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Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and others pointed out that it would be incorrect to say that these ordinances are “outdated.”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.

New protections for sex workers just went into effect in Washington State (so let’s monitor compliance)

On July 28th, 2019, many laws passed by the Washington State legislature earlier this year went into effect, including two laws our community supported: HB 1382 (emergency access) and HB 1756 (dancer safety). Here are what you need to know about these new laws and a request for our dancer friends:
HB 1382 provides immunity for prosecution for prostitution and prostitution loitering charges when we are victims or witnesses of certain violent crimes and seek emergency assistance (medical and police). It is intended to make it easier for sex workers and people in the sex trade to report crimes and seek support, but there are some limitations. They are:

  • It only applies to violent crimes. In other words, it does not offer any protection when someone is reporting medical emergencies unrelated to violent crimes. What constitutes a “violent crime” is described in the law, but nobody can be expected to remember that list.
  • The law provides immunity from prosecution, but not from arrest.
  • It does not protect someone from other charges, including promoting prostitution in the second degree (which sometimes is applied to sex workers working in a pair or friends and family members who provide transportation and other support).

The survey we conducted last year showed deep mistrust of the law enforcement among sex workers and people in the sex trade, so we feel that HB 1382 is not sufficient to make many of us feel safe to report crimes or seek emergency assistance when we experience emergencies. Please keep telling us about what it would take to make this law more effective.

HB 1756 does many things, all of which are geared toward empowering dancers who work in strip clubs to protect their safety. These include:

  • The State Department of Labor and Industry will develop a training for adult entertainers (dancers), which will be required before entertainer license can be issued. The training will include rights and responsibilities of workers, reporting of workplace injuries, sexual abuse and harassment, financial management, risk of human trafficking, and resources for assistance. (This portion will go into effect in July 2020.)
  • Clubs are required to provide panic button in private (VIP) booths and anywhere else where a dancer would be alone with a customer.
  • Clubs must record worker complaints about assault and harassment committed by customers. If an accusation is made under the penalty of perjury or is supported by other evidences, the club must refuse the customer for three years after the incident. Other clubs owned by the same owner must also exclude the customer for three years.
  • The Department of Labor and Industry will form an advisory committee to assist with the implementation of the new law, including developing the training. At least half of the committee members must be former or current entertainers who held license for at least five years, and at least one will be an industry representative (the boss). The committee can consider and recommend further legislations to improve dancer safety. (The advisory committee has yet to be formed as of now.)

Many of these provisions are hard to monitor for compliance, but there is at least one that can be easily verified: the panic button. If you work at a strip club, please go and find out if the management has installed a panic button in each area where dancers may be alone with a customer. If it’s possible, ask someone what happens when the button is pressed: Does it actually work? Who will be alerted and will respond to the scene? Please let us know what you find out–we just want to see the level of compliance with the new requirement, and we will not report it to the State or anyone else unless you ask us to. Thank you for your help!

If you are interested in future legislative advocacy, please contact us! Our monthly meetings are open to anyone who support safety and rights for sex workers and people in the sex trade.

SESTA=DEATH

Earlier this month, President Trump signed into law FOSTA/SESTA, a law that targets online platforms that people in the sex trade use to connect with their potential clients. Even before the law went into effect, many such online platforms have either shut down or changed rules to push out people who have previously depended on them for their livelihood.

Almost immediately, we began hearing from members of our community who are facing extremely difficult choices as a major portion of their livelihood vanished overnight. Some are fearing that they might become homeless soon because they cannot pay next month’s rent, while others are thinking about going back to working the street. Others, especially those who have experienced horrible abuses while living or working on the street in the past are contemplating suicide out of pure desperation. An influx of individuals who have previously worked online onto the street will undoubtedly also impact those who have been on the street already with additional competition and increased police attention.
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