Some Mother’s Daughter: Fighting the criminalization of sex workers

Some Mother’s Daugher: Fighting the criminalization of sex workers

Event in SF discusses the connections between the “Grim Sleeper” serial murder case in LA and the lives of poor women, sex workers, and prisoners

Rachel West, Margaret Prescod, and Alex Berlinger

Imagine a woman goes missing and no one looks for her. There’s no inquiry, no need for forensics, and no further investigation required. In fact, the police officers involved in investigating the issue refer to the incident as “No Humans Involved (NHI).”

Then imagine there’s another one of them, and another and another. Until it’s 25 years later and there’s 200 of them, yet the outrage is all-but absent.

Rachel West, Margaret Prescod, and Alex Berlinger remind us there are no bad women, just bad laws
Rachel West, Margaret Prescod, and Alex Berlinger

For the Los Angeles Police Department, this is what the life of over 200 black women is worth; utter and complete silence.

Look away because there are no humans involved, is what the Los Angeles Police Department wants you to believe; the NHI is a slang expression used among police officers to describe “disposable people,” used mainly in relation to murders of black prostitutes, drug addicts, or gang members.

The stories of these women were shared in “Some Mother’s Daughter – No to Poverty, Violence and Criminalization” at an event hosted by Rachel West of US Prostitutes Collective (USPros). Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, based in Los Angeles, asked that we remember the 200 missing women in Los Angeles, as many of 100 or more believed to be victims of a serial killer. This important because the issues isn’t limited to Los Angeles, it’s about race, privilege, and the dehumanization of sex workers.

Before speaking, Prescod played some footage from the forthcoming HBO feature documentary ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper,’ a powerful film documenting the case of a serial killer terrorizing South Central Los Angeles for 25 years. One after another, survivors spoke of their fear, of feeling trapped, of being humiliated and of being dehumanized. “I’m somebody” one of them repeated over and over again as she broke down.

“For the sex workers, it doesn’t mean their lives should be devalued or the police refer to them as NHI — how dare they?” Prescod said. “We all know that serial murders often start with prostitute women. We know that there is a connection between illegality and vulnerability because they (the murderers) assume that this is a population of people that no one gives a damn about.” She said.

Prescod criticized how society have treated these women. “What we do know is that the women being murdered are women that are impoverished. Some of them are sex workers, but not all of them. We say don’t stereotype all of the victims as the prosecution did. When this case opened up last week, [prosecutor Beth Silverman] painted South Los Angeles as drug-ridden, people dying, overdosing all over the case. She went further. She said the victims were ready to sell their bodies and their souls for a hit. What the hell does she know about the souls of these women?”

Claire Alwyne, a sex worker, activist and Board member of the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESLERP) discussed laws that stigmatize sex workers. ESLERP isbehind the court case calling for the removal of California Penal Code 647(b), which criminalizes soliciting or engaging in prostitution. This law is used for most prostitution-related arrests in California. Alwyne said “Whether the case wins or not, there are a number of laws on the books in California that discriminate and stigmatize sex workers, for example there’s a whole series of laws around ‘moral turpitude’; if you want to exit sex work, you will find that you can’t become a teacher or a lawyer because of these rules. If the court case is successful, we will also need a law to vacate existing prosecutions, which needs to be retrospective and that should be really easy,” Alwyne said.

Alex Berliner is an organizer for All of Us Or None who advocates for the rights of formerly incarcerated people. “All of Us Or None does not believe in prisons as a solution to any of the problems in our world,” she said. The group recently won a campaign to move thousands of prisoners out of solitary confinement, the Secure Housing Units (SHUs) in Prisons. “It was a big victory throughout California, especially Pelican Bay. We just got them to close down a bunch of SHUs. A lot of prisoners are being released from solitary confinement to general population and soon home, hopefully.” In explaining why it’s important to collaborate with other groups who represent oppressed people, Berliner said “all of our oppression is the same, it just comes in different colors. We have to come together.”

All of Us Are None also started the ‘ban the box’ campaign in 2004, aimed at persuading employers to remove from their hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record. This successful campaign has now been implemented in 20 states and has even reached President Obama, who issued an executive memo to White House staff to remove the box for White House employment applications. All of Us Or None is “working hard to push for an executive order to ban the box on federal contracts, because the federal government is one of the largest employers in the country,” according to Berliner.

Decriminalization of sex work will help remove the stigma around these women, who are often neglected and even face violence from law enforcement. The issue of human trafficking is a crucial one too, but Prescot thinks that the laws being considered are less about dealing with trafficking and more about a crackdown on sex work.

“And if they do want to deal with trafficking, they have to look at trafficking of children, with these so called child-protective services who are snatching children from mothers because the mothers are prostitutes or because they are poor, putting them up for adoption with strangers and a lot of these children getting sexually abused.

“So if you are interested in trafficking, you better wrap your mind around that, instead of going after women and making women more vulnerable to violence.”

Prescod’s emotional appeal, along with the unshakeable and horrifying stories of survivors of the Grim Sleeper, speaks volumes about the plight of the most marginalized members of our community that have been referred to as “disposable persons” for far too long now.

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