Washington, D.C. passes bill to repeal discredited “Prostitution Free Zones”

On October 7, 2014, the District of Columbia Council voted on a bill to repeal the District’s “Prostitution Free Zones” law as well as the “Drug Free Zones” law that it was based on. After an initial unanimous vote, the Council revisited the topic at the request of Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) who claimed that the Prostitution Free Zones (PFZs) were an important tool to address concerns about sex work in neighborhoods she represents, despite testimony from police that the PFZs have not been used for over two years. “The Prostitution Free Zones have had a major impact on prostitution,” said Councilmember Alexander. The Metropolitan Police Department had stated at previous hearings that police were no longer using the law due to the concerns about its constitutionality as well as lack of evidence that the PFZs were effective in reducing street-based sex work in areas where the zones were declared. While acknowledging the constitutional concerns regarding the PFZs, Councilmember Alexander asked her colleagues to vote against repeal on the grounds that she felt there are reasons to implement the zones.

The D.C. Council passed the law authorizing police to declare PFZs in 2006 over objections from community members who said the zones would legitimize long-standing discriminatory police practices. Community-based research by the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. revealed the negative effects of D.C.’s approach to sex work, and a more recent review of police-community relations by the MPD-appointed Hate Crimes Response Task Force found high levels of distrust of police among transgender communities in the city, due to patterns of discrimination and abuse. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced the bill to repeal the PFZs in response to the Task Force report and accompanying recommendations by community groups.

Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) pointed out that the zones are not being used by the police, and that to say to constituents that the zones would help address prostitution would be a false statement. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) asked why Councilmember Wells wanted to repeal the law, “Why do you want to repeal this? We have a lot of laws that we don’t use, why do you want to remove this one?” Councilmember Wells pointed out how the PFZs discriminate against trans communities or people based on what they are wearing and being with two people or more. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Chairman of the Council, Phil Mendelson (D-Chairman), claimed that the PFZs were effective, but that the law must be repealed because of the constitutional concerns. “As much as some of us would like for them to come back,” said Chairman Mendelson, “because I think there was value in the police using it to disrupt prostitution markets, it cannot be used. It is unconstitutional.” But Councilmember Grosso noted that the constitutional concerns are not the only reason for repeal. “This is also about human rights in the District of Columbia,” said Grosso. “These zones were used not necessarily to address prostitution or sex work, but to discriminate against people walking down the street that we didn’t want walking down the street.”

After a period of debate which rehashed stigmatizing arguments regarding sex work, the Council voted 10-2 to repeal the Prostitution Free Zones law. All laws under consideration by the full Council must be voted on twice–a second vote on the bill will be taken on October 28th, but in light of the vote tally, it is likely to pass. Although a largely symbolic gesture, since the police have already acknowledged not using the zones for the past two years and no plans to use them in the future, the debate over the bill shows the importance of removing laws targeting sex workers, and those profiled as such, for increased criminalization. Best Practices Policy Project, which assisted the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. in its community-based research in 2007 and 2008, applauds this step forward for D.C. and encourages the D.C. Council to consider implementing other recommendations from that report.

U.S. POLICING REFORM MUST ADDRESS ABUSES AGAINST PEOPLE IN SEX TRADES

This week Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new initiative to address police misconduct and abuse. Days before this announcement, sex workers, people in the sex trades and advocates submitted a report to the United Nations (UN) on human rights violations committed in the U.S. against sex workers, people in the sex trades, and those profiled as such. The abuses documented in the report make clear that no effort to reform policing in the U.S. can be effective without addressing mistreatment by law enforcement of these highly marginalized communities.

In the report to the UN Human Rights Council, Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP), Desiree Alliance and Sex Worker Outreach Project-NYC (SWOP-NYC) documents extensive violations of the right to equal protection before the law, the right to be free of cruel and inhuman punishment, and the right to health. Across the country, anti-prostitution laws and policies, coupled with discriminatory practices, create an environment in which police profiling and mistreatment of communities of color, transgender people, young people and immigrants occurs with impunity. In many U.S. jurisdictions, arrestees face harsh sentencing laws and receive inadequate legal defense. Due process violations are also rampant. Laws that criminalize a person’s HIV status—found to be a cruel and unusual punishment by the UN—are applied to sex workers across the country, while health care and other social service providers routinely mistreat people who have traded sex for money. Policy and funding shifts have undermined the work of important harm reduction and human rights groups working with people involved in sex trade, including forcing some critical organizations to close.

Citing examples from Baltimore to Phoenix, from New Orleans to Chicago, the report draws on the most recent research and media reports on human rights abuses against people in sex trades as well as interviews with sex workers and advocates. The report’s list of recommendations starts by calling on the U.S. government to make good on a commitment it made in 2011 to the UN to address discrimination and violence against sex workers.

As the country grapples with abuses by law enforcement in the aftermath of the high profile events in Ferguson, Missouri, it would be a mistake to leave certain communities out of the discussion on policing and discrimination. The recommendations from the report give Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department plenty of ideas to work on as they move forward with addressing the problems with law enforcement in the U.S.

BPPP, Desiree Alliance and SWOP-NYC submitted the report to the UN as part of the Universal Review Period (UPR), a periodic process by which the UN Human Rights Council examines the human rights record for UN member states. Other countries will make their recommendations to the U.S. about ways to improve human rights during the UPR session in Geneva, Switzerland in April 2015.

Groups representing sex workers and people in sex trades have recently submitted reports to the UN regarding the U.S. obligations under international treaties such as the International Covenant to Eliminate Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UPR report was endorsed by Power Inside (Baltimore), BreakOUT! (New Orleans), Casa Ruby (D.C.), Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (Atlanta), Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA and chapters in Phoenix, Tucson, Seattle, and Tampa Bay, Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, Monica Jones/Stand with Monica Campaign (Phoenix), Red Umbrella Project (NYC), and St. James Infirmary (San Francisco).

We Want Our Voices Heard! Seeking information for the National UPR Report to the U.N.

SWOP-NYC & SWANK action to "86 the violence"

SWOP-NYC and SWANK public action in NYC in support of UPR Recommendation 86 in 2011

The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP), Desiree Alliance, and SWOP NYC are calling on sex workers rights advocates and allies to join us in reporting the human rights abuses experienced by sex workers, people in the sex trades, people profiled as sex workers or impacted by anti-sex work policing and policies, and related communities. The U.S. will soon be reviewed by the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council on its human rights record in a process referred to as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). We are submitting a report to the U.N. and the U.N. needs to hear from you. Through this process, we create awareness before the international community, media outlets, other government officials, U.N. Human Rights Council members, and other stakeholders on the pressing issues facing the community.  This is an important tool for pressuring the government to make changes.

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Sex workers voices at AIDS2014 (and absent)

This week a small but feisty contingent of sex worker rights activists from the United States travel to Melbourne, Australia for the International AIDS Conference (AIDS2014). They will be joining sex workers converging at the conference at the Sex Worker Networking Zone in the Global Village and numerous other events to ensure that sex workers voices are heard. Jules Kim, the manager of Scarlet Alliance’s Migration Project who has been central in coordinating actions in Australia, has described the zone as a, “vibrant hub for everything by and for sex workers at the conference… if you are coming to the conference look for the red umbrellas- the symbol of our fight against stigma and discrimination and towards sex worker rights.” A schedule of events is available online. Best Practices Policy Project and A Kiss for Gabriela will be covering events on Twitter.

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