by Orissa Arend
Does slavery exist? Here? Now? Many people might say “no”. But the reality is that an estimated 100,000 children are forced into prostitution in America each year. In fact, as this article is being written, authorities in Memphis, Tenn., are searching for two teen sisters missing since late November. The fear is that they have become victims of sex trafficking. And across the globe, countless individuals are deprived of their individual freedom for the purposes of personal or commercial exploitation.
Understanding Modern-Day Slavery
Human trafficking is not what it sounds like. The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines trafficking as a “contemporary manifestation of slavery.” It is the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Trafficking is a misnomer. Transportation is not required at all. “Slavery” is a more accurate term.
The global crime of slavery today is hidden. And it assumes many devious forms. About 22 percent of forced labor worldwide was constituted by sex trafficking in 2012 according to the International Labour Organization. Forty-five percent of the pool of forced laborers are men. One of the fronts for slavery was a Christian boy’s choir from Texas which recruited boys from Zambia – a case study in how hard it is to detect traffickers disguised as ministers.
Slavery is fundamentally an economic relationship which often becomes an emotional relationship of extreme dependency and manipulation.
Some would hold that after the horrors of American slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries, the term should be reserved for that particular time and place. Indeed it is important to use the word “slavery” with the utmost precision. Modern abolitionists contend, however, that it is crucial to call slavery what it is and that the abolitionists of former times would want to see it completely eliminated in all of its forms.
President Barack Obama agrees: “It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called its true name – modern slavery.”
Recently, Pope Francis has made the issue of modern-day slavery a cornerstone of his pontificate, declaring it a “crime against humanity” which is “unfortunately becoming worse and worse every day.” Early last month, leaders of the world’s major religions gathered at the Vatican to sign a declaration pledging to eradicate slavery by the year 2020. And on Dec. 30, 2014, the Pope followed up with a speech entitled “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters” outlining a sweeping vision for how to address the global problem and asking governments, intergovernmental organizations, businesses, and ordinary citizens to step up. He called for courage, patience, and perseverance on the part of religious leaders and society. But he said that is not sufficient. “There is also need for a threefold commitment on the institutional level: to prevention, to victim protection and to the legal prosecution of perpetrators,” requiring a global effort
Slavery takes many forms, but one woman’s experience helps illustrate how it might happen today. Survivors Speak
Shamere McKenzie’s story is just one of 41 freedom narratives in Laura Murphy’s Survivors of Slavery: Modern Day Slave Narratives (Columbia University Press, 2014) in which the victims of contemporary bondage speak for themselves. The book informs our understanding of 18th and 19th century American slavery and establishes the international dimensions and persistence of slavery itself.
McKenzie was at first attracted to her trafficker (as she calls him), describing him as a polite stranger who introduced himself to her on the streets of New York City. She and her trafficker discussed things that were important to her – parents, politics and social issues. She was trying to save money to go back to school. He talked her into dancing at a strip club, bought her dresses and shoes, and persuaded her to live with him. You could have confused her with a woman who had choices until the trap snapped shut. Her pimp beat her, raped her, intimidated her, gave her harsh rules, and forced her to work as a prostitute and turn over the money. He threatened her family. She finally ran away, barely escaping with her life.
She stayed with a friend, got an attorney, got a job and was in the process of going back to school when the FBI arrested her. After three weeks in prison she was sent to a program for victims of sex trafficking. After five years, she found that she could start speaking about her experience. She is a former staff member at Shared Hope International, current director of the Sungate Foundation, and a student at Loyola University Chicago.
She writes, “[The Shared Hope staff] didn’t treat me any different from any other staff member because I am a survivor. Many people show sympathy to survivors and that makes me feel weird sometimes. The staff at Shared Hope treated me equal and transformed me into being more than a survivor. They empowered me while teaching me the diplomatic approach to being a part of the anti-trafficking movement. In addition, they encourage me to pursue my hopes and dreams.”
Closer to Home
The Louisiana Human Trafficking Report put out in 2014 by the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University states that in addition to the sex industry in New Orleans, slavery has been found in cases of domestic services, farming, entertainment, construction, and factory work. “Given Louisiana’s history of slave-holding, it is imperative that we take the lead on eradicating these modern forms of slavery described in this report.”
Last fall, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana convicted the first individual in Louisiana under the federal human trafficking laws in United States v. Coriolant. Benson December Coriolant, in his late 20’s, met R.V. who was 14. He drugged her, “groomed” her, and sold her on the internet. He was arrested at a Kenner motel in 2010. In February 2013, U. S. Judge Africk sentenced Coriolant to a 40-year prison sentence. The investigation of the case was a collaborative effort between federal, state, and local law enforcement as part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative and Project Safe Childhood.
The strides Louisiana has made in recent years against human trafficking have been recognized. Last November Shared Hope International ranked Louisiana’s laws on domestic minor sex trafficking the best in the country – though all concede that there is much work left to be done.
New Orleans offers some particularly conducive conditions for sex trafficking with Carnival, major sporting events, and Bourbon Street.
“The sex trade, it’s an industry, and like in any industry, it’s supply and demand,” says Kara Van De Carr, founder of Eden House, a long-term shelter for survivors of sex trafficking. Anytime you have a large influx of people, especially when people are coming to maybe partake in drugs and alcohol, perhaps do things in New Orleans that they wouldn’t do in their home town and there’s an increase in demand.”
Clemmie Greenlee, who also works at Eden House helping survivors, told WWL during Mardi Gras 2014, “This is all happening right now, with Mardi Gras, today I can guarantee you there are at least 10 girls, in some hotel or some house, tied up, that they don’t want to be there.”
She should know. Greenlee was snatched at 12, the typical age for girls to be taken, and forced into the commercial sex trade. Her recovery from drugs and torture and unimaginable trauma, including prison time for trying to kill a man and the murder of her son by gang members, didn’t happen until she was in her 40’s. She has an amazing capacity to forgive and a desire to help others.
One of the problems in combating sex slavery is the false but widespread assumption that trafficked sex workers are somehow in cahoots with those exploiting them. The innocence of children can so often be mistaken for complicity.
Greenlee offers insight: “A bunch of men that came down from Memphis and they would canvas the neighborhood. They were lurking around to find out who they could make a target. And they would come around and give items like necklaces and bracelets, nice shoes. You like, ‘Ooooh, I want one, I want one.’ That was my biggest problem right there. I accepted one of the gifts, and once I accepted one of those gifts, it put a price tag on me that I never would dreamt of.”
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.