police misconduct

Shardayreon Hill, one of Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims, speaks outside the Oklahoma County courthouse at his trial.

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.

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COPS

In just a few weeks’ time, an astonishing pattern of misconduct has been uncovered in the Oakland Police Department that might shock even our readers. At the center of the scandal is a teenage sex worker who goes by Celeste Guap. She alleges that at least three Oakland PD officers sexually exploited her when she was underage. She also alleges that she traded sex for information with some of these police officers, traded sex for protection with others, and  “dated” yet another officer, both before and after her eighteenth birthday. Even officers from surrounding municipalities were involved with Guap. In an interview with local reporters, Guap indicated that she felt the officers took advantage of her but she didn’t have any anger towards them.  Guap did what she had to do to survive, but either way, going by the federal definition, Guap is a human trafficking victim and the officers are her traffickers.

Sex workers have long maintained that the police are the biggest hindrance to their work, and quite often, the biggest threat to their safety. For every sex worker  “rescued” by LE, another one is arrested by LE, or trapped in an LE-sponsored diversion program, or coerced by LE, or literally pimped out by LE. While what happened at the Oakland PD might be an extreme example, it’s certainly isn’t rare. Here are a few other police department scandals that involved sex workers this year:  [READ MORE]

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Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation. [READ MORE]

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A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A Passion, courtesy of A Passion)

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A. Passion, courtesy of A. Passion)

On December 17th, we reflect on the overwhelming reports of violence against sex workers and put together plans of action to rise above it. We experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, pimps and abusive partners, and each other. Though I have never found value in comparing suffering woe for woe, it is my goal to speak only from personal experience. Call it luck or divine intervention, but my life as a sex worker has been relatively charmed. I have flirted with danger, but for the most part I managed to get by unscathed. Physically, that is. It is important to remember that not all scars are visible and that those that are not can sometimes be the deepest and most difficult to heal.

I live the life of a career sex worker who is black, a woman, and transgender. Blacks, women, and transgender people are three marginalized groups, and often the thought of encompassing all three is overbearing. I’ve looked for purpose in the eyes of strangers—whether they sat behind a desk, confused as they dissected my qualifications and wondered about my gender identity, or loomed over me, swollen with the often lethal combination of lust and disgust.

Job discrimination is a form of violence. Denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalizing the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable. For many of us, sex work is a job of last resort. The fact is that we are rarely given an alternative. Many employers simply will not hire trans workers for fear of losing customers. Another act of violence often overlooked is theft of service, typically defined as “knowingly securing the performance of a service by deception or threat.” When theft of services happens to us, it is rape, and the damage goes beyond the monetary value of what we’ve lost. I have been the victim of both. Like many of us, I considered rape one of many occupational hazards and did nothing about it when it happened to me. How do you report something like this, and to whom?

During my time as a street-based sex worker, I personally witnessed multiple acts of violence. Some girls survived and some didn’t. It was our own Mufasa-esque circle of life, and many of us dealt with it the only we knew how: Not dealing with it at all. To live in fear is to lose money, to lose money is to starve and ultimately become homeless. The key to survival is adaptation. Learn from the violence you experience, but do not succumb to it.

I developed a strict code of conduct for myself, necessary for my survival in the business. No drugs, no excess drinking, never steal, and always use protection. I thought this was enough to shield me from the bulk of the misfortunes that befell so many before me. For a while it did, but as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” I still have issues with thinking of myself as a victim, because I know what happened to me could have been worse. Despite all of what I taught myself, as safe and as smart I thought I was, no matter how much I wanted to believe it would never happen to me, it did.

Four years ago I climbed into a stranger’s car, like I had so many times before. I began to direct him toward a crowded movie theater parking lot which provided the privacy and safety necessary to conduct my business. When I noticed that he was deliberately missing turns, I attempted to open the car door while at a red light. It wouldn’t open from the inside. I turned to look at him and was met with a swift blow to the mouth. I looked up to see the barrel of a pistol. I should’ve been afraid, but I wasn’t. This was not the first time a gun had been in my face. In fact, it was the fourth. I’d never been hit and they usually wanted money, sex, or both. However, I was always able to talk myself out of the situation or escape somehow. What I lacked in strength I certainly made up for in cunning. This time was different.

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Bruises Brenneman sustained from one of the beatings she suffered at the hands of men hired by Isgitt. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)

Bruises on Brenneman’s back from a beating she suffered at the hands of Isgitt’s hired men. (Photo by Amanda Brooks via her blog, courtesy of Amanda Brooks and Jill Brenneman)

Interview co-authored by Josephine and Caty

Content warning—the following contains descriptions of extreme injuries and rape suffered by two sex workers due to a campaign of violence by an abusive client, as well as an account of child abuse.

Jill Brenneman and Amanda Brooks are veterans and heroines of the sex workers’ rights movement.  As a teen, Brenneman suffered years of of brutal abuse in which she was coerced into working as a professional submissive. In the early aughts, Jill made an amazing conversion from membership in the prohibitionist movement to sex workers’ rights activism. She set up SWOP-EAST from the remains of an anti sex work organization she’d led. SWOP-EAST grew to be one of the most vital sex workers’ rights organizations of the era. Brenneman was also a frequent contributor to early sex workers’ rights blogs like Bound Not Gagged.

Amanda Brooks is the acclaimed author of The Internet Escort’s Handbook series, the first one of which she published in 2006. They served as an important resource for escorts advertising online back when there were few other how-to sources on the topic. She was also one of the earliest escort bloggers starting in 2005, writing entries brimming with eloquence and common sense at After Hours.

The two fell off the map recently.

When they returned, we were shocked to read Brooks’ blog post about what they’d endured: a campaign of terror by one of Brooks’ clients, affluent lawyer Percy LaWayne Isgitt. Isgitt—Brenneman and Brooks call him “Pig”—caused both Brenneman and Brooks severe brain injuries when his arrogance and negligence piloting a plane the three of them were in led to a catastrophic “hard landing.” Despite the fact that Brooks was clearly incapacitated and near death, Brenneman had to browbeat Pig into taking her to the hospital the next day. Once Brooks was checked in, Pig fraudulently signed in as her relative and attempted to control her treatment. Despite her still severely injured state, Brooks continued to see Pig as a client for two sessions after her hospitalization, in desperate need of money to pay for medical bills. When she finally tried to break ties with him, he hired people to make threatening phone calls to both women. In response, Brooks went into hiding, so Pig sent men to stalk, rape, and beat Brenneman on a number of occasions, trying to discover Brooks’ location. Neither the police, nor the many medical facilities that misdiagnosed them along the way, nor the personal injury lawyer they hired were any help to the two women against a deranged, abusive man with wealth and social capital.

The injuries Brenneman suffered from the plane crash combined with the injuries she sustained from the attacks led to the fatal exacerbation of her previous medical conditions. Her doctors have told her she has very little time left to live.

This story illustrates the insidious way institutions empower abusers to commit violence against sex workers. The only people they can often rely on in these situations are other sex workers. You can read the original account here and donate to their Giftrocket account using this email address: abrooks2014@hush.com. Donations will be shared equally between them to cover their respective medical costs.

Amanda, you write in your blog post, in reference to Jill’s past abuse:

To those who doubt, her stories are true. They’re things only men would think up and most of the time, it’s the mundane details that stand out the most to both of us. I’ve read stories from so-called trafficking victims who describe ridiculous “Satanic” rituals or elaborate set-ups. The truth is, the men who were Bruce’s [Jill’s captor’s] clients weren’t very bright, in my opinion, and they had a lot of the same stupid fantasies and beliefs that most vanilla clients do—only much darker and violent.

This factor plays into your story of how Pig hurt you both, too. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to the way people listen to stories of abuse. People expect the “elaborate set-ups,” and yet abuse is usually no different than other misbehavior in kind, if not in degree—abusers do it because they want to feel big, or because they care about themselves a lot more than they care about anyone else. How do you think the fact that often stories of abuse are mundane and banal makes it harder for victims to get help?

Jill Brenneman: People don’t want to believe the mundane stories, they want to believe the exotic stories. Like a wife who gets hit. Unless she’s put in the hospital, no one cares. Or she returns home because she has children. But the trafficking victim imported from Estonia gets all the attention.

Amanda Brooks: Because they’re too believable or not dramatic enough. [Pig] raped me twice, yet it’s not something most people acknowledge as rape. It even took me a while to realize that it was rape, despite how I felt about it. People like to parse situations down to the point where the only way it’s “real” is if it’s outlandish.

Jill, you were held captive by a sadist for three years in your teens, and forced to endure unimaginable abuse. As an adult you returned to sex work voluntarily to make a living, and then you went through this ordeal with Amanda at Pig’s hands. What unusual problems have you faced as a sex working abuse survivor? What can we do as a movement to make things better for the abuse survivors among us?

Jill: The ordeal that Amanda went through made me livid and still does.

Working as an abuse survivor led me to more abuse. I learned from [my captor and abuser] Bruce in the 80’s. Bruce was a cliche master sadist. There was never a sense of love or affection between him and I. I was an object. I did what I was was told. I was taught how to relate to clients. I overapplied this training as an adult. I willingly went back to work as a professional submissive. This was a place that I did not belong. Despite there being a 19 year gap between [my captivity and going back to] sex work, I did not belong in sex work —especially as a professional submissive. I needed the money to pay for very expensive subcutaneous blood thinners because of a clotting disorder. I needed to pay the rent, the car payment, food, care for the dog, etc. I took the work that came. I started off with two old pictures of myself, no website, no reviews, and took some pro-sub clients to make money when it was tight. I did not belong in sex work. I was still far too impacted from previous abuse to be doing it but I had no choice, I needed the money.

The most important thing the movement needs to do is work on decriminalization so that we have options.

Amanda: The movement truly doesn’t have the power to deal with this, unfortunately. Until the laws are changed, we never will.

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