WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday afternoon, only a couple blocks from the Trump International Hotel, two activists from No Justice No Pride were arrested after climbing flagpoles to drop a banner that read, “Decrim now, our liberation depends on sex work decriminalization.”
They did so after Councilman David Grosso (I) announced he will introduce legislation on Tuesday to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C. Grosso’s press conference was held across the street from the banner drop at the John A. Wilson building.
The activists, Princess Traciee and Emmelia Ruiz Talarico, were from No Justice No Pride, a collective of D.C. organizers and activists that exists to “end the LGBT movement’s complicity with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals.”
The activists climbed flagpoles to drop the banner but before they could fully unfurl it, Park Police tore it down.
As police waited for activists to come down from the flagpoles, people shouted to them, “We love you!”
The activists were released from police custody on Monday evening, after being charged with statue climbing, disorderly conduct, and demonstrating without a permit, Ruiz Talarico told ThinkProgress.
Ruiz Talarico said police put them in danger by jumping on the banner, which “almost ripped us from the poles when we was more than 30 feet up.”
She said that once they were in police custody, a female police officer told her, a transgender woman, that she was not a “real female” when she did the first pat down and that she and her fellow activist were refused the right to call their lawyers three times while they were in lockup. Ruiz Talarico said they were put in inmate segregation.
Park Police spokesperson Sgt. Eduardo Delgado said he couldn’t address all questions about the arrests until officers at the scene on Monday begin work this evening, but said the station only has two adjacent cells in the processing area.
Delgado wrote to ThinkProgress, “It is our policy to separate any arrests if possible. I cannot say whether or not they were allowed phone calls to lawyers, but can say that there is no right or law saying that they must be afforded one. The video I saw did not show any officer jumping on the banner, but the officer that cut the rope is a current [Rappel] Master. He determined that the climbers had attached themselves to the poles with three points of contact. The banner and its rope were not part of the rigging. Once it was determined that there was no danger to the climbers, the banner rope was cut.”
No Justice No Pride has since responded to the Park Police comment on Facebook and said the separation of people arrested is not a policy Park Police adhered to in the past. The group said the first response to a request was “that’s only on TV” and said they would not bring activists a phone, that second response was that they may be able to offer a cell phone call, and that the third response was, “You have a right to an attorney but contacting one is a privilege.” The collective said the Park Police is “misconstruing existing permitting and demonstration laws” and that an officer jumped on the banner which resulted in climbers experiencing welts, bruises, and burns. They said the officer also yanked on feeder and hauler lines. Activists added, “We dont give a shit about your little 30 hour rappel certificate.”
The bill is not focused on legalization but rather decriminalization because many sex workers and their allies have said the latter is the better path forward. Grosso and other speakers highlighted New Zealand’s decriminalization of sex work in 2003. Four years later, the University of Otago’s School of Medicine found that more than 60% of the 772 sex workers who participated in their study said they felt more able to refuse clients due to the reforms.
Ben Brooks, assistant director of policy at Whitman Walker Health, said the bill would have positive health effects for the LGBTQ community.
“We know that decriminalization is an LGBTQ issue because lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender individuals engage in sex work at higher rates as a direct outcome of discrimination in education, employment, and housing,” Brooks said. “Our support of this bill is based on findings, our research on impact of the health and well-being of sex workers in the District of Columbia … Criminalization has a stigmatizing message across this city that endangers the lives of sex workers and transgender women of color, harms sex workers through trauma of arrest and prosecution. Stigma reduces access to health services for sex workers by keeping them from disclosing their work from their providers and giving them the care they need.”
Laya Monarez, a D.C. muralist and trans activist, said she is a former sex worker. While doing sex work, she said she faced violence that she didn’t report to anyone because sex work is criminalized.
“I have been stabbed several times, beaten, and chased by a car. There were times I could remember license plates to at least report the incidents but because sex work is criminalized, those dangerous people — they’re still out there. As a survivor, I’m tired of hearing about trans women of color being murdered while doing sex work.”
She added, “At a time when the rights of women are being taken away, and we’re losing control of our own bodies, this bill is more important than ever. It should be a human right to do what you want with your own body. My body. My choice!”
Shareese Mone, development associate at HIPS, an organization that promotes the rights of communities impacted by sexual exchange or drug use, said sex workers and people profiled as sex workers are targeted with assaults and robberies because people think they can get away with it.
“I am a trans woman of color living every day in these streets. I walk these streets. But most importantly I want to work. And working, I have to walk these streets. But I can’t walk the streets if they’re going to stigmatize me, if they’re going to decriminalize me, if they’re going to say bad things to me that I don’t like. I want to make it home every night so I pray when I leave out, to take this target off my chest. Stop killing our trans women and men. Stop the violence. Please, we beg of you.”
Advocates for decriminalization also mentioned sexual violence from police officers who target the people they arrest for prostitution and sexual solicitation. They talked about concerns that police extort sex from sex workers and those they profile as sex workers, who are often women of color, adding that criminalization empowers cops to do so. Workers at harm reduction organizations and researchers have told ThinkProgress they have heard of officers sexually assaulting sex workers and other marginalized populations.
In D.C., sex work-related charges more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division of the Metropolitan Police Department put some of its officers in the Human Trafficking Unit for some time to focus on street enforcement, according to the DCist. That enforcement likely targeted many sex workers who were not being trafficked.
Decrim NY also held a press conference a few weeks ago at the New York state capitol to promote legislation meant to curb bad policing practices and stop the justice system’s punishment of trafficking victims. One of the bills would vacate trespassing and larceny convictions for sex trafficking victims if they can convey that they were coerced by traffickers. Another bill would eliminate a statute that criminalizes loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Small teams of advocates for these bills, including sex workers, participated in 50 closed-door meetings with lawmakers and their staff.
Grosso has introduced similar legislation in past years. This term, Councilmembers Anita Bonds (D) and Brianne Nadeau (D) have joined him in co-introducing the bill, which may be a sign that sex work decriminalization is becoming more popular.
One supporter at the press conference, Kaz Gooding-Pearson, said, “Nationally, I know that recently solidarity with sex work is having a more acceptable thing especially in trans circles, which often have a lot of sway in progressive cities, so I think there is more solidarity than there was before.”
This article has been updated with further comment from No Justice No Pride.