(Note for subscribers: the post you received this weekend entitled "Stand with Monica Jones: Stop Project Rose!" has been removed and rewritten in 2 parts. This is part 1, which addresses Project Rose itself, which will be in action again this month. Later this week I'll put out part 2, in response to the pending March 14 trial of my friend and fellow activist, Monica Jones. My apologies for confusion or redundancy. - Peggy Plews)
Marcia Powell, PHX 2008
(Credit: Gary Millard)
The Sex Worker Outreach Project of Phoenix (SWOP-PHX) has been organizing international opposition to Project ROSE, a collaboration between the Phoenix Police and the ASU School of Social Work which rounds up hundreds of consenting sex workers - mostly people of color, it turns out - for prosecution each year while purporting to be rescuing "victims" of sex-trafficking. Another Project ROSE operation is supposed to go down this month, so it seems appropriate to re-visit the issue here now.
Several months ago I reached out to ASU SWK Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, at the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research Project ROSE is her baby. She provided me with the documents below by way of arguing that Project ROSE has been given a bad rap. I didn’t think they did much to make her case, but I’m publishing them to give Project Rose a fair hearing in the court of public opinion - this is their counter-argument.
All that Professor Roe’s response really did was convince me that this program needs to be shut down. Look at all the agencies that have bought into it - I wouldn't trust any of these Project ROSE collaborators if I was a sex worker, homeless, or otherwise vulnerable to police violence. In fact, if you're a homeless or runaway youth and call Tumbleweed asking for help, they'll first have the cops check to see if you have any warrants before they send an outreach worker to meet you. If you do have a warrant, you can expect the police to come get you instead.
However noble Project Rose's intentions are - ostensibly to save victims of sex trafficking from being treated like criminals and rescue them from their circumstances - the effects on most people touched by the net cast to find said victims must incredibly damaging.
The social work profession embraces the old physicians’ adage, “first do no harm”. Here they are simply ignoring the harm they do. The outcomes that ASU’s research seems to focus on doesn't detail what happens to the hundreds of people who end up being subjected to the violence of the criminal justice system through prosecution as a result of being targeted by them for "rescue", who may have never been arrested were it not for the Project ROSE stings.
In fact, if these organizations involved in Project ROSE really thought critically about all these “victims” of sex trafficking who they want to protect from arrest (even those who assert that they consented to sex work), then they should be joining the fight to legalize sex work altogether instead of encouraging the cops to round people up for “rescue” twice a year like stray dogs.
It is not anyone's contention with SWOP-Phoenix that sex-trafficking isn't a very real problem - as is human slavery and exploitation in every other industry. But Project ROSE is not targeting johns seeking underage sex workers, nor do they appear to be busting human trafficking rings. They don’t even seem to be finding many "pimps". Rather, the Phoenix Police are sweeping city streets and Backpage.com ads for sex workers in the name of "rescuing" them, promising prosecution to those who either don't agree to or qualify for diversion, or don't complete Project ROSE's requirements succcessfully. That represents about 70% of all those arrested during these stings.
Thus, the ASU School of Social Work is responsible for assuring the criminal prosecution of hundreds of sex workers a year by encouraging police to profile and arrest them - or rather, abduct and transport them to the Bethany Bible Church basement where all these human service agencies lie in wait to "rescue" them. Eventually, some of these people may end up in prison, as the fourth violation of the city prostitution law is a felony and often means prison time. That's what happened to Marcia Powell - she got 27 months for being a repeat offender and died in a cage in the desert after being set up in a sting to offer a cop a $20 blow job. In reality, most sex workers are more troubled by violence from the state and police than by pimps, traffickers or johns.
Professor Roe-Sepowitz insists that "there's no other way" to locate, identify, and offer help to potential trafficking victims than to have all these people arrested and brought to them in handcuffs, where they then sort out the "victims" from the "real criminals". When I did outreach to people who were homeless, mentally ill, and "resistant to services" many years ago in Michigan, we actually went out into the streets, shelters, and encampments looking for them ourselves - not with the cops, either. We recognized that not only would they not be able to trust us if we brought the cops (or sent them to bring clients to us in handcuffs and tears), but that there was a far greater likelihood that our potential clients would be hurt by police intervention than that our staff would be hurt by any of them. That's not rocket science, either; I don't know why these agencies don't do the same in their outreach to the "victims" they wish to "rescue".
As a point of clarification, by the way, there's a stark difference of opinion, more than just a matter of semantics, between the folks at Project ROSE/PHX Police and the Sex Workers Outreach Project when discussing whether or not the "victims" taken to Bethany Bible Church in handcuffs to be confronted by a prosecutor with the threat of jail down the road if they don't go along with the show are actually under arrest or not. Project ROSE asserts the people who refuse or don't qualify for rescue are not really arrested the night they are picked up and offered the option of salvation over jail, since they aren't immediately transported to jail.
Just because the harm to their would-be clients' lives doesn't happen in their line of sight or the night of their "outreach", doesn't mean that such harm doesn't happen, or that Project ROSE collaborators aren't all responsible to some degree for the consequences of those arrests. Arrest, by the way, is what the ACLU of Arizona calls it when you're placed in handcuffs by the police and taken against your will to a location of the cops' choosing to be threatened with further state violence if you appear to be anything but a victim of someone else's crime to them. I agree with SWOP-PHX and the ACLU here - if that happened to me, I'd say I had either been abducted or arrested. In either case, its a violent thing to do to a person. It also brings into question the validity of the "victimization histories" the cops take from their prisoners that night, all of whom are no doubt trying to figure out how to get back out of trouble.
Furthermore, whether they are booked into jail that night or not, the effect is the same down the road - those picked up in Project ROSE stings who don't qualify for or succeed at the diversion program get served with a summons to answer the charges levied against them from that encounter with the cops, and if they are guilty of any prostitution-related offense in Phoenix, it means mandatory jail time - which is doing violence to every one of those people so affected, some of whom may well lose their "day jobs", housing, custody of children, and other critical things in their lives due to that jail stay - not to mention being forced through the trauma of incarceration itself.
And for those of you who think "big deal - a few days in jail never hurt anybody", read this and think again. Just two days in the door killed diabetic Deborah Braillard, so don't ever underestimate the harm the prison industrial complex can do to a person's life.
Finally, I don't know how many readers have a social work orientation - I, myself, spent many years studying professional social work, only to abandon it for more radical possibilities for changing the world. Nevertheless, the profession has some good ethical standards worth looking at here, in the context of this whole debate, since Project ROSE is proudly supported by the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. Among other concerns (like the respect for the autonomy of individuals and basic human rights), the subjects targeted by Project Rose are actually official social work research subjects being coerced into the program studying them, which violates fundamental social work ethics about “informed consent” - how was that ever approved as an academic research project, I wonder?
Here is the national SWK Code of Ethics. The Social Work Journal AFFILIA has a good overview of the numerous ethical concerns involved in Project Rose. I encourage readers to contact the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Council on Social Work Education and the ASU School of Social Work Dean (Steve Anderson) with complaints about professional ethics violations, and help us put an end to Project ROSE. Be sure to cc Michael Crow, the President of ASU, too, while you're at it. He needs to know what's going on.
Here are Professor Roe's documents, in defense of everything the Valley's non-profit industrial complex and the Phoenix Police are doing to help victims of sex-trafficking: