Monday, August 12, 2013

Women With A Vision and BreakOUT! Respond to Times-Picayune’s “Uneasy Street”

The Times-Picayune/’s six articles and one video (and counting) about Tulane Avenue, dubbed “Uneasy Street,” are an unfortunate example of glorified and sensationalized media reporting that leads to increased criminalization of marginalized communities, rather than solutions.

As staff of Women With a Vision and BreakOUT!, two organizations that work to promote safer, healthier communities in New Orleans for women and LGBTQ communities, including youth and transgender women, we hope that the Times-Picayune will consider releasing another video with a more humane approach to people involved in (or assumed to be involved in) street economies along Tulane Avenue.

The video we are referencing claims that once sun sets along Tulane Avenue, “An even darker world emerges.” We agree. There is a darker side to Tulane Avenue. But it’s not the one shown.

It’s the stories of mothers, daughters, friends, and wives struggling to survive in a city that has offered them little resources. It’s women dealing with substance abuse or addiction. It’s women who cannot be hired by traditional employers simply because they are transgender. It’s the women who have been too busy struggling to be able to get a formal education to make them employable. It’s the stories of human beings, worthy of dignity, respect, and far more than this series of articles has afforded them.

This kind of sensationalized reporting has put these women at even greater risk for harm. Did you ever consider what might happen to the women whose faces you showed? Did it ever occur to you that one might be working 2 or more jobs, and still have to turn to the streets just to provide for their families? Did it ever occur to you that some may have children at home? Did it ever occur to you that others may be fleeing a violent relationship or have been kicked out of the home at a young age for being transgender? We ask these questions not so that you feel sorry for these women, but that you might recognize and see their humanity.

Rather than blaming the women struggling to survive in our city, we want the businesses along Tulane Avenue to afford our communities the same respect and decency they are asking for. To do so requires that we imagine more creative and restorative solutions to this “darker world.” The Director ofBreakOUT! attended a meeting of the Mid-City Business Association just recently, where store owners were discussing the problems they see along Tulane Avenue. During the question and answer period he asked, “Has anyone considered offering any of these women a job or any sort of job training at your business?” Not one person in the room could tell us the thought had ever crossed their minds. When media articles like this continue to give voice to the mischaracterization of transgender women as “men in dresses,” it should come as no surprise that transgender people feel marginalized and unwelcome in their own city.

To be clear: this problem is not unique to New Orleans. Nationally, transgender people have double the rate of unemployment and poverty, while also being disproportionately represented among homeless populations and those without access to healthcare (National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce.) Similarly, for black women, underemployment and employment discrimination remain core structural issue that contribute to systemic poverty, homelessness, and an array of health disparities, including HIV to cervical cancer. Nationally, women of color earn just 70 cents for every dollar paid to men and just 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men (US Census Bureau).

The articles admit that many of those who stay in the motels along Tulane Avenue call them home. At Women With a Vision and BreakOUT! we understand that many of these individuals are young people who have left their homes and now live, the best they are able, in motels with up to 10 other girls at a time. Not all are engaged in the sex trade, however. Many have found a sense of community with one another, formed their own tightly-knit chosen families, and are doing more with their lives.

For the past two years, BreakOUT! has been working to stop discriminatory policing practices, particularly among LGBTQ youth of color and transgender young women, that prevents many of our young people from doing just that. We have made great strides in our campaign, called “We Deserve Better” and recently celebrated a victory in our campaign when the NOPD adopted a LGBTQ policy just last month. The policy states, among other things, that police officers cannot use gender identity or gender expression as probable cause or reasonable suspicion for a police stop or arrest. And yet in this video, we see our neighbors doing the exact same kind of profiling familiar to the NOPD when a young woman crosses the street in the middle of the afternoon.

And for the past five years, Women With a Vision has been working hard on the NO Justice! Campaign to combat the criminalization of women who have engaged in street-based survival sex work and, because of a Solicitation for Crimes Against Nature conviction, were required to register as sex offenders for periods of fifteen years to life. This campaign emerged from our more than twenty-year commitment to advancing the wellbeing of New Orleans’ most marginalized women and their families by challenging the policies and structures that make women have to choose between their daily survival and their long-term health. We made great strides – getting the law declared unconstitutional, removing women from the registry, and ensuring that the public understood how women’s lives had been destroyed by disproportionate sentencing. And yet, with this video and these articles, you have turned back the clock once again.

Increased criminalization of women, including transgender women, increased policing, increased use of surveillance equipment and security cameras, and increased demonification of women in the street economies will not make our City any safer. And it is putting our most vulnerable citizens at even greater risk. We continue to need increased access to employment, housing, education, and healthcare, including substance abuse treatment.

Even the NOPD recognizes the limitations of criminalization as Officer Ricky Jackson is quoted in the article, “You can’t arrest your way out of this situation.” Finally, the NOPD gets something right.

Women With a Vision and BreakOUT! are providing much-needed services and organizing for a better City. What then, is your role in this, Will you now leverage your resources to help solve this problem in our city by reporting on novel community-led solutions for fostering economic justice, or will you continue to exasperate it by running sensationalist stories like this?

Deon Haywood, Women With a Vision 504.301.0428
Wesley Ware, BreakOUT! 504.473.2651

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dream Defenders Florida Take Over Enters Week Four, By Bill Quigley

Packed into the small reception area of the Florida Governor’s office in Tallahassee, a couple dozen determined Dream Defenders conducted a people’s hearing on racial profiling.  Black and brown college and high school youth took turns giving compelling testimony of being profiled at school, in public and by the police.  In one corner was a court reporter.  A camera was live streaming the proceedings.

On the coffee table, a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles.  On the floor were strips of tape to keep an aisle clear so the Governor’s people could find get in and out of their offices.  Over the couch was a hand lettered sign of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

These are the Dream Defenders.  They are an inspiring and organized black and brown student movement going into week four of their sit in and occupation of the Florida Governor’s office.  They are demanding changes in Florida laws which criminalize young black and brown people.

Each night, as uniformed police lock the doors, dozens sprawl out on the marble floor to sleep until dawn.  Visits by Rev. Jesse Jackson, and singer activist Harry Belafonte inspired the students, energized older activists, and connected this campaign to the student-led part of the civil rights movement. 

Outside the reception area were many more determined young activists from seven universities in Florida as well as other students, parents and supporters from Baltimore, Brooklyn, Charlotte, DC, Miami and New Orleans.  Some were in suits and ties, most were wearing black t-shirts with white words CAN WE DREAM TOGETHER? in English, Haitian Kreyol, Spanish and Arabic. 

Friday night more than a dozen Florida religious leaders joined over 100 Dreamers for an interfaith service.  After joyful, powerful singing and chanting echoed off the marble, prayers were offered by a Rabbi, an Imam, and representatives from Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian communities.   Isaiah, Gandhi, Jesus, the Torah, the Bible and the Koran were all invoked as the crowd held hands around the Florida state seal.  Rev Brant Copeland prayed “for a person to be able to walk in their neighborhood and not be accosted by armed people who make judgments of them.  People of faith should stand here together because we are all pointed in the same direction.” 

The Dream Defenders are pushing for three changes in Florida law.  An end to racial profiling, ending the school to prison pipeline and repeal of stand your ground.  They call their three demands Trayvon’s Law

Behind the scenes is a determined team of young female and male college age leaders of many colors building power.  “We are bringing about social change by training and organizing youth and students in nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.” 

This is not their first action.  A group marched from Sanford to Talahassee right after the Zimmerman verdict.  Others protested the omission of the “war on youth” at the 2012 presidential debate in Boca Raton.

“The media is not telling the full story,” said Dream Defender Steven Pargett of Florida A&M, who serves as communications director.  “This is not just about stand your ground.  This is a full legislative package to challenge the criminalization of our generation.  Because the Governor and the legislators are not working on this, Dream Defenders are doing the work.  We are conducting our own hearings, taking testimony from community and expert witnesses with court reporter transcription, and getting the word out.”

Repealing stand your ground is not enough, says Ciara Taylor also of Florida A&M, who serves as political director. “Ultimately you’re still ignoring the root of the issue…and that is the criminalization of our youth, the way that young people in Florida, black, white and brown, and that’s due to the school to prison pipeline and racial profiling that perpetuated throughout law enforcement.”

They are making progress.  The Florida Speaker of the House is calling for legislative hearings to review the stand your ground law.  “It’s an encouraging first step,” says Curtis Hierro of University of Central Florida, “but we know there is a lot of work to be done to stop the school to prison pipeline and racial profiling.”

One part of the sit-in is a teach-in. The testimony gathered by their three days of hearings is profound.  You can see it online at their website.  A Latino student from Tampa testified that he was profiled all the time.  “Sometimes I have to be invisible to survive.”  A young black student from Miami recalled how as a child he gave a friendly wave to a police car as it went by only to have the car stop and the officer scream at him and threaten to arrest him for flipping off the police.  “I was devastated,” he testified.  “I thought the police were super-heroes and now I was going to jail?”  His mom came out and stopped him from going to jail but the idea of Officer Friendly was gone forever.  Ten year old 5th grader Jamaya Peeples told me about her brother going to jail and how it made her mad and sad.  Jamaya said she is going to stay at the sit-in “until the Governor calls a session. If school starts before then, I will come back on weekends and breaks.” 

Dream Defenders have chapters at Florida A&M, Florida State, the Universities of Florida, Central Florida and South Florida.  They also have chapters at Florida International and Miami Dade College. But people all over the nation are joining in. They are on Twitter at #takeoverfl.

One woman who came from New York for several days said she is considering moving to Florida.  “I think what is happening down there could be the new SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).” 

We can always hope!  

Bill is human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and works with the Center for Constitutional Rights.  You can reach him at