Seattle Unanimously Repeals Prostitution & Drug Traffic Loitering Laws

Seattle City Council has just unanimously approved a pair of bills repealing prostitution loitering and drug traffic loitering laws after dozens sex workers and allies gave testimonies in support. We have been working on this issue since 2018, meeting with Councilmembers as well as folks from Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and it feels really good to hear so many of our sex worker and ally friends speaking out and see the entire Council agreeing with us today.

Both ordinances have negatively impacted communities of color, but prostitution loitering law in particular have been used as a pretext for the Seattle Police Department to profile young women of color as suspected “prostitutes,” leading to unnecessary and unwarranted police interactions, background checks, unconsented and possibly illegal searches, harassment, and other harms. The City’s own Reentry Workgroup released a report to the Council in October 2018 which recommended repealing these ordinances because they disproportionately target communities of color based on who and where they are.

During the Council discussion, Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and others pointed out that it would be incorrect to say that these ordinances are “outdated.” To say so implies that they served a worthwhile purpose at some point in the past before they became obsolete since then. The truth is, they always had racially disparate impact and have always been wrong, serving no good purpose worth defending.

But the Council needs to go further. As long as the crime of prostitution (offering sex in exchange for money or other items of value) remains on the books, even if it is rarely prosecuted, similar profiling and harassment of young women of color will continue. Further, the City needs to stop the police from enforcing SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) and SODA (Stay Out of Drug Areas) orders, which are used exactly the same way as the loitering ordinances against exactly the same population despite having no basis in Seattle Municipal Code.

Also during the discussion, Councilmember Tammy Morales expressed willingness to work with sex workers (yes she used the phrase multiple times) to decriminalize sex work in Seattle so that sex workers and people in the sex trade can be safer and have access to emergency assistance. Other Councilmembers also committed to continue working with sex workers to improve safety and health for people in the sex trade. We are excited to be involved in these future conversations.

We also want to respond to a point made by a couple of people who identified themselves as survivors of trafficking and testified in opposition to repealing the loitering ordinances. Their concern was that repealing prostitution loitering ordinance would also prevent “johns” or buyers of sex, whom they consider perpetrators of harm against people in the sex trade, from being arrested or charged with prostitution loitering.

We generally believe that criminalization of clients of sex workers for purchasing sex from a consenting adult diminishes safety for people in the sex trade, but that beside the point here. Prostitution loitering ordinance has been used disproportionately against men of color (as suspected sex buyers) as well as cis and trans women of color (as suspected “prostitutes”), both for being in the wrong place as someone of a wrong race and gender, and therefore it needs to be abolished for that reason regardless of what one believes about paying for sex. Nothing in the bills passed today will legalize or decriminalize buying sex, human trafficking, or sexual violence in any way. That said, their voices belong at the policy table and we hope they will be part of future conversations about keeping our communities safe without over-reliance on the violent police system.

Thank you for your continued support, and thank you to POC SWOP/Green Light Project, UTOPIA-Seattle, Surge Reproductive Justice, Legal Voice, Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, and other allies as well! Join our email list by contacting us or follow our facebook page for future updates.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes endorses repeal of prostitution and drug loitering laws

Seattle City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Tammy Morales have proposed bills to repeal the City’s prostitution loitering and drug traffic loitering ordinances last week. Councilmember Alex Pederson joined them in co-sponsoring the prostitution loitering repeal bill, but not the drug traffic one. Then this week, a press release was posted on the City Council website which states that these anti-loitering laws are “outdated” and that Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is now on board with the repeal bills.

Prostitution and drug loitering laws have been used to profile Black, indigenous and people of color. In North Seattle especially, prostitution loitering law has been used by the Seattle Police Department to stop and harass young women of color who are walking down the street. The SPD would have to conduct a sting or catch someone in the act in order to go after prostitution, but anyone can be “suspected” of prostitution loitering without any specific evidence, which results in harassment, background checks, (often illegal) search of one’s belongings, and arrests not usually for prostitution or prostitution loitering but from active warrants or some other charges.

City’s own Reentry Workgroup made a recommendation to repeal prostitution and drug loitering laws when it released its final report in October 2018. The workgroup pointed out “disastrous racialized impact” of these policies, and how criminalizing prostitution “exacerbate[s] any underlying needs” of people in the sex trade, exposing them to “further physical and sexual harm caused by incarceration.” The report also points out that prostitution loitering laws “disproportionately impact” “cisgender and transgender women of color,” and “many women who are participating in legal, routine activities are arrested […] and must be then be put in a position to testify against police and have their word be weighed against a law enforcement officer.”

Immediately after the Reentry Workgroup report was made public, we along with many other sex worker activists and advocates met with Holmes’ staff, City Councilmembers, and other officials to demand that the City follow the Workgroup’s recommendations, but they were slow to act on it due to resistance from the police and prosecutors. It now appears that prostitution and drug loitering laws suddenly became “outdated” to our City leaders over the past two weeks–a clear sign that an era has shifted thanks to the ongoing nationwide uprising for Black lives and against racist criminal justice system.

The City has not published its agenda for the next Council meeting, but it is likely that it will come up for discussion during its regular meeting on Monday, June 22nd. Please contact us to join our email list to be notified of an opportunity to testify in support of the bill.

We welcome Holmes’ come-around on this issue, but we continue to demand that prostitution law itself (12A.10.020) repealed. After all, Reentry Workgroup’s statement about harms of anti-prostitution laws applies not just to the prostitution loitering law but also to the criminalization of prostitution in general. Since 2012, Holmes has claimed that the City was pursuing charges against buyers of sex instead of “those caught up” in the sex trade, but arrests of mostly young women of color have spiked last summer, which was condemned by all leading anti-violence organizations in Washington State as a form of “gender-based violence.”

In addition, Seattle and King County need to end SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) and SODA (Stay Out of Drug Areas) orders that function the same way as the loitering laws (racial profiling, overpolicing). SOAP and SODA are large swaths of neighborhoods in Seattle and King County that a judge can exclude someone from. Many cities in King County have them including Seattle, even though it’s not codified in the Seattle Municipal Code.

Like prostitution and drug traffic loitering laws, SOAP/SODA are being used to stop people of color for suspicion that they are where they are not supposed to be. Even if someone hasn’t actually been issued SOAP/SODA orders, they can be stopped, harassed, background checked, and searched. In other words: repealing prostitution and drug traffic loitering laws won’t stop the racial profiling and harassment of communities of color because the same exact thing can go on under the guise of SOAP/SODA enforcement. We need to end them all.

We also support other criminal justice reform initiatives, including Defund the Seattle Police Department and upcoming campaign to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs modeled after Oregon’s Initiatve Petition 44.

Seattle: Uprising’s early victories & further opportunities to participate

As many of you know, things are happening at the Seattle City Hall and around the country as a direct result of #BlackLivesMatter organizing in response to the police murders of George Floyd and countless other Black and indigenous people. For example, here is a (very partial) list of victories documented by Chicago-based activist collective Rampant: Rebellions Get Results: A List So Far (note this post was written on June 8th, and there have been many more victories since then, not to mention victories before June 8th that were not included in the list!)

In seattle, here are some of the victories that we are aware of:

  1. Mayor Durkan issued curfews to stop demonstrations, but demonstrations continued and she was forced to withdraw the curfew.
  2. Mayor ordered a 30-day moratorium on the use of tear gas. The order came with the caveat that Chief Best could still order its use if she felt the necessity, which she did just a couple of days ago, but still both leaders faced criticisms for going back on their promises.
  3. City of Seattle is withdrawing a lawsuit against King County which had prevented inquest into killing of civilians by the police for the last two years.
  4. City of Seattle withdraws its petition to be free from federal oversight placed on its police forces due to patterns of racial profiling and civil rights violations.
  5. Peaceful demonstrators persisted in Capitol Hill for over a week despite being attacked by the police with chemical weapons, flash bangs, stan grenades, etc. and forced SPD to retreat, creating what became known as Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or Capitol Hill Occupied/Organized Protest.
  6. Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution rebuking President Trump’s threat to send in active duty military to Seattle.
  7. Chief Best ordered officers to stop concealing badge numbers with “mourning bands.” They did not follow the order, so the City Council is working on a legislation.
  8. City of Seattle agreed to transfer old fire station in Central District to the local African American community to use as a community center.
  9. City Council unanimously passes Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s bills to ban the use of chokehold by police officers and the ownership, purchase, rent, storage, or use of “crowd control weapons” such as tear gas and flash bangs. (Updated 6/15/2020)
  10. City Council unanimously passes Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s bill to prohibit police officers from covering their badge numbers. (Updated 6/15/2020)
  11. City council unanimously passes a bill proposed by Councilmembers Lewis, Pederson, and Morales that repeals the crime of prostitution loitering (which the SPD has used to profile and harass women of color). (Updated 6/22/2020)
  12. City Council unanimously passes a bill sponsored by Councilmembers Lewis and Morales that repeals the crime of drug traffic loitering. (Updated 6/22/2020)

Do you have more? Please send it to us so we can add to this list!

In addition, the Coalition for Rights & Safety for People in the Sex Trade has endorsed “Defund Seattle Police” campaign, which seeks to immediately cut at least 50% of SPD budget to fund community-based programs that prioritize health and safety strategies and free all protesters arrested during the recent protests. If you agree, please sign on to the campaign as an individual or as an organization.

Washington’s leading organizations addressing gender-based violence denounce arrests of women in the sex trade as "gender-based violence"

After insisting that Seattle treats people involved in the sex trade as victims of “sexual exploitation” (which the City’s law calls what used to be “patronizing a prostitute”) for the past several years, Seattle Police Department has reversed its course and began arresting women working along Aurora Avenue in North Seattle in large numbers since this past July, as CrossCut reported last week.

We are working with our allies to fight against this recent move by the SPD by supporting the ongoing outreach effort on Aurora by POC-SWOP via its Green Light Project and organizing to promote policies based on harm reduction and human rights.

As part of such collaborative efforts, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) along with Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (WCSAP), Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, and women’s rights legal advocacy organization Legal Voice jointly issued a statement today protesting the arrests targeting women working on the street, stating: “Threat of arrest and incarceration is no way to help victims or populations vulnerable to exploitation and violence. We must be clear: the targeting of these women for arrest by police perpetuates gender-based violence.”

Full statement follows below. Stay tuned for our continuing work challenging the latest development in the state violence targeting people in the sex trade.

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Open Letter from Gender-Based Violence Organizations Regarding Sex Trade Arrests in Seattle

October 9, 2019

Dear Mayor Durkan and Members of the Seattle City Council,

We are leading organizations in Washington State working to end sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence. We are deeply disturbed by the news, reported last week, that the Seattle Police Department has apparently abandoned existing policy on prostitution enforcement and resumed the practice of routinely arresting women in the sex trade in North Seattle.

As organizations with many decades of experience supporting survivors of violence and their communities, we feel compelled to denounce this practice. Threat of arrest and incarceration is no way to help victims or populations vulnerable to exploitation and violence. We must be clear: the targeting of these women for arrest by police perpetuates gender-based violence.

We call on city leadership to meaningfully invest in services and alternatives to arrest and incarceration as responses to the sex trade, and to immediately put a stop to these arrests. The City of Seattle can, and must, do better.

Sincerely,

Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC)
Legal Voice
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (WCSAP)
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV)

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