Groups Rally Against D.C.’s ’Prostitution-Free Zones’
About 20 community activists and advocates rallied Friday outside the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the mayor’s office and the D.C. Council chambers, to call for the repeal of ’’prostitution-free zones’’ (PFZs), which opponents say has led to profiling and harassment of transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.
The April 11 rally, organized by the local service organization HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) was held with the dual purpose of calling for a repeal of PFZs, as well as standing in solidarity with Monica Jones, a transgender woman and sex-worker advocate in Phoenix, who was arrested for ’’manifestation of prostitution’’ under a police sting operation and anti-prostitution diversion program known as Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation) one day after she spoke at a rally protesting the program. Jones, who has said she was not engaging in prostitution at the time of her arrest, was slated to appear in Phoenix Municipal Court Friday and plead not guilty to the charges against her. Simultaneously, demonstrations similar to the one in D.C. were scheduled to occur outside the courthouse in Phoenix and elsewhere.
HIPS rally against ’’prostitution-free zones’’
Outside the Wilson Building, demonstrators, including representatives from some prominent LGBT groups, held signs calling attention to the Jones case and offered fliers arguing against programs such as Project ROSE and D.C.’s PFZs. The demonstrators also engaged passerby in conversation, urging D.C. residents to contact their councilmembers to ask them to repeal the PFZs.
’’We’re just trying to encourage D.C. voters to contact their councilmembers and let them know that they think prostitution-free zones are a bad law that needs to be removed from the books,’’ said Emily Hammell, director of development at HIPS. ’’It’s used to profile trans women of color, and it’s also probably unconstitutional.’’
D.C.’s PFZ provision, introduced nine years ago, allows the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to declare a particular area a ’’prostitution-free zone,’’ which then grants police authority to order groups of two or more people in a PFZ to disperse. It also lowers the bar for probable cause leading to an arrest. Such zones can be labeled prostitution-free for any length of time, at the discretion of the chief of police.
At a January 2012 hearing regarding a failed bill, proposed by Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), that would have expanded and made permanent existing prostitution-free zones, MPD Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham testified that the purpose of PFZs is not to make arrests for prostitution, but to act as a tool that MPD officers can use to disperse people whom they believe may be trying to engage in commercial sex work. Following that hearing, as a result of outcry from critics and the logistics of enforcing PFZs, MPD halted its implementation and said it was working internally to rescind its general PFZ order.
Both transgender-rights advocates, who decry what they see as police profiling of transgender women of color, and sex-worker advocates, who seek to provide support and assistance to those who put themselves at risk in the commercial sex trade, oppose PFZs, arguing that the creation of PFZs doesn’t affect root causes of prostitution. Rather, they argue, PFZs push such activity further underground, increasing the risk of harm to sex workers.
Furthermore, opponents of PFZs also note that the provision’s legal foundation is shaky. During the debate over the bill to make PFZs permanent, Ariel Levinson-Waldman, a spokesman for the office of D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, testified before the Council that the attorney general believes PFZs may be unconstitutional.
Elizabeth Saracco, director of programs at HIPS, says repeal advocates are considering a court challenge if the D.C. Council fails to take the law off the books.
’’Ultimately, we just need to work together to make a happier, healthier community for everyone to live in, rather than attack individuals in the community,’’ says Saracco.
’’MPD definitely wants to build a relationship with transgender individuals in Washington, D.C.,’’ she says. ’’I think they want the same thing HIPS wants, in a way: Just a happy, healthy community where people can live peacefully. We’ve been in talks with them to repeal the prostitution-free zones, because in nine years it hasn’t done anything useful. It hasn’t put an end to prostitution, it hasn’t bettered people’s lives in any way.’’
Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), a critic of PFZs who was skeptical of their practicality during his 2012 Council run, has co-introduced a bill with Councilmembers Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Catania (I-At Large) to repeal PFZs. The bill has since been co-sponsored by Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that the bill must pass to receive a vote by the full Council, and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Grosso was the only Councilmember to appear in person at the rally.
’’I think it was a bad idea to start with,’’ Grosso said of the creation of PFZs. ’’I think people recognize now that it’s an easy way to violate someone’s human rights, and it’s time to get rid of them and get them off the books.’’
Grosso told Metro Weekly he believes he’ll get the seven votes necessary to repeal PFZs, noting that as more is learned about the practice, some Councilmembers, even those who supported making the zones permanent, have changed their minds.
’’When I came into office, I said that I was going to have a human rights framework to establish all my policies with, and this is one more opportunity for me to do that,’’ Grosso said. ’’In fact, I think all of my colleagues are catching on to that now, recognizing that we can’t legislate without recognizing that people are affected by the laws that we create in ways that sometimes discriminate.’’