, so we were always fighting for the last bit of food. When I was 12, I remember looking up to the older teenage girls that hung around my projects late at night after my curfew. The ones with the fly nameplate necklaces in gold and fitted clothing and purses. They weren’t wearing hand-me-downs like me and my brothers and sisters. They swung their hips with confidence and exuded sexy. I knew I wanted what these girls had.
And I was in a culture that is so overwhelmed by the concepts of money and capitalism—it’s in our music, our movies, etc. It’s sold to us by our brainwashed black and brown brothers and sisters in the rap music we grew up to. I was embarrassed going to school in hand-me-downs. I was embarrassed that my mother still hadn’t learned to speak English fluently. White supremacy had ingrained in me that these were reasons to be embarrassed, so I got close to these girls who had could afford to straighten their hair or get weaves (because I also had a complex about my naturally curly hair, which I’m happy to say that I now embrace and love).
They were my street sisters, my comrades, my teachers, and they were also hos. We didn’t use politically correct words like “sex worker” back then. I have only heard that term used in the white community, to be honest, and only way later on in my life. They hyped me to the game of sucking dick and selling pussy to the cars that would encircle our blocks at night. I was 14 when I snuck out one night and smoked a blunt with my main homegirl who taught me the game and [I] turned my first trick. I woke up the next morning with $50 in my pocket and I felt empowered as fuck. I could go shopping for my own clothes and I didn’t have to burden my parents who were already overworked and underpaid.
The longer I worked, though, the more exploitation and violence I witnessed being targeted at the hos on my block. We was anywhere from 12-50, but I stuck with the younger clique of hos.
I remember this one police officer that we used to call Officer Smiles because he had the creepiest ass smile and loved to patrol our block. I remember my teenage friend coming out of his car one day, pulling her skirt down as she exited, her hair was disheveled and her stockings were ripped and all the sexy confidence she exuded was gone in that moment. I ran to her and helped her cover herself with my jacket and he shot me the sickest smile of satisfaction. I felt sick. I remember asking her after we had chilled and smoked a blunt: “Are you okay?” Cause I wanted to fight this cracker and gather our homies to plot revenge. But after a long silence, she just said, “Shit girl, it’s better than being locked up, right?” And that was the mentality of the hood. We knew we were doing something illegal and if we could get out of it by exchanging money, jewelry, and—for us hos—our own bodies and bodily autonomy, we would. We just accepted that as a part of the game.
Eventually Officer Smiles got to me as well. He was rough and would slap you up if you told him to “slow down” or “please be more gentle.” I was raped by him at least 10 times before I was 18 and made enough money to leave the projects and stop doing survival street work.
But even after I left, once when I went to go visit my mother and father because they still live in that project, he caught me on my way out. I told him, “I’m not doing shit. I moved out, you can’t fuck with me anymore!” He threw a bag of crack on the ground and said, “I think that’s yours, Ms. Rodriguez, unless you want to get in the car with me.” I was 20 years old and by that time I already had a solicitation charge from a sting when I was working off Backpage. I had to go to my straight job the next day or risk being fired, so I opened the car door and just lay there in the back seat.
I was on some disassociation shit. I didn’t speak. I didn’t look at him. He could have been raping a corpse, because that’s how much I had learned to disassociate by being raped by this man.
People think this shit is just in movies and not the real realities of everyday poor WOC street workers. That’s why I got mad tight when white people were so outraged and surprised by the Daniel Holtzclaw ordeal, like, really, white people? This shit’s been happening in the hood for forever! Why the outrage and surprise now? I’ve been a street ho since I was 14. Now I’m savvy enough to use the internet, but usually poor people in the projects don’t have access to the internet, and when we need money fast, we hit the streets. And in the streets, the police abuse their authority constantly because they know they can get away with it.
Bambi: I was sexually assaulted by a police officer when I was arrested for prostitution and the cop who arrested me made me strip for him first and straddle him. I was naked and on top of him when all the other police busted in the hotel room. I could feel his erection through his jeans while I was straddling him. I wonder, would he have done that to a white girl? Or did he think that it would be easier to get away with because I’m a double minority—a black woman. It was so upsetting that he exploited his power like that. I’ve heard of friends of mine who have slept with police as well to avoid getting arrested or, worse yet, they’ve been raped by the police and STILL gotten arrested.
Phoenix Calida: I was born in and spent a lot of time in a neighborhood that has been primarily black and LatinX (I’m Puerto Rican and black). Police brutality has been a regular thing for me. Police have always targeted people because of poverty and racism, and sexism too.
My worst police encounters have always come from cops who have caught me working/know I work. There is always a threat of arrest unless sex acts are offered. And then even outside of sexual violence, they do other things, just beat up on us for no reason or take earnings. Once I lost a pair of diamond earrings to a cop so he could give them to his girlfriend.
Sexual assaults are as frequent as they are awful. My own personal experiences have been terrible. For me, the worst part is how public it is. Like everyone knows what’s going to happen when cops pull you aside. But nobody can say anything because they’re cops. Who the fuck am I supposed to call? I’ve been sexually assaulted and abused by cops on multiple occasions. And it’s bad now, because one cop tells another cop who you are, and now all of a sudden there’s extra risk and extra cops.
And of course, cops know that we can’t really go back to our communities for support either. I’ve seen an attitude of, “Well, you’re just a whore anyways, so nobody cares, but even if they did care, you would have try to explain why you let a white man rape you.” That’s a huge factor, and a major source of shame with everything too.
Bambi: I feel you on many levels. I never call the police. It’s been known since I was a kid that they will only come into our neighborhoods to be corrupt and cause harm. So it’s like we are out here by ourselves.
I have personally taken care of two different (black) girlfriends after their rapes because the police don’t do shit. It’s hard to watch people you care about go through trauma like that and not know how to hold their rapist accountable all because they are POC sex workers. It’s really rough and then I think about the case of Alisha Walker and how she’s in prison simply for defending herself from a violent trick. There are multiple cases like that. It’s fucked.
What is your response to the “bad apple” model—the neoliberal idea that police brutality is an anomaly expressed by maladjusted individual police officers and most cops aren’t like that?
Harmony: When people say, “But my brother’s a cop and he’s a good person,” I think to myself, “maybe he is, but that doesn’t matter when it comes down to it—if he ‘tries his best to be a good person’—because he is part of a very dangerous system that systematically oppresses and does violence to poor people, black and brown people, gender non-conforming and trans folk, and god help you if you are all three.”
Phoenix: There is such a disconnect—so many people legit think most cops are good, it’s the “few bad apples.” But even if that was true, how the fuck you supposed to know who is going to come if you call 911? When you’re raped by a cop, how do you know if you report that it’ll be to a cop that cares? I don’t risk anything really by not reporting to cops. But if I report to a crooked cop? Or even to a “good cop” that just wants to protect a brother in blue? I’m getting arrested. Raped again. Possibly murdered, too. And cops love to threaten having your kids taken away, too. So report to whom?
Short of police abolitionism, is there any way to work with the police? Or is their profession inherently defined by systemic violence, which we can only combat by limiting their power and holding them accountable? And if we can’t work with them, how should we organize against them?
Harmony: I don’t think police abolitionism is likely, but shir, a girl can dream. Until then, we need lawyers that will work for us for free.
Phoenix: There are some “band-aid” remedies, like mandatory body cams or non-police review committees to investigate claims. But at the end of the day these things will be useless because prosecutors don’t want to pull up charges on cops.
Nobody cares when sex workers are hurt. Nobody cares when people of color are hurt. Being a non-white sex worker is a really awful place sometimes because there is no solidarity with anyone. You get nothing. So many feminists shit on sex workers, and white people shit on people of color. And everyone is all “Blue lives matter!” for some reason.
But this is also why we need to keep reinforcing that rape is about power and control over others. These cops do this because they can, because they don’t really have to answer to anyone.
Shagasyia Diamond: I believe total police abolition is not a realistic expectation. They were put into power and that power is absolute. The structure of the system was designed to keep track of sex workers and people of color. There is nothing in place to protect these groups from discrimination, harassment, or assault. We have placed too much power in the hands of the police who many times are our abusers.
The criminalization of sex work has caused us to lose our] freedom of speech and freedom of expression. [Then as] prisoners [we] lose [our] rights and [our] bodies become state property.
They make sexual acts against the law between two consenting adults done in privacy. It is legal to be in porn, an actress getting paid for doing sexual acts that are [often] available [to view] to minors. Why is it only porn stars are able to thrive in the fastest industry in the world, but independent sex workers are committing a crime?
I believe we have the expertise in our own experience. We should have united sex worker events where we meet to address act up strategies when tragedies like the deaths of Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball happen. We need to form a sex workers’ union of sorts, forming a committee that addresses a strategic way to dismantle the toxic control and tactics of law enforcement agents and find ways to educate an already broken system which criminalizes sex workers’ efforts to provide for themselves just like any other American.
Bambi: I also don’t think total police abolition is realistic, but we need to fight harder to decriminalize and to change laws that commit violence against us. We need to hold police accountable for their fucked up actions and sex workers need to stick together to make that happen. We need more funding, we need more orgs, we need to really organize, because it’s up to us!
Shagasyia: That is so true! We need more funding! To be able to provide direct care services, such as, but not limited to: emergency housing assistance, emergency transportation, emergency food provision, comprehensive health care, and job development. Funding is important. Right now, we can’t protect our most at risk workers! We need more spaces which center programming around educating sex workers and providing resources such as legal services. Right now in my organizing, we have members in jail writing for support from jail, needing services like name changes.
If hoes don’t get it, shut it down—black sex workers’ lives matter.
We also need to remember that in our community, sex work begins at an early age. Young trans and gender non-conforming youth should have access to more emergency shelters and drop-in centers that provide emergency food. We need to find ways to engage with our youngest sex workers. I didn’t realize we had so many. That’s why it’s so important to decriminalize sex work so we can get more accurate statistics on our youth. Our youth shouldn’t have to do sexual favors for housing. We have a lot of work ahead of us!
We are the leaders in giving a voice to sex workers. Let’s build bridges!
Harmony: We need more white allies to step up, especially in the movement. If you hear that a sex working woman of color has been locked up or experienced violence, I want you to set up crowdfunding for her the same as ya’ll did for that white girl, Heather, in VA, and I would like you to donate equal amounts.
The racism is blatant just by the fact that Alisha Walker’s crowdfunding is nothing compared to Heather’s. This is not a coincidence. This is violent racism. Why didn’t all the privileged “outspoken” white sex workers take an interest in Alisha’s case the same way they ran down to VA to “rescue” Heather? If you want to be a white ally, I want you to donate to projects that are helping black and brown sex workers and just black and brown women in general. If you are a gentrifier, I want you to pull out your cell phones when you see any confrontation between police and minorities. You could be the one to keep a sister out of jail or keep a brother alive.