structural police violence

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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Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

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.

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Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)

Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of child sexual abuse.

Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”

To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.

Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.

After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.

Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.

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Beyonce’s “Formation” can be described with two words: unapologetically black.

Images of black babies sporting their natural hair, lyrics such as “I got hot sauce in my bag (swag)”, and Beyonce atop a sinking New Orleans police car in what appears to be the wreckage of Katrina are what make that description a snug fit.

The scene that made tears well up in my eyes, however, was at 3:45 – a little black boy in a hoodie, clearly an homage to Trayvon Martin, dances, carefree and passionately, being,well, unapologetically black. But here’s the catch; he does this in front of a line of police officers, all standing at ease. When he finishes and throws his hands up gymnast-style, their hands fly up in surrender. This scene is immediately followed by footage of graffiti that reads:“Stop shooting us.”

Last night, Beyonce went even further. She made history when she brought this imagery to one of the most widely watched television events of the year: the Super Bowl 50 Half Time Show. Her live performance of “Formation” continued the theme of unapologetic blackness. Her costume was a tribute to one of the greatest performers in history, Michael Jackson, and her dancers mirrored the attire of the Black Panther army.

The line in the song that hits home the hardest for me as a black sex worker is “always stay gracious/ the best revenge is your paper.” It’s reminiscent of Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” where she spat, “get that cash/ whether it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass.” It acknowledges us black sex workers in a way we usually don’t experience in our community. Beyoncé has alluded to sex work positively before in lines such as “a diva is a female version of a hustler.” She’s come a long way from the rampant whorephobia in her earlier work (side eyeing “Nasty Girl” here).

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aholtzclawbirthday

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

On his 29th birthday, December 10th, former Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted low income, criminalized Black women and girls for sexual assault while on duty, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges brought against him. He now faces up to 263 years in prison when he is formally sentenced next month. His crimes were calculated and monstrous. But as uplifting as it is to hear his vindicated victims sing “Happy Birthday,” I can’t help but feel like the knife stuck six inches into my back has only been pulled out three inches.

Holtzclaw’s crimes are far from a rarity. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2014, almost 1000 officers have been decertified or terminated due to sexual misconduct. A 2010 study published by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project reported that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct. The report also found “assault and sexual assault rates significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”

Holtzclaw’s crimes were hardly covered by major outlets and that tepid coverage robbed me of any lasting feeling of accomplishment in his conviction. And according to prosecutors, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mirror, The New York Times, Jezebel, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and many other publications, this rapist is behind bars because he “messed up“: he raped the “wrong” woman, Janie Ligons, a woman with no previous criminal record, no record of drug use or sex work—someone who felt free to report her rape. This woman was someone whose assault demanded an answer.

If Ligons is the “wrong” victim, then am I and hundreds of thousands of other Black sex workers the “RIGHT” victim? Historically speaking, in America, the answer is yes, and that terrifies me. It’s hard to puff out your chest and declare the Holtzclaw verdict proof of progress when he wouldn’t have been taken off the streets had Ligons not come forward. Ligons filed a civil suit against Oklahoma City prior to the criminal trial. She seeks damages based on the fact that Holtzclaw was already being investigated for sexual misconduct but was allowed to continue to patrol low income Black neighborhoods. At least one other woman, identified as TM, made a report to police previously that Holtzclaw assaulted her before Ligons was raped.

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