Content warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of police violence and rape, imprisonment, and domestic abuse.
Bonnie is a veteran sex workers’ rights activist who has done outreach work in the D.C. area since 2001. She was a HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) client who lived on the streets in Maryland. Later, she was inspired by the work of Robyn Few and others to participate in activism and community organizing through SWOP-Maryland. Last year, she recorded sound for No Humans Involved, a documentary film produced by PJ Starr about Marcia Powell, the street sex worker killed by the negligence and cruelty of the Arizona prison system in 2009. Currently, she’s on a community advisory board with John Hopkins researchers for the SAPPHIRE (Sex Workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) study, which examines the role of police in HIV risks faced by Baltimore cis and trans sex working women.
You’ve been doing outreach since 2001, originally to D.C. and Prince George’s County Maryland, and later to Northern Virginia and Baltimore as well, using HIPS supplies and sometimes your own money. Where does your dedication come from?
I enjoy it and have to do it and will never stop doing it. That’s because I have memories where the ends of bread, dry socks, housing, a place to get high [where they would] not send me to jail, or a place to avoid drugs (depending on my mood), were my biggest dreams.
I have 8 years where I can proudly say the drug I am allergic to has no power over me.
Up until very recently I provided housing. I had to stop, and now I provide referrals and transportation to shelters or transitional living or an affordable place to live, whatever is asked of me. My current venues are methadone clinics, BDSM clubs, immigrant sex work apartments, drug testing clinics, and sex or BDSM party houses. I never leave someone who wants to be inside outside. What if it was the last time I saw that person? What if they were arrested for being homeless i.e. trespassing or loitering; really any charge. A Prince George’s County cop told me and I will never forget: it does not matter what I/we do, it only matters what he/they write on their papers.
Privileged, housed people may not understand that, and it is something I cannot explain. There are two separate worlds, where the language barrier is experience.
What are your own experiences with violence against sex workers?
My first experience with police violence happened when I was 19 years old. I was walking with someone I had just met in my new neighborhood, Sam.
On the way back, a cop car ran up on the sidewalk and onto the grass. I kept walking but Sam stopped. I had to stay with her. He very sternly and loudly told us to get on our knees. Sam was already on her knees with her fingers interlocked behind her head. He told me if I did not get on my knees he would knock me on my knees. It’s unbelievable how naive I was then. I responded, “I am wearing a skirt. I cannot get on my knees. My skirt will get dirty.” Sam quickly said,“Get down.” He told her to shut up.
He asked for information and said we would be arrested for not carrying I.D. I never knew I needed my license to walk to 7-11 for chocolate until that night. That is still a law in Maryland [today] and maybe in all of the U.S.
He beat her with his police baton. Her knee is still messed up to this day. He asked about smoking crack. I laughed and told him no, I didn’t know anything about crack, though that would change. He kept asking her questions about smoking crack. He also said if I kept walking with her I would one day smoke crack. I told him to stop being mean to her, because she was doing nothing wrong. When he finally let us go, I stood up and asked him what she did him, for him to hate her so much? He said, “Do you want to go to jail?”
Sam grabbed my arm and said not to talk to him anymore. I had to help her walk back to my basement apartment. She would not go to the hospital or press charges. I wish I [had] saved her from that beating instead of being so scared, naive, and shocked.
Verbal and mental violence from police officers started when I was 11, although I didn’t [recognize] it then. I was raised Christian and [told] “God never gives us more than we can bear” (a lie) and “Everything brings glory to God” (another lie, unless God and the Devil are the same). I suffered adolescence in silence. I learned every moment passes.
I learned I could exchange sex for money instead of having it taken or given away for free. One time I was in the woods with fellow sex workers. Prince George’s County police came in. For some reason I was chosen to be an example. I was beaten, my face rubbed in the dirt. He made sure I got lots of dirt inside my mouth, using the back of his boot on the back of my head. Can you imagine the humiliation I felt being beaten and dared to fight back? He wasn’t a regular cop; he was higher-ranked. When his grown, tall, muscular ass was finish[ed] beating on a 100 lb., skinny 20-year-old, he lined us up.
I knew by now what the police were capable of and I knew that for $20 apiece, my “friends” would leave me alone with him. I knew a lot of my friends disappeared all the time in these woods and no one seemed very concerned. We all walked in line; I knew for sure to our doom. I looked around for a place to run and hide but I knew they would find me eventually because I had nowhere else to go. A new strip? No, I knew how to survive here and this is what survival sex work looks like.
I can tell you stories: how some Latin men were searched for walking with me and I was not searched. I can tell you how many boots were on my friends’ throats because they [the police] thought it would help them choke up drugs. I can tell you how my friend had to suck off two security officers for us not to be arrested for trespassing. Trespassing is being outside when police do not want you to be outside. I can tell you how sucking and fucking an officer got me an alternator and allowed me to drop any evidence I had on me when I was arrested. I can tell you how my male friend, 17, was kept for a whole shift to eat a police officer’s vagina and was not given any money or food [in return], and how bad he smelled afterwards.
The scars that take the longest to heal are from the times when I did not risk my own freedom or life to help someone else. Surviving really is a very selfish act. These stories, if all of them were recorded, would fill the internet and possibly cage more people, possibly including myself.
How do you think we can work most effectively to end violence against sex workers?
It would help if fuckers minded their own business. Decriminalization would help, not legalization, but simply keeping the government off our bodies period.
As workers we can create bad date lists, stick together, use the buddy system, and create our own social justice system for who to call when raped, robbed, and/or beaten. We need more speakers who speak from experience, not from university studies. Not so many grants for researchers, but grants to empower the workers exploited by those researchers and by systems of power.
It took eight years for us to rid D.C. of the prostitution free zone, which was profiling for standing, walking, or walking up to a car. How many people were killed and caged in that time? I know a lot [of] transgender women of color were profiled and murdered during those years. Our movement is scared of true intersectionality.
What do you see as the main issues facing the sex worker rights movement today?
We need to change our motto. Here is a suggestion: How many sex workers have I help and/or empowered today? Every organization should be run by peers.
I believe a lot of times I cannot say what I want to say because of my own self-imposed fear of not being allowed in the club. Privileged people have power in our movement, [a movement] that fights for the disenfranchised, not the people they get paid to serve. I have even been threatened by a “peer” in our movement for not allowing her the job she wanted, which wasn’t hers to have. Our people [are] dying, starving, freezing, exposed to prolonged heat, and we spend time online bringing one another down.
You’ve been involved in organizing letter-writing and court support for your friend, the community organizer, social worker, and former HIPS staff person GiGi Thomas, who was arrested for first degree murder for acting in self-defense against a violent man last fall. Can you talk a little bit about how you know her, and why she needs support?
In 2001, I met GiGi. I was 2 hours away from her in Virginia; she was in DC. She drove two hours to get me, two hours to my mother’s for clothes, and two hours back to DC. She paid for storage and allowed me to call her all weekend until I got into Covenant House, which provided a 30 day apartment with a pregnant peer. Two weeks after the 30 day stay in Covenant House, I got an apartment in southeast DC. She never left me. She never found a reason not to help me, as most people in my life did prior.
She deserves support because she has touched more lives than mine and she does more good on the outside of a cage than inside. She needs support because we kill people of color like we are throwing away an old newspaper; we kill transgender people like we are changing clothes. At some point we have to stop this. I stop and start with someone who introduced me to love and a life worth surviving for. I am blessed to be touched by GiGi and people are blessed by the work I do and I hope my daughter and people I have touched continue to spread the love GiGi introduced to me.
You recently faced some legal troubles of your own, though the charges were ultimately dropped. What happened? How can people support you?
My own partner attempted to kill me. He put a plastic bag over my head. Then he went looking for his gun. I was only trying to keep my child safe. While I was inside my home in my pajamas, he was outside wearing his security uniform, telling his side [to the police who showed up when my friend who I was on the phone with called them] and answering every question asked, from his point of view. I was asked three times what happened. Each time, I repeated myself: “I do not want to press charges, he is out. I am OK.”…The third time [the officer] told me to put my pants on. I started crying and blurting the important points of the event. He held his hand on his gun and did not care.
I live off $700 a month. I have spent $3,000 to stay free. In the beginning no one would help me. I cried the whole time. I [had] not been locked up in many years. I was away from my child. The reason I breathe is for my child. Every step through processing to general population was a step further away from [her]. It was agonizing.
A young lady, 21 years old, detoxing from heroin, who did not know me, swooped in and saved the day. When she signed for her personal belongings, she got [me] a bondsman’s number…[The bondsman eventually] allowed me to sign myself out.
Later, I asked him why he allowed me to do this. He said I sounded highly educated over the phone and he felt for me when I said I needed to get to my child. He had promised me that I [would] get out by 7pm and he could not break [his word] after I asked for his promise. This was an amazing feeling, as a lot of my friends have Ph.Ds, Dr.s, etc after their names and sometimes I have to Google their words to understand what we are talking about.
Now I have a lifelong injury due to the assault that will not get better. I am living off credit…I have had some community [members] help me pay back some of the credit I used to pay for the lawyer, who has successfully had the state’s attorney agree to drop the charges. Other than the financials, I am unsure how our community can offer more support. Show me love perhaps, offer me understanding. And support Gigi Thomas, who I love.