US PROS report from Desiree Alliance Conference 2016

Rachel West from the sex worker’s organization US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS) and Alex Berliner from All of US or None (AOUON), an organization of formerly incarcerated people, recently participated in the Desiree Alliance Conference: The Sex Worker Rights Movement: Addressing Justice, July 10 – 15, in New Orleans.

The fact that race became part of the agenda at the conference was timely and much needed considering the context which included the deaths of two men at the hands of the police (including Alton Sterling in nearby Baton Rouge) and the greater visibility and strength of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The two women brought to the conference the struggles they have been involved in, namely opposing law enforcement-led diversion programs, winning compensation for sex workers who are victims of rape, the campaigns and concerns of women in prison and formerly incarcerated people and the struggle for justice for the victims of serial murders in South LA, some of whom were sex workers.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) which establishes diversion programs for “drug and prostitution offenses” was a major talking point. Cris Sardina, coordinator of Desiree kindly made space for US PROS to have a workshop on LEAD. Some participants understood immediately the danger of giving the police greater powers to decide if sex workers go to jail or not. The targeting of women of color, trans and immigrant sex workers  and the over representation of Black people in arrest figures — 42% of adults and over 50% of youth — were raised as evidence of institutionalized racism and sexism on the part of law enforcement.

A resolution demanding that sex worker clauses be removed from a California bill SB 1110 garnered support. Rachel West from US PROS, which with the support of most of the major sex worker organizations has led opposition to SB 1110, urged conference attendees to prevent LEAD becoming the national policy on prostitution. She commented: “We cannot allow sex workers to be institutionalized as victims in need of rehabilitation as opposed to workers with rights”. She countered claims that the California bill would create a no-arrest program and expressed concern that the $15 million plus funding would be used to entice non-profits to support the scheme and funnel money to rehabilitation projects run by organizations which work to undermine the growing international movement to decriminalize sex work.

In networking with sex workers at the conference, Ms Berliner and Ms West found many participants are formerly incarcerated people, particularly, but not only, Black and Trans women. They also more readily understood that LEAD is bad news for sex workers.  Ms Berliner, drawing on her own experience, reiterated the concern that LEAD would be used to racially target women of color. She brought information about the 1st National Conference – Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement, September 9th -10th in Oakland, California.

An impromptu showing of the heart-rending film “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” by film maker Nick Broomfield about the serial murders of Black women in Los Angeles, riveted those who attended the screening.  Few people at the conference had heard that over 200 Black women, many of whom were sex workers, had gone missing or been murdered in Los Angeles. US PROS is a long term and active supporter of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, which for decades has been protesting police inaction and organizing for justice and compensation for the victims.

Support for local sex workers was demonstrated by a lively, colorful and loud march through the French quarter where the City Council is attempting to close 2/3 of the city’s 23 strip clubs. The march also protested the criminalization and murder of sex workers and transgender people, connecting that struggle with the  #blacklivesmatter protests against police repression in Baton Rouge, LA and elsewhere. Sharmus Outlaw, who recently died, was remembered on the march.

Keynote speakers addressed the impact of criminalization particularly for Black and Brown communities, from the high rate of murder to the struggle against grinding poverty and homelessness.

The challenge coming out of the conference for the growing sex workers’ rights movement is how to come together, despite divisions, and especially given the racist enforcement of the prostitution laws, in order to tackle ongoing repression and criminalization. How can the superficial attraction and divisive power of LEAD programs be resisted. How can the  movement for decriminalization resist attempts to fracture, corrupt and weaken it so that people can capitalize on significant victories like the path-breaking Amnesty International report calling on governments to repeal the prostitution laws.

US PROS called for those interested in working on decriminalization of sex work to come together and further develop and broaden this movement. Please contact us at uspros@prostitutescollective.net.

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