Community activists, strippers, and service workers protested Thursday in New Orleans, in response to police raiding eight strip clubs in the city’s French Quarter over the past two weeks.
Police say the raids were meant to combat human trafficking, but haven’t made any arrests from the raids and police have not provided evidence of human trafficking to the public. On Monday, the Police Department and the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control said that there were acts of prostitution, “lewd acts” and drug use, according to the New Orleans Advocate. Four of the targeted clubs have reached settlements with state officials and will be able to serve alcohol again, according to the New Orleans Advocate. The clubs will pay fines between $5,000 and $7,500.
Members of the New Orleans community protested the raids on Thursday. Some of the protesters held signs that read, “Decriminalize sex work now” and “Stop fucking with our livelihoods.” Strippers shouted “Bourbon Street not Sesame Street” and “My body, my rights.”
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“The police officers violated us,” one of the women at the protest, Nya, told a freelance journalist, Anaite Sofia Samayoa, about why strippers were protesting on Bourbon Street. “They took pictures of three dancers without their clothes on. They watched us get dressed naked upstairs while didn’t have female officers present. There were no charges of underage strippers … We have found no cases of sex trafficking at any of our clubs but yet thousands of us have lost our jobs. And so we’re out here fighting it.”
“During the raids, strippers and waitstaff described their photographs being taken without consent in their work attire. Many described being ridiculed and degraded,” Lyn Archer, representative for The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, similarly said, according to the Advocate.
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Officers also made comments implying that all the strippers were drug users, a club waitress told the Advocate.
A stripper based in New York who also performs in New Orleans, who uses the pen and stage name Reese Piper, wrote in the Advocate that these police crackdowns are a threat to strippers’ livelihoods and freedom. Piper performs in New Orleans for three months out of a year and said stripping has helped reduce her student loan debt. Piper said that after the crackdowns, many strippers have nowhere to work. Piper wrote:
One stripper I know shares my worries, as she’s lost money needed to pay her bills. She’s grateful her club hasn’t been raided, but fear of police abuse has kept her away from work … The worry of police misconduct has created anxiety throughout the community. Ironically, this may push workers out of strip clubs and into other forms of sex work. Bills don’t evaporate when clubs shut down.
Raids and investigations targeting strip clubs in the French Quarter have been going on for years. In the fall of 2015, there was a state-led investigation known as Operation Trick or Treat, where authorities said there was prostitution and drug use at a few clubs. A number of undercover agents went into these clubs.
“Dancers were scared to dance for people and customers were scared to pay them. It was a disaster,” Lyn Archer told WTUL News & Views in 2016.
According to In Justice Today’s Melissa Gira Grant, Covenant House New Orleans, a Catholic agency that serves homeless youth, has led this effort. Jim Kelly, the founder and director of Covenant House New Orleans, campaigned against the clubs and in 2015, Covenant House New Orleans received a $900,000 anti-trafficking grant from the Department of Justice that would allow the agency to work with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Covenant House New Orleans is part of the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force. The core team includes the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Louisiana, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department, and Homeland Security Investigations.
The Commissioner of the ACT, which has assisted with these raids, Juana Marine-Lombard, said, “Prostitution in and of itself is sex trafficking” at a Monday press conference even though human trafficking requires force, which involves physical restraint, physical confinement and rape, coercion, such as threats of serious harm, and fraud.
Despite claims from authorities that they are concerned about trafficking victims, who they believe are in strip clubs, these crackdowns are anything but sensitive, strippers say. In 2016, the New Orleans City Council published results of Motion M-16-22, the Adult Live Performance Venues Study. The M16 22 is also the name of semi-automatic rifle, Archer told WTUL News & Views. The study called for the shutdown of more than half of the 23 strip clubs in and near the French Quarter and proposed a cap preventing new clubs from opening. The study also proposed zoning laws that would reduce the number of clubs.
Archer told WTUL News & Views at the time that some of the zoning laws would shut down clubs “based on money and on class” and that workers who didn’t conform to certain physical requirements for larger “monolithic” clubs, such as pregnant dancers, dancers “read as gay,” tattooed dancers, and transgender dancers, would be out of jobs.