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Stop Calling Human Trafficking “Modern Day Slavery” – Version 0.2

Date: October 30, 2016

This document explains why the U.S. movements against human trafficking should stop calling it “modern day slavery” or otherwise invoking the image of slavery by using terms like “abolition.” Please note that this document is intended for people discussing human trafficking in the United States context, and may not necessarily apply to discussions outside of the United States.

1. In the U.S., the word “slavery” inevitably invokes the specific historical experiences of the enslavement of African peoples by the white settlers in the U.S., which continues to negatively impact African Americans economically, politically, socially, and culturally today. Using the term “slavery” appropriates the historical and ongoing struggles of African American communities against the specific historical event of the Slavery.

2. Human trafficking is a crime. Slavery in the U.S. was criminal, but perfectly legal and supported by the full force of legal, economic, and political institutions. Human trafficking today does not receive such official backing, and cannot be compared to the Slavery. For example, courts today do not enforce contracts for trading humans nor the police detain and send back escaped trafficking victims to their traffickers.

3. It is the modern prison system, not contemporary human trafficking, that is the historical successor of the U.S. Slavery. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” and this caveat became a loophole to re-institute Black enslavement in the post-Reconstruction South under the guise of criminal punishment, where the State passed racist laws to criminalize freed slaves, then loaned out “convicts” as laborers to former slave owners. Modern prison system continues to criminalize and incarcerate African Americans at an extremely disproportionate rate while profiting corporations that build and manage prisons and employ prison labor at rates far below the legal minimum wage.

4. Like earlier “wars” on crimes, drugs, and terrorism, the government’s “war on trafficking” center primarily on surveilling, policing, and prosecuting African American and other communities of color, immigrants, street youth, and other communities that are already heavily criminalized. This includes targeting young people of color as “gangs” engaging in sex trafficking, profiling immigrants as both traffickers and trafficking victims at the border and beyond, and treating queer and trans youth supporting each other engage in survival sex as “trafficking” each other. The simplistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” distracts us from complex systems of power and oppressions that make our communities vulnerable to exploitation, and allows the government to intensify policing and criminalization on marginalized communities, thereby imprisoning and enslaving more descendants of freed slaves in order to rescue “modern day slaves,” rather than addressing social, economic, and political roots of these vulnerabilities.

Version 0.2 – Please send comments or suggestions to emi at eminism dot org.

Seattle PD drowning #BlackLivesMatter rally with Christmas tunes

Date: November 28, 2015

Yesterday I attended the whitest #BlackLivesMatter rally that I’ve ever seen in downtown Seattle. I have things to say about the whiteness of the Seattle BLM crowd or the seemingly opportunistic white socialist/communist/anarchist/lefty/etc. groups promoting themselves at BLM rallies, but that’s not the topic for this post.

BLM Seattle Banner

As I arrived at the Westlake Park where the rally was held, I immediately realized that I could not hear anything speakers were saying because of the loud Christmas songs blasted through the sound system in the park. But this being the Black Friday for the rest of the community, I thought the music was something that just came with it in a busy shopping area like the Westlake Center area. But it wasn’t.

The sound was blasting from the “Pine Street Holiday Stage” set up in the park, but the stage was not in use at the time.

BLM Seattle Stage

And the music was not endless looping track: there was a hired DJ in the audio booth set up for this stage, along with at least a dozen police officers inside the fence protecting the booth. The man in the top right of the next photo is the DJ. I looked at his computer screen and verified that the music was coming from the computer.

BLM Seattle DJ

Of course there were cops everywhere—several dozens of them, including some on the second floor balcony looking over the park. Curiously, they were almost all on one side of the park facing Macy’s and Nordstrom.

BLM Seattle Cops

After a while, the march began, leaving the park almost empty. At that moment, the music also stopped. And it started blasting again from the sound system about fifteen minutes later when the march that went around a few blocks came back to the park.

BLM Seattle March

BLM Seattle Return

I understand that police officers were “just doing their job” surveilling the rally and protecting fancy department stores. But intentionally drowning the rally by blasting Christmas songs near the rally (perhaps the DJ was hired by the business association or something, but he was clearly collaborating with the police) seems more than a little pathetic and mean-spirited.

Dear the white BLM participant holding a sign demanding more “trainings” for police officers, do you really think that’s the solution?

(Also posted on Tumblr)

A note about trans exclusion at New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic in 2009

Date: March 30, 2015

Back in June 2009, I saw a post on now-defunct Questioning Transphobia blog that called attention the website of New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic, which read, in part, “We are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals.” The poster, a white trans woman who had recently relocated to New Orleans and was looking for health resources, was outraged to read the outright discrimination against trans women. When the post went up, many people were also outraged, and it ignited a firestorm of criticisms against NOWHC’s transphobia.

I agreed that NOWHC’s statement was deeply problematic and offensive, but I was also concerned how an army of mostly white trans women and allies initiated a campaign of full-on attacks on NOWHC, a small reproductive health clinic (which was at the time on hiatus due to lack of resources) established by (mostly) Black women affiliated with Incite! Women of Color (now “Women and Trans People of Color”) Against Violence after Hurricane Katrina left many women completely devastated and without needed services such as this. Yes, NOWHC’s exclusion of trans women must be addressed and corrected, but I felt that there was a better way to achieve that.

So I told folks on the blog that I was contacting someone I knew from Incite! New Orleans to get it addressed, and asked them to give me a little time to do so. For this, I was viciously attacked for a prolonged period of time for supposedly attempting to “silence” trans women’s righteous anger over the statement, but I was simply asking white trans women to take a step back and let me, a trans-ish woman of color with existing ties to Incite!, work things out with the women I knew from Incite! New Orleans.

After several email and phone conversations, NOWHC publicly apologized to trans women and had a statement posted on Questioning Transphobia blog. The original poster also apologized to NOWHC for rushing to publish the article attacking the clinic only an hour after sending them an email questioning the statement instead of waiting for their response.

Questioning Transphobia blog has since disappeared, as did many other blogs and websites that discussed the incident, so it has become difficult to learn what happened and how it got resolved. An unfortunate result of this is that it left a vague memory that Incite! has done something transphobic in the past, with no knowledge or awareness of a resolution, which continues to give the impression that Incite! might still be a trans women exclusionary institution.

I cannot find any web archive of NOWHC’s statement or Questioning Transphobia blog, but I was able to find email exchanges from 2009 that included the statement. With the permission of the Incite!, I am publishing an excerpt from the statement below.

We agree that the questions and concerns you raise are very important. The priorities we hold in providing safe, accessible, and unbiased care to women regardless of their race, income, sexuality, gender identity, body type, citizenship status, work sector, legal history, ability, age, language, and family size and status are often regarded as a “risk” and “liability” by many medical professionals. This reality has delayed our efforts to hire a new Medical Director and created many barriers for many members of our community, including you, in seeking safe, quality, and respectful services.

In making the statements “we are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals,” we were referencing the lack of experience and training that our former medical staff had in providing trans affirmative care to all women regardless of their body types, and gender identities and expressions. We recognize that the current language on our website marginalizes trans women in particular, even though it says elsewhere that we provide services to “all women.” Although “services” provided at the Clinic are not restricted to our medical programs, we recognize that the way it is written implies that we offer no services at all to trans women, which is marginalizing and confusing. It would be more accurate to say that our goal is to provide medical services to all women, though we are having a difficult time reaching it. We take responsibility for this inaccurate representation, and for the ways in which the language is disrespectful, and we sincerely apologize.

Collectively and organizationally, we are committed to creating institutions and environments that challenge gender-policing and trans and homophobia by dismantling racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, classist, and xenophobic ideologies of exclusion, discrimination, hatred, and violence, which creates barriers for many members of our community, particularly those persons who are women of color, poor, LGBTQ, immigrant, differently-abled, homeless, heads of households, disabled, sex workers, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, young, and living in racially and economically segregated communities. Our website doesn’t reflect this politic effectively and we are currently in the process of modifying it.

Besides language, we share the concern about the core issue of offering safe, quality, and respectful services to all women. Since our founding, we have struggled to hire medical staff who don’t pathologize, demonize, and criminalize the bodies of undocumented women, women with disabilities, l/b/t/q/i women, women of color, low-income women, homeless women, and women working in the sex industry because of our sexuality, reproductive decisions, and gender expressions. Currently, we are evaluating if we can realistically find medical staff that meet this expectation, particularly given the current conditions of the city.

In the future, I think it would help to post such statements to Incite!’s own website/blog in addition to where the firestorm originated from so that memories of the organization’s mistakes and growth can survive the forgetfulness (except in the NSA database) of the internet.

One more thing: let’s name historical revisionism of the plantation tourism.

Date: January 1, 2014

Some people do not seem to understand why holding a retreat at the “captivating” (Ani’s or her publicist’s word) Nottoway Plantation Resort is not just offensive, but particularly wrong and unjust. I explained the reasons in a previous post, but I want to expand on that further.

From my perspective, there are two main reasons that holding the retreat there is particularly wrong and unjust, beyond the problem of our own inherent and inevitable culpability in social and economic systems that are oppressive.

First, Nottoway Plantation is a symbolic site of the violence and cruelty of slavery in the United States, as it was the site of one of the largest plantations in the country.

But more importantly, it is a white supremacist institution that continues to actively distort the historical suffering of Black people who are enslaved (whom it refers to as “willing workforce”) and glamorizes, romanticizes, and glorifies American slavery and its defender, the white ruling class and the Confederates.

Some critics have compared Ani’s decision to hold the retreat at the plantation to holding a similar event at Auschwitz. But that comparison is inadequate: it needs be compared to planning the event at a facility at Auschwitz that is actively being used by neo-Nazis to promote historical revisionism and antisemitism. (Of course, that cannot actually happen in Auschwitz, because the plantation’s historical revisionism would be illegal if it were in Germany or in much of Europe.)

By planning the event at the venue (I understand that Ani did not pick the venue herself, but she did not do anything except thinking “whoa”), Ani participated in the relentless campaign of historical revisionism when she (or someone who works for her) described the plantation as a “captivating” resort, while failing to acknowledge the venue’s history as well as its current role in promoting white supremacy and historical revisionism.

Before the whole controversy, I was not aware that plantations were being used as tourist attractions. But it turned out, there are many former plantation sites that are now considered “historic” tourist destinations. But unlike other places around the world that are preserved for “dark tourism” such as Hiroshima, Auschewitz, and Chernobyl, the attraction of plantations as a tourist destination is not to learn about historical atrocities or tragedies, or to memorialize their victims: it is to promote historical revisionism through white supremacist nostalgia and erase the suffering and resistance that occurred there, whether explicitly or implicitly.

I assume that Ani had not, in her white obliviousness, realized the significance of Nottoway Plantation beyond the fact that it was once a plantation, or its current, active, and intentional role in promoting historical revisionism and white supremacy. If she had, I believe that she would have not allowed the retreat to be scheduled there.

But because she did not realize this, in her white obliviousness, she in effect endorsed and legitimized Nottoway Plantation’s effort to promote historical revisionism. For that, she needs to directly acknowledge that she has made a mistake (and not just that “I understand some people think I made a mistake and I know where they are coming from”). Only by publicly acknowledging the mistake, she can begin to undo the damage she inflicted, however unintentionally.

(Reblogged from my Tumblr page)

It’s not an apology. Not even a “bad” apology.

Date: January 1, 2014

In “A list of problems with Ani DiFranco’s statement on slave plentation retreat,” I explained what was wrong with the statement Ani released in which she announced the cancellation of her expensive four-day hangout at the plantation.

But everywhere else, I find that people are describing the statement as an “apology,” or perhaps “fauxpology” or “non apology” when they find the statement less than satisfactory, but I don’t really understand why anyone can possibly confuse the statement as an “apology” of any sort—even a “bad” apology.

Reading the statement, it is obvious that Ani does not understand why people are criticizing her retreat. Most of her statement is all about how she was not wrong, citing circumstances, intentions, and how we are all culpable in oppressions anyway.

The only place she admits that she may have been wrong is where she says that, maybe, as a white person, it is not her place to know what’s right or wrong when it comes to racism. But she does not even consistently commit to that stance, as she repeatedly states that white people can and should speak on the issue too.

At most, she concedes that, if someone thinks that she was wrong, she understands where they are coming from. Except, of course, she does not seem to really understand where they are coming from. She appears to understand only what other people think are wrong, but not why.

And while she understands that her action “triggered” “the pain of slavery” (that is, the pain is caused by slavery, and not by her actions), she condemns those she harmed for how they “have chosen to do with that pain.” In other words, she is giving permission for African Americans and other people to color to feel pain, but does not approve them criticizing her for causing it.

In short, Ani’s statement can be summarized as: I don’t think I was wrong, and here’s why I wasn’t. But because I’m white, you might think that I don’t get to decide what’s right or wrong about racism, and I understand that. Your pain is real but don’t criticize me because that’s “hatred.”

So… where’s the apology?

(Reblogged from my Tumblr page)

(Added 01/02/2013) Ani actually apologizes to her fans.

A list of problems with Ani DiFranco’s statement on slave plantation retreat

Date: December 29, 2013

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco announced, and then canceled, an expensive four-day retreat for songwriters and performers at Nottoway Plantation and Resort after the internet erupted in outrage at her choice of the venue. Nottoway is not just the site of one of the largest slave plantations in the area, but is also preserved as an exclusive resort actively distorting and even glorifying brutal history of slavery in the United States.

I came into queer identity in a predominantly white rural lesbian (and bisexual women’s) community in the mid-90s, so Ani’s voice was a life support. I listened to her politically savvy and lyrically masterful music non-stop, traveled long distance to see her perform, and bought her merch from her mom who was working at her label, Righteous Babe Records. I collected and traded bootleg tapes of her shows with other fans (before Napster made it possible to share MP3 files online), and asked a friend who was a DJ at campus radio station to obtain her promo singles that were not commercially released. When I was in her home town of Buffalo back in 2006, I snuck into (with the permission of the friendly construction workers there) the historic building (which later became Babeville) that was undergoing restoration and renovation after Ani purchased it in order to save the gorgeous building from demolition.

So it was painful to me to witness how Ani somehow failed to recognize the offensiveness of holding the retreat at Nottoway Plantation, or to anticipate how people would react to the announcement, but I held on to the hope that, once confronted, she would immediately understand and acknowledge her mistake. Unfortunately, the statement she released in response to the criticism fell short of what I expected from someone who was so important to me at one point in my life.

Below is a list of problems (which is not to say that it is exhaustive) I find with the statement (all emphases are mine). Please also read “Things about Ani’s fauxpology I’m not okay with” by Jaya and “How Ani Should Have Apologized” by Mel Hartsell.

1. The statement treats criticisms as “pain of slavery” and “bitterness” misdirected at her, rather than acknowledging that her endorsement of a resort facility that glorifies chattel slavery was the problem. By doing so, Ani portrays herself as the victim of “hatred” directed at her.

i did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.

i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.

i obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain.

but should hatred be spit at me over that mistake?

2. The statement fails to concretely acknowledge that the choice of venue was inappropriate and offensive. By using words like “if” and “maybe” and leaving the judgment to the community, Ani avoids taking responsibility for her mistake.

i have heard the feedback that it is not my place to go to former plantations and initiate such a dialogue.

again, maybe we should indeed have drawn a line in this case and said nottoway plantation is not a good place to go; maybe we should have vetted the place more thoroughly.

if nottoway is simply not an acceptable place for me to go and try to do my work in the eyes of many, then let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled.

She says that she is canceling the retreat, not because she realized that it was a mistake to plan it at the venue, but other people are being mean to her.

3. Ani claims that she had “imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were,” but it is extremely difficult to believe this, given her initial “invitation” to the retreat stated “We will be shacked up at the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle, LA, for 3 days and 4 nights exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company. […] In the evenings we will perform for each other and enjoy great food in a captivating setting.” Really, how am I supposed to believe that the event was meant to be anti-racist? Ani wrote:

i imagined instead that the setting would become a participant in the event. this was doubtless to be a gathering of progressive and engaged people, so i imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were. […] my intention of going ahead with the conference at the nottoway plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but it’s opposite. i know that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history.

If this was her true intention, she should have been transparent about it in the original “invitation,” and also considered how the venue would be experienced entirely differently by participants who are white, Black, indigenous, or other people of color. I personally cannot imagine that a white person working solo is capable of arranging such an event, but that’s beside the point here. I am not really convinced that Ani had in fact intended to use the venue as a place to “heal the wounds of history,” but if she really did, she did the worst job imaginable of how one could go about doing that–and the issue is not (just) that she is a white person overstepping her boundary. She is claiming to “heal” wounds of historical violence with more violence.

4. The statement invokes superficially anti-oppression rhetoric to diminish the particularities of criticisms against holding the retreat at Nottoway Plantation.

for myself, i believe that one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say “racism reached it’s depths of wrongness here” and then point to the other side of that line and say “but not here”. […] i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth. […] it is a very imperfect world we live in and i, like everyone else, am just trying to do my best to negotiate it.

let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites. let us not oversimplify to black and white a society that contains many many shades of grey.

Ani is of course correct to point out that every inch of this land (the United States) is a site of genocidal violence. But Nottoway is not just any site of any sort of violence; as one of the largest plantations in the United States, it is specifically a site that symbolizes the violence of slavery. And in addition to being a place with the symbolic significance, it is an institution whose owner continues to profit off of romanticizing and glamorizing the enslavement of Black people.

5. The statement objectifies youth of color as shield and source of inspiration.

i also planned to take the whole group on a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans. Roots of Music is located at the Cabildo, a building in the French Quarter which was the seat of the former slaveholder government where all the laws of the slave state were first written and enacted. i believe that the existence of Roots of Music in this building is transcendent and it would have been a very inspiring place to visit. i also believe that Roots could have gained a few new supporters. in short, i think many positive and life-affirming connections would have been made at this conference, in its all of its complexity of design.

The existence of Roots of Music is transcendent, but transcendence does not rub off on folks paying $1000-4000 each to hang out with Ani and her friends. Youth of color (who I imagine to be mostly Black youth) do not exist to inspire (who I imagine to be) rich white folks, and that the organization might gain “a few new supporters” does not exonerate the poverty tourism. Worse, it appears that Ani is comparing her retreat being held at an actively white supremacist institution to the resilience of Black people building and strengthening their own communities after centuries of violence and oppression.

6. Empty call for unity and “dialogue” that is actually meant to close down the dialogue. Ani ends the statement with the following:

i ask only that as we attempt to continue to confront our country’s history together, […] let us not forget to be compassionate towards each other as we attempt to move forward and write the next pages in our history. our story is not over and, Citizens of the Internet, it is now ours to write.

She implies that critics have been less than compassionate toward her (“should hatred be spit at me”?), but many of us are critical because we are compassionate (“we have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say” as Ani used to sing). Further, this paragraph tells me that she still does not understand the gravity of the offense if she thinks she is in a position to demand “compassion” from those she directly harmed by her lack of compassion in the first place.

Nowhere in the statement does she acknowledge how she put Toshi Reagon, a Black female musician who agreed to be an instructor for the retreat before the venue was announced, in an extremely awkward and uncomfortable position, booking her to sing at the site where servants were required to sing in order to prove that they were not stealing food from their master, forcing her to be the first person to publicly explain herself even though she was not responsible for the controversy and her options were limited once the outrage ensued.

(Edited to add:)

I came across additional writings on the topic after posting this. Here are links to some of them:

Also, read my follow up:

Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade–my presentation at TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair

Date: November 20, 2012

Below is my presentation at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event, TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair held at Portland Q Center. This is basically a shorter version of my keynote talk at Portland State University’s TDOR event last year, so there’s not much new materials in it, but I thought some people might prefer the shorter version. The presentation was sponsored by Portland Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Gangs and sex trafficking: How the movement against “modern day slavery” targets descendants of slavery as its primary perpetrators

Date: July 16, 2012

Popular discourse surrounding human trafficking in the U.S. have gone through several transformations since the dawn of this century. For example in 2000, with the passage of Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the United States. and the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations (as a supplement to its Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), “human trafficking” began to be understood primarily as a transnational criminal enterprise comparable to illegal trafficking of weapons and drugs. This perspective is a distinct departure from the more traditional approach which dealt with human trafficking in relation to poverty, migration, labor, and development.

The next transformation took place around 2008-2009, when American media and politicians began focusing (sometimes exclusively) on domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) or commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC–although I believe it should be called CSEY with the word “youth”), instead of the more traditional emphasis on foreign victims who are trafficked transnationally. The frequency of media coverage of DMST/CSEY exploded, as did the number of “anti-trafficking” groups (which mostly focus on DMST/CSEY) in the U.S., and the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slaves” became commonplace.

There is yet another rhetorical and substantiative transformation of the U.S. anti-trafficking discourse taking place today, even though few people outside of the law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups that partner with them are taking notice. The shift I am pointing out is the recent move by the U.S. government agencies to re-classify DMST/CSEY as a primarily “gang” issue and take actions accordingly.

This is a trend I’ve been sensing for a while, but it was not until I heard directly from a staffer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Oregon that it had moved the issue of DMST/CSEY to the purview of its “gang unit” (as opposed to the civil rights division, which handles transnational labor trafficking) that I began to realize that there is something to the vague suspicion I had been feeling. Further research has confirmed that there is a deliberate shift in rhetoric and strategy U.S. government agencies and its allied anti-trafficking groups employ in their campaigns against DMST/CSEY.

Media reports about DMST/CSEY involving street gangs precede official government declarations by two to three years. They first began appearing in the U.S. context in 2008, when teenage gang members were arrested for “sexual assault, engaging in organized criminal activity, prostitution, and kidnapping and trafficking of a person” in Fort Worth (Dallas Morning News, 01/16/2008). There were several other reports in Missouri, Washington State, Minnesota, and elsewhere in the next couple of years as well (New York Times, 07/23/2008; Seattle Times, 03/26/2009; Star Tribune, 09/23/2010; and others). A report by the San Diego Anti-Trafficking Task Force claimed that “street gangs are partly to blame for an increase in teenage prostitution,” describing it as the “second largest source of income for San Diego gangs” after drug dealing (KPBS, 11/09/2010).

(Note that this discussion is limited to media reports in the United States. News stories linking “gangs” to sex trafficking have been common in Europe since at least mid-2000s, but the “gangs” they are referring to are very different from what U.S. media are calling “gangs.” In the European context, “gangs” are frequently members of Russian mafia and other “grown up” criminal organizations with clandestine ties to members of the political and business establishment class, unlike U.S. street gangs that are made up primarily of young men of color.)

Former Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry was one of the first political leaders to call attention to the link between gangs and DMST/CSEY. According to Houston Chronicle (08/20/2010), Perry proposed “stiffer penalties” for human trafficking–25 years to life–on the premise that penalties were “directed at gang members who run the prostitution rings.”

The shift in the law enforcement’s approach to DMST/CSEY is evident in the changes from the FBI’s 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment to its 2011 revision.

In the 2009 edition of the report, there is not even a single mention of sex trafficking or DMST/CSEY except for statements that report the fact that some gangs operate “prostitution rings” or (voluntary) smuggling of “illegal aliens.” On the other hand, the 2011 edition contains a specific section about “Gangs and Alien Smuggling, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution” which describes human trafficking and forced prostitution as major sources of revenue for gangs:

Human trafficking is another source of revenue for some gangs. Victims–typically women and children–are often forced, coerced, or led with fraudulent pretense into prostitution and forced labor. […] Prostitution is also a major source of income for many gangs. Gang members often operate as pimps, luring or forcing at-risk, young females into prostitution and controlling them through violence and psychological abuse.

Three weeks after the release of the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a story titled, aptly, “Gangs enter new territory with sex trafficking” (11/14/2011), which seemed to have served as a template for many other news reports about the “new” development. NPR reported:

[A] new FBI threat assessment says MS-13 and other street gangs have been moving into some different territory: human trafficking. The bureau says gang members are leading women and children into forced prostitution. […] “You have a gang that’s taking advantage of people that are in a desperate situation, usually runaways or someone that’s looking for help from the gang,” [Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator John] Torres says.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed the message in his April 2012 speech about human trafficking at Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas:

As incomprehensible as it seems, trafficking in girls is an increasingly prevalent part of gang activity. These crimes are seen as “low risk and high reward.” […] Today, these transactions can be executed quickly, conveniently, and anonymously over the Internet–and many of them involve young children. […] Because we know these heinous crimes can arise in any criminal context–and because it is not uncommon for traffickers to be involved in a variety of other criminal enterprises, […] we are taking steps to ensure that investigators and prosecutors who work on organized crime, gang, and financial crime cases are fully trained to identify human crimes–and human trafficking victims.

Contrast this to Holder’s earlier public statements, such as the November 2009 written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee or the May 2010 speech at the National Conference on Human Trafficking, both of which strongly condemn sex trafficking and emphasizes how the Department of Justice is vigorously fighting it, but do not make any link between sex trafficking and street gangs.

Anti-trafficking groups and activists have picked up on the trend as well. For example, anti-prostitution scholar and activist Laura Lederer published an article titled “Sold for Sex: The Link Between Street Gangs and Human Trafficking” on the exact same day the FBI released its revised National Gang Threat Assessment. Lederer wrote:

The facts from hundreds of criminal cases show a clear link between dangerous street gangs and the scourge of human trafficking. […] With state and national crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs have turned to sex trafficking for financial gain.

She further argues that strict enforcement of anti-trafficking laws could be “another prosecution weapon against the dangerous street gangs that endanger our communities and our nation. […] The vigorous prosecution of human trafficking can help bring down street gangs that also engage in murder, robbery, and drug trafficking.”

Anti-trafficking groups have frequently argued that there are two main types of pimps: “boyfriend/finesse pimps” and “gorilla pimps”: The former refers to pimps who use romantic gesture and psychological manipulation to control their victims, while the latter describes those who use physical violence and intimidation to force the victim to engage in prostitution. Below is an example of this classification, taken from a 2011 presentation by Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization.

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp

Below, you will see a newer version of the same classification system, taken from a May 2012 presentation by YouthCare, a Seattle-based homeless youth advocacy organization (which, like Portland’s Janus Youth, seems to have bought into the police-centered approach to DMST/CSEY). Instead of two, the slide depicts three distinct categories of pimps: “boyfriend pimp,” “gorilla pimp,” and the all-new “gang pimp.”

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp vs. Gang Pimp

What is ignored in all of these discussions of the (racially coded) evils of “gangs” is that many young men of color (and others) become gang members and engage in its criminal activities for many of the same reasons many young women of color (and others) are lured into the sex trade: poverty, failure of social and child welfare systems and public education, lack of viable economic opportunities, psychological and historic trauma. After all, what is the moral difference between a young woman who is told to go out and sell sex, and a young man who is told to go out and sell drugs? And yet, the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse would have us believe that the young woman is an innocent victim but the young man is an evil criminal.

Anti-trafficking discourse has always carried racist and xenophobic overtones, but the recent shift in the rhetorics and strategies of U.S. government agencies is escalating it to the level indistinguishable form the racist, classist War on Drugs and its vilification of youth of color, immigrants, street youth, among others. That we have a movement that claims to be outraged by the horrors of “modern day slavery” which then targets the descendants of those who have survived slavery and colonization as its primary perpetrators while remaining completely oblivious to the legacies and consequences of these historical trauma is nothing short of perversity, a moral and logical failure.

If we are to believe, which I do not necessarily object to by the way, that gangs play some role in DMST/CSEY, our approach to solving the problem cannot and should not rest on the “vigorous prosecution” alone. We need strategies to offer more attractive alternatives to gang life that are compatible with human rights and dignity for all involved, those that empower marginalized communities to take care of their constituents and deal with problems they have in their own initiative and leadership.

Ms. Magazine Blog quotes a line from my (really old and not so good) poem, and I panicked.

Date: September 27, 2011

A friend told me that a poem (not particularly a good one) I wrote almost a decade ago is being cited and linked from a new article posted in Ms. Magazine Blog. The article is in response to a statement issued by radical Black women criticising SlutWalk, and quotes a line from my very old poem that says “everyone is safe when sluts are safe.”

The author of the article, Janell Hobson, is also a Black woman, and I have nothing against her. But people began accessing my piece in droves, sharing it via Twitter, and I started feeling worried about getting drawn into this controversy. So I quickly wrote up what I felt about the topic, and replaced the poem with it. Below is the little write-up that is now on the URL that hosted the poem. It’s not a complete analysis and position paper on SlutWalk, but it’s not intended as such.

update 09/27/2011 – Hey people, I noticed that some people are linking to this piece in the context of recent discussions about SlutWalk. Please know that I wrote this piece almost a decade ago, under a different period. I’ve been recently approached by a couple of editors about reprinting this piece in a book or magazine, but I turned them down because I feel that the cultural climate has shifted in the post-SlutWalk era and I do not want this piece to be used out of context by people discussing the merits and demerits of SlutWalk.

As a participant in Portland’s SlutWalk this past summer, and the producer for a couple of events in early 2000s with the name “Sluts Against Rape,” I do believe in the validity of the strategy that seeks to disarm words and concepts like “slut” that are used to divide women/queers and harm us all. I further feel that some of the white radical feminist critics of SlutWalk have too often relied on mainstream media depiction of SlutWalk for their understanding of the movement, which is ironic because they, too, would be upset if we bought into the media stereotypes about the humourless, anti-sex “70s feminists.”

But when a group of women of colour I highly respect and work with stand up and make public statements criticising SlutWalk and its approaches, first and foremost I stand in solidarity even as I feel ambivalent about some points. If SlutWalk is to continue, the movement has to radically transform itself to incorporate concerns voiced by the radical Black women and other women of colour. I am not entirely in agreement with everything the statement says, but I firmly believe that they need to be taken seriously by anyone organising SlutWalk events.

I am therefore asking everyone to stop pitting my words against theirs to orchestrate an artificial conflict between me and other women of colour. There are genuine disagreements among women of colour, but they should be addressed directly between and among women of colour.

The short piece that used to be on this URL has been removed. You should still be able to find it if you really wanted to, but for now I want to place a barrier. I will probably restore it once the storm is over.

Text of the flier holding journalist Mika Tsutsumi accountable for her endorsement of the racist/xenophobic agenda in Japan

Date: April 14, 2011

Note: Following is the text of a flier I made in preparations for Japanese journalist Mika Tsutsumi’s scheduled talk at Portland State University on April 14, 2011. I found out on the day of the talk that it had been canceled, so the fliers were never handed out.

For those of you who don’t know: Ms. Tsutsumi is the author of “United States: Poverty Superpower” and other books that expose social and economic problems within the U.S. for the Japanese audience, and is considered very liberal/progressive. However, in this particular case she aligned herself with the racist/xenophobic nationalist camp that target immigrants and migrant workers.

*****

Until 2008, Japanese law did not grant birthright citizenship to children born to a Japanese father and a non-Japanese mother unless they are legally married.

This “loophole” mostly affected children of temporary migrant Filippina women who work as “hostesses” serving alcohol to Japanese men at clubs. The legal situation was convenient for Japanese men who seek extramarital affairs with these women without taking any responsibility for the consequences: both the women and their children disappear from Japanese men’s lives as they are forced to go back to the Philippines or wherever the women came from. Children are sent back to an unfamiliar country with unfamiliar culture and language without any financial or other support from their Japanese father.

In 2008, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled this part of the citizenship law unconstitutional, and demanded that the legislature fix the problem. All major parties endorsed the change to the citizenship law, while a small but vocal group of right-wing nationalists (mostly organizing in the social media) argued that granting citizenship to children born to foreign mothers would result in massive citizenship fraud and the foreign (often claimed as “Chinese”) “takeover” of Japan.

Journalist Mika Tsutsumi, along with her husband and member of the Parliament Ryuhei Kawada, joined with the right-wing nationalists to lead the opposition to amending the unconstitutional citizenship law. Tsutsumi warned of the “dangers” of historic proportion eroding Japan’s sovereignty if the law were to be changed, while Kawada specifically insisted that the immigration law’s impact on Japanese unemployment must be addressed before proceeding with protecting the rights of the children whose citizenship rights are unconstitutionally denied.

By the end of 2008, the change to the citizenship law passed both houses of Parliament by overwhelming majority (with Kawada and a few right-wing politicians opposing it). Contrary to the racist/xenophobic arguments in opposition to the change, there have been no report of massive citizenship fraud, or foreign “invasion” of Japanese homeland in the three years since the change.

Ask Ms. Tsutsumi to investigate and report how her own claims regarding the citizenship law hold up with the reality. And if they don’t–which, they don’t–demand that she make a public statement regarding her endorsement of the racist/xenophobic nationalist agenda in Japan. That is her responsibility as a journalist.

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