Thursday, April 2, 2009
narcotic units as craigslist pimps?
I'm not reporting all of the below as fact except what I cite specifically as such. I'm simply stating my opinion, which is that a rumor I've been hearing sounds like a pretty plausible scenario to me. And the implications of the rumor, if it is true, are pretty infuriating.
I created a bad call list some time back, for area escorts and erotic masseuses to take down the numbers of what we term "bad calls". This label can include all sorts of clients providers want to avoid--anything from potential rapists and stalkers to men who attempt to scam you out of your money or call repeatedly to book appointments they never keep, to customers that are simply rude and don't respect our boundaries. The list has grown beyond me to a collaborative project run by the 15or so escorts and erotic masseuses on it. Most of the women there (we haven't attracted any callboys so far, though I have e-mailed them offering to participate) advertise on Craigslist. Yesterday, I heard a disturbing rumor on the list from a craigslist erotic masseuse, which she heard from multiple clients she's seen with connections to law enforcement, that PDs across my region are using fees that providers pay to put up ads in Craigslist's erotic services section to help fund their narcotics departments.
Given what we know has been happening recently re: Craigslist, this sounds like more than some off base conspiracy theory. Let me explain:
Some of you may be aware of the recent crackdowns on Craiglist--Bound not Gagged,the acclaimed sex worker's rights blog, keeps a bust tracker, and recently almost every single bust story has to do with craigslist advertising providers being taken into custody. Craigslist has always been a hunting ground for vice cops, even years before all this--over the years I have heard of many cases where an acqaintance's second or third call from craigslist has resulted in a bust, even when the person has operated without any problems for years advertising through other venues. (This is why I've never advertised on craigslist myself, though even with the new policies, it'd be much cheaper than the advertising venue I currently use.) But over the last year, as vice cops finally caught on to the fact that a huge percentage of sex workers were advertising on craigslist, while print ad escort and erotic masseuse ads dwindled and even former street workers started to use the technology instead of working redlight districts the old fashioned way--thankfully for us, the cops are always a little slow on the uptake--the craigslist busts have grown almost exponentially.
As the true workings of modern prostitution finally dawned on vice departments, Craigslist has been pressured to cooperate with law enforcement, and has instituted new measures to appease them, entering an agreement with 40 District Attorneys across the nation, claiming that it is working to prevent child exploitation but truly focusing on culling spam and some adult sexual service providers. While before craigslist postings in the erotic service section were free and anonymous, the company has now implemented a phone verification service, making those who advertise post real phone numbers that will be called before they can publish their posts, and allowing craigslist to blacklist the numbers of those who post "inappropriate" ads (that is, those are not subtle enough in how they present the services they offer.) More relevantly, on a service in which the majority of ads can be posted for free, Craigslist now requires a small credit card fee of $5. It has also agreed to provide this credit card information to law enforcement should they subpoena it.
For more information on these policy changes, take a look at these news stories. They're written from an abolitionist perspective, but they'll confirm the facts I've given you.
(The hysteria over child prostitution in the second story is just that--irrational hysteria. Sure, there are a few horror stories, as there are in any form of prostitution, but prostitution raids across the country have consistently shown that underage prostitutes make up a tiny, tiny minority of the adult sex workers caught in the net. Why target all sex workers because of this fear? Under decriminalization, with some form of licensing, one could eliminate child prostitution much more easily using the same regulations that prohibit child labor in most professions, and begin to work on the root causes of underage sex work--violence in juvenile institutions, abusive homes, and the foster care system, as well as homophobic parents who throw their queer and trans kids out into the streets.)
Of course, none of these things will truly strike a blow against prostitution. Despite the fact that Craigslist has cited that erotic services ads have fallen off by 80%, the majority of that number is probably composed of erotic spam that cannot pass the phone verification test, as the first news story notes. Many providers will choose to stay on, becoming more cagey with their client screening and wording their ads more carefully. Even if their numbers are blacklisted b/c of an explicit ad, they can always get a cheap new trac phone and a pre-paid credit card and just try again. But these new policies will drive out the most powerless among us: " 'Craigslist, because it was free, was a forum for escorts who didn’t have money to market themselves — escorts who are, in many ways, the most vulnerable,' " UNLV sociology professor and prostitution researcher Barbara Brents said."
What this sociologist doesn't realize is how much more vulnerable this population is without craigslist. Many low income sex workers, to whom craigslist has until recently been a boon, allowing them to advertise for free and come in off the streets to work in a safer environment, will simply be forced into the street market again, where they are prey to police brutality and predators who see sex workers, especially lower class street sex workers, as disposable people.
Viniagrette laments this fact eloquently in this post.
And, as arstechnica, in the first news report, astutely states:
"Of course, prostitutes who are in business online all already have working phone numbers, credit cards, and code words for what they're up to...so we're unsure how these changes will ultimately reduce the prevalence of those activities by any significant margin. In fact, the reduction of spam postings may actually make it easier for those people to operate business through Craigslist, since customers won't have to sift through as many fake ads before getting to the real thing."
This link gives us more information on why strong arming craigslist to change its policies will have gotten abolitionists nowhere:
"...working girls expressed disappointment that Craigslist seemed to be growing hostile to their trade, but said that if the popular classified site cracked down on the business, they would simply move to other sites." In fact, many of the women on my listserv are already banding together to move en masse to another advertising site.
But hey, let me finally get to the point. If pressuring craigslist to change its policies is not going to significantly reduce prostitution--just in case you abolitionists haven't caught on yet, going after suppliers will not decrease demand, and puritanical attitudes and prhobitionist zero tolerance policies around prostitution that are only a century and half old has had no real luck over the years eliminating or even slowing down a practice as old as time--how do the policies police deparments have pushed craigslist to adopt help law enforcement? We are told on a craigslist site and many other sources that quote it, that 100% of the fees that craigslist collects from erotic service ads goes to charity. We are never told which charity.
Is it so crazy to consider that given that law enforcement influenced Craigslist to institute this fee in the first place, they could be the non-profit that Craigslist is so generously donating these fees to? And if these funds are going to narcotics departments, as rumor has it, how hypocritical and corupt can the police be? Profiting from one type of nonviolent offender in order to collect more monies to arrest another sort of nonviolent offender? Compromising their stance on their crusade against prostitution to further their war on drugs?
(Not to mention the waste of taxpayer money, potential funds for true charity benefiting from the craigslist funds, and most importantly the waste of people's lives and ability to work legitimate careers that all this activity represents. I'm sure most of you are aware of the billions of dollars spent on the failed war on drugs and the mandatory minimum drug laws in many states that require drug offenders to serve a certain amount of years, independent of a judge's discretion and regardless of the context of the case, a certain amount of years that often ends up longer than the sentences of murderers and rapists. Recently, in LA, $50,000 was spent on prostitution raids. In the meantime, 11 sex workers have been murdered in that city since 1982, and none of these cases have been closed. In general, the murderers of prostitutes are very rarely brought to justice--the police seem to prefer to arrest sex workers rather than protect them. There used to be a useful model called community policing, in which police officers became friendly with people in high risk--that is, poor neighborhoods---and earned their trust, so that people felt comfortable helping them track down violent criminals. Now, as tolerance for drugs and sex work has reached an all time low with politicians garnering votes with tough on crime bluster and Guilliani-esque fervor, and with more and more people forced to take to black market activities to survive in depressed inner cities, no one feels safe confiding in the cops since they know that they themselves, despite having hurt no one, are always automatically suspect. Thus, the police's ability to actually protect citizenry from violence dwindles, and they focus their energies on busting nonviolent offenders who are just feeding themselves and their families the best way they know how. Police in inner city neighborhoods do not protect and serve their denizens. They merely serve the interests of middle and upper class quality of life NIMBY dogmatists in more affluent nearby neighborhoods who want to keep the streets "clean" of the people they see as human debris.
Meanwhile, the prostitution abolitionists declare that they want to help sex workers get out of the business. But crackdowns just lead to bad criminal records that are almost impossible to seal, and make it practically impossible to get a legitimate job given the rising prevalence of criminal record checks by employers. And arrests lead to exorbitant fines, and legal fees for those who, with good reason, don't expect an overworked, jaded public defender to defend their interests well. And how exactly do policy makers, law enforcement and the courts expect sex workers to procure these funds quickly except by practicing their professions? Finally, those caught up on drug charges, which are almost always felonies, are even less likely to be able to enter the legitimate job market, and in many states, they even lose the right to vote.)
And don't tell me that the police assume that the women they profit from are all the few legal sex workers that advertise on craigslist--the ads for "legal conduct between consenting adults" that craigslist cites on its wesbite, such as phone sex, private erotic dancing, and adult webcams. If that were the case, the pds would be vetting each ad before they accepted revenue, and yet we can infer that they receive 100% of the erotic service ad revenues.
This actually technically puts narcotics officers in this area in the legal category of a pimp--one who derives income from the earnings of a prostitute, since most of these ads are payed for with what these providers earn from their work. I was also told that in some towns in this area, the narcotics units also take over vice unit duties--thus, these law enforcement officials have it both ways. They pimp in order to arrest prostitutes.
I'm going to investigate this tip so that I can confirm or deny it with finality. In the meantime, even the possibility of it having some truth to it disgusts me.