by Wanda Sabir
Saturday, April 9, the Allen Temple Community Room was overflowing with individuals interested in the crisis on Oakland streets, especially a street many had to cross that morning upon arrival, International Boulevard, formerly East 14th Street. The only international aspect of International Boulevard is perhaps its sex trafficking, which is a global crisis similar to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, legally abolished 146 years ago in this country.
Almost a year ago, Victory Outreach Ministries hosted a rally in downtown Oakland called “Hear Our Cry” in support of recent legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson. This event, organized by a woman who’d been trafficked and prostituted herself, was well attended despite the intermittent rain and wind. It drew those who were affected and impacted by this issue, as well as those who wanted to help.
Saturday at the East Oakland Summit on Human Trafficking, a mother who’d been trafficked testified and asked for help finding her daughter, who’d been abducted and was on the streets now. Jim Saleda of the Oakland Police Department’s Child Exploitation and Vice Unit told her he’d seen her daughter three years ago and that photos helped tremendously in locating these abducted children.
Just off a late night shift, Saleda said though he goes after the perpetrators or johns, the criminals in these acts of violence against these youngsters, often there is nowhere for the girls to go – no safe place for them to go – so a prison cell becomes law enforcement’s only alternative.
The despair in his voice is palatable when he tells the story of a young girl he rescues and then can’t find anywhere for her to stay, so she goes back on the streets and the next time their paths cross, she is dead, her mutilated body in Mosswood Park.
“We stack the charges,” he explained – statutory rape, lewd acts with a minor – to make the sentence longer and there have been recent successes. He cites a case where a john got 25 or more years. This makes potential clients think about the consequences if caught, but the laws are still not frighteningly strong enough on a consistent basis, he said.
I arrived just in time for the musical selection. I’d missed the opening prayer and synopsis of AB 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, introduced by Assembly Members Jim Beall and Karen Bass, which would compensate relatives who take care of children whose parents are unable to take care of them as well as increase funding and support for children in all cases past 18 to at least 21 years of age, and AB 90, supported by Assemblyman Swanson, which states on his legislative page that this bill would decriminalize the children involved in sex trafficking and bring California laws in line with federal standards. This bill also includes funding for community based organizations that provide support to victims of sexual trafficking, organizations such as Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth or MISSSEY, whose director, Nola Brantley, formerly trafficked herself, offered the keynote address.
Brantley, who Rev. Harry Louis Williams II refers to as “our Harriet Tubman,” gave a polished and provocative speech highlighting the specifics of who is targeted and why so many Black and Brown girls are victimized. She spoke about the stages of seduction and how these girls, many in foster care, others living in extreme poverty, whether that is physical or emotional or spiritual, are vulnerable to predators who capitalize on this vulnerability. These children, with minimal to no support from a caring adult at home, too often become trapped and subsequently enslaved.
There are many parallels between trafficked children and victims of domestic violence, Brantley stated, as she continued with the various stages: seduction or the courting stage, where the girl feels special, even if that special feeling is eventually tied to her sexual ability, to isolation where the violence begins, the notion of violence tied to the rape and sexual violation as well as beatings most girls endure and fear, the coercion and again violence as a stage by itself.
The impact of this violence on the girls was hammered home as Brantley read statements from these commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) who talked about what this abuse, what this intimate soul searing violation, what this enslavement felt like.
Then the next keynote after a short recess, where I walked around and met organizers and picked up literature and signed petitions, Melissa Farley, Ph.D., executive director of Prostitution Research and Education, carried the ball Nola Brantley tossed her across the finish line as she spoke about high profile cases and the work her organization is doing to halt this abuse. She spoke of interviews with johns and shared their depictions and justification of the violence against girls both nationally and internationally. She also spoke about a model of prevention the Swedish government, where buying sex is a felony, has found successful in halting the enslavement and exploitation of girls and women.
Farley showed how boys are conditioned to believe girls are commodities who can be bought and sold. She mentioned video games like Grand Theft Auto, where one scores points if one kills a prostitute or sets up a strip club. She mentioned the messages sent to society when politicians are caught soliciting sex and are not prosecuted – like Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who patronized a prostitution service called Emperors Club VIP, which ultimately led him to announce his resignation as governor, and now President Obama’s friend, Robert Richard Titcomb, 49, of Waialua busted just this week. The two men go back to childhood days at Punahou School.
Titcomb and three other men were arrested in a reverse sting operation Monday, April 4, 2011. All the men were booked and released on $500-$1,000 bail. Just the language of the story criminalizes the women and girls in describing the police response to commercial business complaints in downtown Honolulu about sex trafficking. “The maximum punishment for prostitution as a petty misdemeanor is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine,” according to www.hawaiinewsnow.com/Global/story.asp?S=14398306.
Swanson states: “There are an estimated 800,000 human beings trafficked for domestic, labor and sex slavery each year, both internationally and domestically. This number is 10 times the number at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1700s. People today are sold for a few hundred dollars, compared to the equivalent of up to $30,000 in the 18th century. This cheap price for victims coupled with easy access and little chance of prosecution has made this modern day form of slavery one of the most lucrative of crimes.
Brantley spoke of the stigma, which is a barrier to the commercially sexually exploited child’s ability to leave. The girls interpret the pimp’s attention as love and see them as masters at what they do. These men and sometimes women understand the development stages these girls are in and use this knowledge to capture them and then often use the girls to snare peers.
It was a heavy morning; perhaps I should have had breakfast beforehand or something. All I know is afterward I was so mentally and emotionally exhausted I went home and couldn’t move. I had planned to enjoy the sunny day by going for a walk or bike ride, getting by the Black quilt exhibit at Niles Hall at Preservation Park, then trying to catch one last Food Event with Amara Tabor Smith at the Tenderloin National Forest before her performance at CounterPulse April 14-28 and then riding a BART stop past Civic Center to catch a closing weekend film at the San Francisco Women’s International Film Festival at the Roxie Cinema Center.
I ended up reading a book I picked up at the Summit, “Straight Outta East Oakland 2: Trapped on the Track,” a novel, by Rev. Harry Louis Williams II. Talk about a page turner. I started the book in my driveway as I enjoyed the ultraviolet rays and then continued over black bean soup with leftover summer squash and bok choy. When I finished the 182 pages, I fell into a restless slumber filled with images of girls and women trapped in this socially sanctioned institution.
Williams is a part of the Allen Temple Baptist Church Street Disciples, established by Rev. J. Alfred Smith Jr., who was present at the summit, a quiet presence, so quiet I wondered if it really was him (smile). Williams’ novel, part of a series the multi-talented writer and spoken word artist has written to highlight issues affecting his constituency and offer a way out via subtle messages – in this case through reformed gangsters and their friends who are still in the “game” but not oblivious to its consequences or alternatives to this life choice. His protagonist, Firstborn, and his best friend, Drama, co-founded a gang called the Black Christmas Mob in East Oakland.
When we meet Firstborn, he has left the gang violence for higher education. It has been a year and he is buried in his books and new life, his old life not forgotten, just not a part of his current trajectory. He thinks no one knows who he is and what crimes he is complicit in, at least this is what he thinks when he opens the door to Ms. Holmes – his past – and so his atonement journey begins.
Firstborn returns to Oakland, this time armed with a new philosophy, nonviolence, to try to rescue his niece, Crayon, who is a commercially sexually trafficked minor. It is here the healing begins as Firstborn reconnects with his brother Drama, whom he needed to speak to about a rift based on betrayal. His return is an opportunity to mend or at least repair a debt to his deceased girlfriend, a life he could have perhaps saved. Lastly, his return allows Firstborn to understand how when he is ready he can take his knowledge of the gang culture and use it to help men like the pastor, Reverend Ray, whom he meets through his mentor Oliver, to better serve the Oakland community.
Williams’ characters’ names say more than any character analysis: Phenomenal and his brother Black Hole, Drama and his brother Ready, Mamacide and Crayon, Knock Out, Virus, War Thug, Li’l Murda, Cobra.
“Straight Outta 2” also shows how boys, former friends, are made into enemies and how wars are started based on this often public humiliation. Williams’ character Firstborn takes liberties with Drama – no one else would because they are brothers in all but blood – yet even though he speaks out against Drama’s drama and questions the sanity of his choices, which appear to be at times suicidal, nothing changes. At least that is the appearance.
But later on, we see that though structurally the gang life style, that is, Black Christmas Mob, is what it is, Drama and by extension his posse do hear Firstborn and in turn Firstborn, who is about as nonjudgmental as a former gang member can get, lets his buddies who are still in the life guide him in a journey into a world he is no longer familiar with to save Crayon’s life. Visit www.soulshakerpublishing.com.
The language is clean and the message clear, so crystal clear, I highly recommend “Straight Outta East Oakland 2” for middle school children 10 years old and up. It would be a great book for a city reads project like that in Berkeley and San Francisco, where there is an FBI office devoted to sexual trafficking. I first heard of that FBI office when I attended a performance many years ago about Harriet Tubman at a small theatre in San Francisco and then again at Love Center Ministries in Oakland. It was a one-woman show, and the playwright-actress made the connection between the abolitionist movement then and now – the continued enslavement and sexual exploitation of women and girls, who, as Nola Brantley stated Saturday at the Summit on Human Trafficking, look like us: Black women.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to this manipulative crime, sometimes being forced into sexual slavery through promises of work opportunities or through other forms of emotional bribery. Although California’s prosecutors have been outraged over the blatant exploitation and abuse of minors, they are constrained by a limitation in California law. AB 90 will fix this problem,” Rep. Swanson states on his website.
“While federal law is clear that prosecutors do not have to prove force or coercion when a trafficking victim is under the age of 18, state law is vague regarding force or coercion. State law specifically states that it is intended to conform to federal law, but at the same time, state law requires a showing of force or coercion. This ambiguity hinders prosecutors from prosecuting traffickers to the fullest extent possible and also fails to recognize the role that mental manipulation plays in human trafficking.”
“AB 90 will also allow prosecutors to implement the fines and forfeiture provisions passed in AB 17, providing funding to community-based organizations supporting sexually exploited minors.”
AB 90 and the companion legislation, AB 12, seem to be laws Californians need to get behind and pass as soon as possible, so drop your legislators a note and follow up with a call. Just this afternoon, as I drove up International Boulevard, I saw yet another sexually exploited girl soliciting.
I was happy with the follow-up event, almost a year later. The last event was on Good Friday, the 2011 date approaching soon. Other organizations present included, as already mentioned, Victory Outreach of Oakland, www.vookland.org, (510) 905-6450; The SAGE Project or Standing Against Global Exploitation, www.safesf.org, (415) 905-5050; and GEMS or Girls Educating and Mentoring Services, www.gems-girls.org; “Free At Last: A Child Sex Trafficking and Sexual Abuse Abolition Series” by Dawn E. Worswick, www.dawnewick.com, (408) 841-2700; Deborah O’Neal’s “The House of Ruth,” (510) 562-1593; AAO: Against All Odds, www.vooakland.org; Twilight Treasures Outreach, Sista’ D, (510) 677-6364; Polaris Project: For a World Without Slavery, a part of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), 1-888-3737-888, www.polarisproject.org; also www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking – the project takes its name from the North Star that guided enslaved Africans to freedom; Milestones 4 My Journey: A Girls Rite of Passage Program at Allen Temple Baptist Church Family Life Center, Room C214, Rev. Barbara Jim-George, M.Div., executive director, (510) 532-7150, email@example.com; the International Justice Mission, www.ijm.org, www.CaliforniaAgainstSlavery.org, (510) 473-7283; and www.newdayforchildren.com. Oakland Local ran a series of eight articles on sex trafficking: http://oaklandlocal.com/article/youth-trafficking-series-index.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7:30 or 8 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.