Interviews

Monica Jones (via indiegogo)

Monica Jones (via indiegogo)

For Immediate Release; interview to take place Tuesday February 4th 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

Tits and Sass to livestream interview with Phoenix sex work activist Monica Jones, currently facing charges of “manifesting prostitution” during protests of The Phoenix PD’s Project ROSE sweeps

In May 2013, a sex workers’ rights activist and Arizona State University social work student named Monica Jones was picked up by an undercover police officer, set up on charges of manifesting prostitution, and transported to the Project ROSE processing site. Project ROSE is a diversion program organized by ASU’s School of Social Work, directed by Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz in collaboration with Phoenix police. The program allows eligible sex working candidates the “choice” between arrest or “rehabilitation.”

Project ROSE and the police sweeps that funnel sex workers into the program has been met with protest and anger within the sex worker and activist community in Phoenix. Al Jazeera covered the tension surrounding Project ROSE, pulling a fuller version of the story that was shared with Tits and Sass’s readers.

Jones did not qualify for Project ROSE. She was arrested. Activists wonder whether she was intentionally targeted among the protest’s participants as a trans woman of color, or because she is a student of social work at the very same program that conceived of Project ROSE. Though a special prosecutor has been appointed to her case, indicating that she is to be made an example of, Jones is fully intent on challenging the charges levied against her.

We will be interviewing her LIVE on February 4, 2014 at 3:30 PM MST (5:30 PM EST) on our website, titsandsass.com. We welcome you to watch and participate in the discussion on Twitter. Use the hashtag #AskMonica.

Press release available here.

Since February 2011, we at Tits and Sass have committed ourselves to covering issues that touch sex workers the most. Our brand of journalism—by and for sex workers—is a complicated craft that requires patience and sensitivity. Our mission is to make sure sex workers have the platform we deserve.

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Image via SWOP-Phoenix on Facebook

Image via SWOP-Phoenix on Facebook

We often have cause to complain about media coverage of sex work, but we haven’t had occasion to talk about how good stories can be edited into inadequate ones as they travel from reporter to final outlet. The fate of Jordan Flaherty‘s story about Project ROSE (Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited) is a great opportunity to look at what happens when a journalist tries to show the public the whole story but is met with resistance from his employer. 

Flaherty traveled to Phoenix in October to cover ROSE and the accompanying protests by SWOP-Phoenix. ROSE is a “concentrated arrest-alternative/intervention program for adult victims of prostitution or sex trafficking.” In practice, it’s mass arrest sweeps during which those taken into custody on prostitution charges are told they can either go through ROSE, starting with a trip to their headquarters at a church, or they can go to jail. And there are problems with the process, ones Flaherty wanted to make sure his finished work represented. Al Jazeera aired a version of his television segment that eliminated key information about ROSE, so Flaherty has made repeated attempts to get a fuller version of his reporting out to the public. He has encountered difficulty in doing so. I spoke with him last week at a time when his story had been posted on Truthout, but as of yesterday, Al Jazeera America has claimed copyright violation, requiring Truthout to remove the story from their site. The story is still available in a couple of other places. Another cut of the television piece is available although it’s not one Flaherty considers complete, either. This written version of the piece as aired is the only one remaining on Al Jazeera America.

Below is an edited Q&A that took place by phone on Monday, January 6th.

How did you first come across Project ROSE?

The issue of the legal treatment of sex workers is something I’ve been following for a while, especially these kinds of programs that say that they’re helping sex workers but are doing mass arrests. These programs have been getting very positive treatment and I was interested in looking at something like that with a more critical eye. When I heard about Project ROSE it just seemed like an example of the way in which people are conflating sex work and trafficking. [READ MORE]

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Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini is  a community organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY), where she works towards  ending the drug war, mass incarceration and racist policing. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, make/shift magazine, the forthcoming Dear Sister Anthology, her self published anthology Colored Girls, as well as both Red Umbrella Project writing workshop literary anthologies, Prose and Lore issues One & Two. She is a  Brown and proud captivating performer, a veteran Red Umbrella Diaries storyteller who is featured along with six other sex worker storytellers in the upcoming documentary, “The Red Umbrella Diaries: A documentary about sex worker stories.” Writing can be a great vehicle for social change and Anna’s work is an example of this kind of activism. 

In your writing and performances you talk about your Indian family, growing up in the suburbs, and living in Detroit before moving to Brooklyn. Seems like your background is pretty mixed. How do these different experiences influence your work?

 

It wasn’t until I moved away from Southern Ontario and came to live in the United States that I actually realized how I’m a mish-mash of all these different identities. I’m fiercely working-class and Desi, Asian, queer, a suburban city girl and a survivor, an academic, an activist. It means I connect my struggles with a lot of different people and I hold a lot of intersecting communities dear to me.

 

It also means that I never really feel like I fit in or I’m at home anywhere. If you look at where I was born and raised, a bizarre and wonderful place called Brampton, it’s this brand spanking new suburb that’s morphed into a place largely populated by folks like my family, who identify as “from” somewhere else. I never really felt like I’m from there so much as I came from there. The suburbs are kind of a vacuum in that way.

 

But it’s also fascinating. It’s this unique confluence of socio-political dynamics: the suburbs, Punjabis, Canadiana and the biggest city in the country a mere thirty minutes away… It’s probably the only place in the world where you can get a proper chai from a drive-through window at Tim Hortons. Now that I don’t have to live there anymore I have a lot more respect for the place where I grew up and a lot more interest in how it made me who I am.

 

Sometimes you have to reach back into an uncomfortable past to make meaning out of it. You’re a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Dear Sisterabout healing from sexual assault. What did you share in it about your healing process?

The call-out for submissions for the anthology presented the opportunity to write a letter saying whatever you always wanted to say to another survivor. I know that often when we think of a “survivor” the expectation is that the person is valiant, strong and resilient. I wanted to talk about the flip-side of survival, the part that many consider ugly or uninspiring, the part that breaks down these myths about who we are.

I wanted to say what people don’t say about surviving, so that I could feel less alone in the experience and  reach out to others so that they could also feel less alone. A lot of folks who have survived violence that I’ve known are damaged in some kind of way. Instead of ignoring that damage, I wanted to acknowledge it, maybe even revel in it. I wanted to talk about that damage, explain what it looks like on me.

My piece is called “The Unlikable Survivor” and I guess what I’m trying to accomplish in it is to deconstruct the persona of a survivor. The commonality of our experience is that we lived while others did not. And for many (most? all?) of us the healing is never really complete.

[READ MORE]

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Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)

Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)

SWOP-Phoenix, a new branch of national sex workers’ rights organization Sex Workers Outreach Project, mounted a campaign this year against the Project ROSE (Reaching Out To The Sexually Exploited) Prostitution Diversion Initiative, in which Phoenix police and students from the Arizona State University School of Social Work team up twice a year to arrest local sex workers who then face criminal charges or a six-month diversion program. After SWOP-Phoenix protested against Project ROSE in May, one of the protest participants was picked up by an undercover officer the following night and taken to the Project ROSE site. The SWOP member, Monica Jones, an accomplished activist and a student who takes courses at the ASU School of Social Work herself, was deemed ineligible for diversion, and now faces up to six months in jail. Fellow Phoenix activists started an indiegogo fundraiser for Jones’ legal defense. I interviewed SWOP-Phoenix member Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman over the course of a week. The following is modified from the Google doc shared between us as an outgrowth of an email interview.

One of your members, Monica Jones, was arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” after participating in the protests against Project Rose. Jones was in the diversion program before, and spoke eloquently about her experience being mistreated there as a trans woman and a student sex worker. Can you tell me more about her case?

We believe Monica was targeted by the Phoenix police department. The evening after she spoke at the protest she was walking to a bar in her neighborhood. She accepted a ride from what turned out to be an undercover cop. He began to solicit her and she warned him he that he should be careful because of the Project ROSE stings that were going on that evening. He kept propositioning her and she asked to be let out of his vehicle. He did not let her out and actually changed lanes so she couldn’t exit the car. She was frightened and thought she was being kidnapped (which she was). She asked him if he was a cop, because she didn’t want to assault an officer. They were pulled over for a “routine traffic stop” and she was placed under arrest for the intent to manifest prostitution.

What was SWOP-Phoenix’s response when you first heard about Project ROSE? What would you say to those who claim that diversion is at least an improvement over wholesale incarceration?

When I heard about Project ROSE through an activist friend I set out to interview the professor at the ASU School of Social Work who spearheaded the initiative, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. As a researcher, I tried my best to go into the interview unbiased until I had all of the details. Upon completing the interview I confronted Dr. Roe-Sepowitz about what I felt was wrong with Project ROSE, particularly the inherent contradiction of fighting coercion with coercion. Dr. Roe-Sepowitz explained that the initiative is completely police-driven. The School of Social Work has community organizations meet the apprehended community members at the initiative’s command post at Bethany Bible Church. The arrestees are met with prosecutors, as well as “tour guides,” who are ex-sex workers, and are told that they can have access to hygiene products, a hot meal, clothing, detox, mental healthcare, healthcare, safe housing and more, if they meet the eligibility criteria. After the interview, I compiled the research and met with a couple of activists from the Phoenix Harm Reduction Organization to discuss what we should do about it. They knew some folks from SWOP Tucson (who are incredible and have been supportive and essential in the creation of the Phoenix chapter) and SWOP PHX was formed as an emergency response. We immediately reached out to other activists and organizations, such as members of  [immigrant rights organization] Puente and Arizona Prison Watch, and began to strategize. We found out the exact dates of the next stings and began street and internet outreach to inform workers of the impending raids, handing out pamphlets and Know Your Rights information. We also protested outside of the Project ROSE command post, Bethany Bible Church.

[READ MORE]

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One of Melissa Gira Grant's Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com

One of Melissa Gira Grant’s Carceral Feminist Cat memes at carceralfeministcat.tumblr.com

You can read part one of this dialogue here.

Emma Caterine: Red Umbrella Project has definitely encountered issues around pressure to conform to respectability politics from larger groups who fund or sponsor us in different ways. It is telling that I can’t mention many of the specifics for fear of re-opening old wounds. Particularly the issue of trafficked people, especially children, is presented as something we “have” to deal with, account for, and fight against despite the fact that it does not fall under our purview. I know not at all groups that work with sex workers restrict themselves from working with survivors of trafficking (i.e. Sex Worker’s Project) and I admire their work. However, I think the pressure to always bring up trafficking any time sex work is mentioned is definitely a part of respectability politics, even replicated by advocates who are or have worked in the sex trades. Thoughts and experiences?

Sarah Patterson: This is definitely an ongoing discussion within Persist. Since some of our founding organizers have had experiences in the sex trades that might be regarded as trafficking by some definitions of the term, a need to hold space for trafficking survivors has been of particular import to us. Also, health access for all people in the sex trades is part of our mission, so trafficking survivors are absolutely included as folks who can and should access our services. But how to do that, without playing into the binary-driven debate of trafficking survivors versus sex workers, rather than trafficking survivors and/or sex workers? Even using the phrase “trafficking survivors and sex workers” suggests that they are independent groups, which we know is not necessarily the case, based on individuals’ experiences or whose definition of the terms you are using.

Sometimes it seems as though any deviation from the heavy emotionality and highly negative filter given to most anti-trafficking language/semantics is read as “happy hooker” code. I aim for as much neutrality as possible when I speak about the sex trades, in an effort to be as inclusive of as many experiences as possible, but it seems as though even neutrality gets skewed to the “pro-sex work” side in such a highly ideological debate. I suppose therein lies the trap of it…

[READ MORE]

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