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The Appeal Podcast Episode 1: District Attorneys Are The Most Powerful People You’ve Never Heard Of

With Josie Duffy Rice, senior staff reporter at The Appeal.

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx

The Appeal Podcast Episode 1: District Attorneys Are The Most Powerful People You’ve Never Heard Of

With Josie Duffy Rice, senior staff reporter at The Appeal.

District attorneys wield enormous power but have been historically overlooked in efforts to reform the legal system. Recently that has changed, with the rise of a bail reform movement and new primary election challenges upending the “tough on crime” status quo. Our guest Josie Duffy Rice, the host of our sister podcast “Justice in America,” will be joining us to explain why DAs are such an important—and often unseen—fulcrum of power.

The Appeal is available on iTunes, Soundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host, Adam Johnson. This is a new podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Just to orient you a little bit this is a new podcast project that’s launched in concert with The Appeal magazine, an online magazine that deals with criminal justice reform, prisons, prosecutors and similar related topics. It’s a journalistic endeavor that aims to shine a light on the undercovered aspects of criminal justice in prisons and I’m super excited to work on their podcast. The general format is basically going to be Q&A. I’m going to center the guest and what they’re working on. I want to thank you so much for those who have joined us on this pilot episode. Today we’ll be joined by Josie Duffy Rice, a senior lawyer at Fair Punishment Project, contributing writer to its sister publication The Appeal and host of the upcoming podcast Justice In America, which she will host with Clint Smith.

[Begin Clip]

Josie Duffy Rice: You know prosecutors have a direct and consistent impact on people in communities, um, day to day. They make decisions that if they’re not impacting you directly they’re probably impacting some of your family or some of your friends and if they’re not impacting anybody you know, you are living a life unlike most people in America.

[End Clip]

Adam: Joining us now is Josie Duffy Rice. Thank you so much for coming on.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: So we are co-starting these podcasts together. Mine’s going to be more Q&A. Yours is going to be more technical. I’m super excited to have you on as the first guest as kind of a soft launch for your project. Before we start, I want you to talk a little bit about The Appeal and what its goals are moving forward and what your specific role is in that capacity.

[Fade Music]

Josie Duffy Rice: Sure. So The Appeal was first known as Injustice Today and we started last summer. And the purpose of, what is now known as The Appeal, was to provide a new source of criminal justice journalism to the public. The reason that we thought that The Appeal was necessary is because criminal justice issues do get a fair amount of attention, not enough, but some in mainstream media, but often that attention is focused on the wrong aspects of the criminal justice system or perhaps the aspects of the criminal justice system that don’t have as much of an impact as some of the others that were getting less attention. Um, my examples for that are: you read a lot of stories about innocence and you read a lot of stories about private prisons, both of which matter. They’re not irrelevant and they deserve some attention. But when you take away the innocent people, right? Quote unquote “innocent people” or you take away the private prisons; we still have an incarceration crisis in this country.

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: We still have a criminal justice system that is massively bloated. And what else is happening that deserves attention, so that was one of the reasons that we wanted to start The Appeal. Um, and a lot of the work that we do there focuses on prosecutors. Because of that reason we didn’t think that prosecutors were getting the attention that they require in order to hold them accountable as public servants and elected officials and, you know, powerful people. Just more generally.

Adam: Can you Josie tell us a little bit about what your and Clint’s new project is and what listeners can expect to hear from your podcast?

Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely. So Clint Smith and I are starting a podcast called Justice In America. Clint is a poet, a Ph.D. candidate, he has a lot of experience on criminal justice issues, particularly education in the jail and prison system. And we’re starting a podcast on criminal justice issues that we want to do. Two things basically, one is to really explain how these issues work and how they operate. Um, we’re starting with bail and we’ll also be covering immigration, voting rights, prison conditions, etcetera. Because we’ve noticed and we, I’m sure you’ve noticed too, that so many people care about these issues and maybe have a cursory understanding of them but don’t actually really understand how they work. So one part of it is making sure that we are explaining to our audience how the system functions and the other part is providing some different perspectives on these issues. On possible solutions, on who’s impacted and how and featuring some of the people we know from organizers to policy people to people who do direct representation for people in prison and jail to provide that perspective and give the audience a little bit more context for how the system functions.

Adam: Great. I’m looking forward to that very much as I imagine many of our listeners are. So first things first, which is both you and I and the broader The Appeal project, prioritize and focus on prosecutors and district attorneys. Um, I want to sort of set the table for those who are listening who maybe not totally intimate with why they’re important. Can we sort of talk a little bit about the broader nature of district attorneys? What percent are elected, what percent are appointed and why The Appeal and you specifically have put such a focus on prosecutors as an entry point into meaningful reform as opposed to what you describe as a kind of surface level or fringe case reform efforts.

Josie Duffy Rice: There are 2300 prosecutors in America and that’s on the state level, the local level, um, the federal level is a different beast, and also it deserves attention, but most of our attention goes to local prosecutors. Those are 2300 elected prosecutors, obviously, many more assistant prosecutors in those offices and I couldn’t tell you the exact percent that are elected, but in every state other than New Jersey and Connecticut, they elect at least some of their prosecutors, usually all of them.

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: You know prosecutors have a direct and consistent impact on people in communities, um, day to day. They make decisions that if they’re not impacting you directly they’re probably impacting some of your family or some of your friends and if they’re not impacting anybody you know, you’re living a life unlike most people in America. They serve this purpose of holding people “responsible,” quote unquote, for the crimes that they have allegedly committed. Um, and they have an immense amount of power and traditionally have been never really held accountable, especially in comparison to the power they have. So the equation that I always spell out is that prosecutors have excessive power, they have bad incentives a lot of the time and they have very little accountability. And if you combine those three things, you have a monster. Now what we’re seeing is that people are talking more about prosecutors over the past two or three years than ever before. They’re getting more attention from journalists, you know, more questions are being asked and we’re seeing a different kind of prosecutor pop up in elections. And I do think in some ways the window is shifting, right?

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: But traditionally prosecutors have run on a tough-on-crime platform. They’ve made thousands and thousands and thousands of decisions without any scrutiny or accountability. And you know they’ve changed the entire fabric of neighborhoods. They’re directly responsible for mass incarceration. They’re not the only people responsible for mass incarceration, but they’re certainly a large part of it. And they are directly responsible for, in some ways, the quality of life that people of color especially and poor people are living in America. So in our heads, it just was time to give them some more attention. Right? Police have long gotten attention, prisons have long gotten attention and again, not enough, but at least someone has been paying attention to those issues for longer than two years. But the middleman, the prosecutor, was getting nothing for decades and in our head it’s time to change that.

Adam: Yeah. So the general idea is that, and this is the, you know, the sort of way it was explained to me, and for our listeners, of what the broader project is, is that there’s just (a) too many people in prison incarcerated, um, there’s too many arrows in the quiver of prosecutors to put people in prison and when they are imprisoned they are put in prison for a very long time that we have a general sort of overly punitive and carceral state apparatus where there’s basically no incentive to be quote unquote “soft-on-crime.” And the easiest position with which to demagogue that and the easiest position with which to enforce that punitive ethos is in the DA or prosecutor level.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right. You know, I think we look at the criminal justice system in a similar way as people think about climate change. Mass incarceration is real and people like to frame that as an opinion, but it’s only an opinion to the extent that, you know, climate change is real is an opinion. It might be an opinion, but it’s right. The facts bear it out. Um, reality bears it out. And for so many people in America their day-to-day lives are controlled by the criminal justice system and prosecutors were kind of acting with impunity even when we were trying to hold other parts of the system accountable. And so that was part of the thinking behind creating The Appeal.

Adam: Yeah. Because the general, I mean, you know, you have a country where the president goes around condemning countries for political prisoners when the US has the largest prison population in the world by a factor of 2, 3, 4X, depending on the country.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: Obviously people have heard the stat, twenty five percent of the world’s prison population, but five percent of the population, which is a pretty staggering statistic when you actually break down the numbers.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: And these aren’t of course just numbers, these are people with lives, families. There’s another element to which I think is super interesting about The Appeal, which is, which is one of the reasons I joined is that there’s a idea that it’s not just about prisons, it’s also there’s another side of the coin, which is surveillance and monitoring-

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes.

Adam: And basically putting people on the grid and where I think other kind of reformist efforts have failed and the reason why I don’t like a lot of reformist efforts personally, to editorialize here, is that they omit this altogether, that there’s this idea of probation, parole and monitoring. Can you talk a little bit about the movement towards that and how that can sometimes serve as a sort of pseudo solution for this problem?

Josie Duffy Rice: I think that unless you really get in the weeds and you really think critically about what you want, it’s very easy to create solutions in the criminal justice system that feel like solutions, but actually are just perpetuating the same problem. So, you know, I think there are too many people serving too long sentences in prison right now. I think that having them out on parole or probation is in some ways an improvement and looks much more like an improvement than it is. Part of the reason for that, is like you mentioned, it requires just immense levels of surveillance. Often it requires a lot of money to kind of keep people monitored but not in prison. And then I think that the third thing is that it’s still requiring something from people that shouldn’t be involved in the system a lot of the time. Probation and parole are very easy to violate, right?

Adam: Yes.

Josie Duffy Rice: They often end up getting people back in the system for many more years than they maybe would have had going in for the first time. We see constantly stories of people accidentally violating their parole or probation or a miscommunication landing someone back in prison or not having the $300 you need that month to pay your fee and then you’re back in the system. And so all of it still requires people to be tangled in the system, right?

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: All of it: prison, probation, jail, parole. Um, all of this still means that the system has its tentacles around you and what we’re trying to figure out, I think as a community, is how do we stop that? How do we kind of stem the tide of criminal justice involvement, you know, its ubiquity among so many people in this country?

Adam: There is a lot of overlap in terms of a lot of these organizations, from the bail reform organizations to even some of the grassroots attempts to elect people like Larry Krasner, is that there’s just too many people in the system.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: And that if you reduce the pie, as it were, that how the pie is allocated becomes, is a little less important than that. I know that, for example, you mentioned the sort of temptation of probation. I, back in my more checkered days, I would always have, I had a guy who would always tell me if you can choose between one year in prison or five years probation, you always take the one year, which seems shocking to me. But the argument is that they will always find a way to put you in prison.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes.

Adam: They’ll sort of find ways of doing it, even if they can’t.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes.

Adam: And so I do want to move to the topic of efforts to actually win DA-ships for more reform or even more radical people on the district attorney level. So you have people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, uh, you have people like Kim Foxx in Chicago. Can we talk about efforts that, the efforts that have been made, without, of course, campaigning for or lobbying for anyone, um, the efforts to, to actually move the needle and even some people who I consider to be radicals have kind of praised some of the things that have been done. Is this a realistic or useful avenue for actually changing the system? Or is it a bit of a siren song in your opinion?

Josie Duffy Rice: About three years ago I started working for Daily Kos where I was covering prosecutors and at the time, I mean I was exclusively covering prosecutors and I’m not sure how many people even do that at this point, but at the time they just weren’t getting a ton of attention. That was in 2015. And in that time, since from then to now, it’s just been really crazy to see how many prosecutors have run on a platform of being less punitive and more progressive than their opponents or the incumbent, and won. It’s a, it’s a shocking amount of wins. And I do think it matters. You know, having a progressive DA can have a serious impact on people’s lives.

Adam: Yes.

Josie Duffy Rice: They can implement office policies that materially affect the lives of people. That can reverberate to other law enforcement sectors in that place. They can ask for less prison time, less jail time, shorter sentences. They can categorically refuse to ask for bail for some crimes. These are major things that they can do. I think there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that like there’s no one answer to this problem, right? If we elect 2300 progressive DAs tomorrow, we’re going to see a different criminal justice system, but it will still have fundamental problems, right?

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: The prisons will probably still be bad. Even if there are less people in them, they’ll still be inhumane. It doesn’t mean that we’ll have better police. Although, again, I do think that a progressive prosecutor can influence a police department in some ways. So it doesn’t solve everything, but it can alleviate a lot of the harms that we see. I think that being said, there are still some major roadblocks that we’re facing even among progressive DAs. You know, there’s an entire community of people who work to get these people elected. Um, we’re not part of that community, but we, like everybody else can see it from, from afar. And what you’re, what you see is grassroots groups, progressive funders. You see an entire infrastructure being built around getting progressive DAs elected. The problem with accountability, right, is what you do once they’re in office.

Adam: Yeah.

Josie Duffy Rice: Um, and the reason it’s hard sometimes to keep them completely accountable is because these elected DAs aren’t actually the ones in the courtroom, you know, those are the assistant DAs. And so they can implement policies or suggestions or guidelines but it’s other people who are actually making the decisions day to day. And these offices often see hundreds of thousands of cases a year. I mean Chicago sees literally almost half a million cases a year. I mean, just think about that number. You know 400,000 misdemeanors a year in Chicago. So how do you monitor what everybody’s doing all the time? How do you make sure that nobody is asking for something outrageous or punishing someone inordinately or how do you make sure that all 700 DAs are being, you know, are thinking about racial equality or keeping in mind someone’s income level when they make decisions? You can’t really. And so in some ways it’s very different than trying to hold another elected official accountable where you want to see the legislation they supported or you know, what they wrote or voted for. This is kind of a constant process that requires attention from people in the community nonstop.

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: There are a couple of things that help. Having data helps and we don’t have very much data. We have a lot of data from Kim Foxx. She made a groundbreaking decision to release a lot of data, but generally we don’t have any numbers to tell us what days are doing day to day, which makes accountability even harder. I think though that if you think about this and the ways that we think about elections, which is who is an elected official accountable to, in Chicago, the people who got Kim Foxx elected were not the police, it wasn’t the police union, it wasn’t this like typical law enforcement base. It was a progressive grass roots base, it was a base of people of color, a base of poor people, a base of people who have some involvement in the criminal justice system and you know, when that’s who propels you to office, that’s who you need to be accountable to. I think that helps.

Adam: Right. Yeah. So let’s talk about Foxx real quick because I think I want to use her to pivot to another question, which is the, um, the Chicago Appleseed organization did a review of Foxx and basically found that the first year was a kind of mixed bag, that there was an actual meaningful, that there was more disclosure, more transparency, I guess less punitive punishments, especially for small drug offenses, but there was an uptick in prosecution for gun crime. And I want to talk about the issue of gun control because it, I think there’s sort of two issues that, where liberals and leftists, where there’s a bit of tension and that’s number one, the issue of what people sort of generally call carceral feminism or the issue of rape, which we’ll table for another episode, um, and then there’s the issue of gun control. So obviously there’s a huge movement right now to reform gun control. Parkland has radically changed the conversation. The school shooting that happened in Florida back in February. Now, people who are, who deal in these spaces who deal in reducing prison sentences, especially in inner city communities, especially ones with huge gun measures like Chicago, they think that this, this, this can be a bit deceptive and a bit problematic because ultimately a lot of these gun control measures end up disproportionately harming African Americans and tacking on five, ten years to their sentence. So as a sort of right minded liberal listener who wants to sort of do the right thing, in your opinion, how does one negotiate this tension within the left between the instinct to want to protect children from getting gunned down in school versus an understanding that in the aggregate these gun control measures, especially against automatic weapons and such, can effectively end people’s lives if they’re caught with them or even suspected of being caught with them.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yep. You know, I think this gets to a fundamental problem when we talk about criminal justice as it relates to any other sort of social issue, which is that we are still a very punitive society and that there is an entire kind of move towards criminal justice reform and we talk about mass incarceration etcetera. But at the end of the day, even a lot of people on the left, their instinct is to criminalize and their instinct is to, when there’s a problem, criminalize our way out of it. And you can really see that in the conversation around guns. There obviously are too many. I mean, it’s obvious to me and I think it’s obvious to a lot of people, there are too many guns in this country. They are for many people too accessible. There’s a culture around gun ownership and in many ways some of that culture perpetuates violence and is responsible when we see things like Parkland. But the answer that many people jump to is, ‘Okay, mentally ill people can’t have guns’ or ‘We need to outlaw these guns and if you’re caught with them, you know, you’re now in trouble.’ And the reality is anytime that you implement a new criminal law, I would say the vast majority of times, ninety five percent of times, that law is going to impact some communities more than others. And those communities are communities like what you hear about in Chicago, poor communities, black communities, that’s who pays the price.

Adam: It’s not really going to be Cletus who is going to be in trouble for these new laws. It’s going to be poor African Americans.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And it’s complicated in a lot of ways, you know, felon gun possession laws have been responsible for a major, major increase in incarceration. And regardless of whether or not you think people with criminal records or anybody should have a gun, what we’re doing is throwing people in jail simply for possession, not for doing anything, right? Having it creates this sort of pipeline into prison. And that pipeline usually is black and is usually a poor. So you asked a question of like, how do you resolve this tension? And I’m not sure that I have an answer to that and the sense that like we have really, we’re in a pickle nationwide. If we outlawed guns tomorrow, there are still so many guns in America right now. If we stopped manufacturing them tomorrow, that is to say. And there’s no easy solution. I do think the answer is to go after what’s accessible, which is manufacturing, ease of purchase, gun shows. I do think we should be headed in that direction.

Adam: It’s sort of an approach that one would take to drugs, which is you deal with it, you deal with high level dealers as opposed to the petty users.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: And right now we have a country where, you know, yeah, you have gun manufacturers that are contracted by the government, you have large weapons contractors who sell to different countries and so those guys are sort of okay, but then the sort of low-level guy on the street is somehow a menace and I think that’s kind of where the conversation needs to shift from my own editorial perspective.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

Adam: Another place where there is some interesting traction going on that I’ve been following and tracking closely is the movement to reform or abolish cash bail and efforts from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Chicago where you have organizations that, what they do is they do two things. They actually have a fund that puts up bond and gets people out of jail who have been in for usually excessive amounts of time or, well in all cases they’re too poor to afford it. So you have this idea of cash bail, which a lot of people don’t really know about and I didn’t know about where effectively you have a whole class of people who are in jail before they’ve even had trial or before they’ve been found guilty of anything, who are incarcerated for simply because they can’t afford to pay for bail. Now, I was shocked to learn the statistics on this. Twenty percent of people who are currently incarcerated in the United States have not been found guilty of a crime, which strikes, I think even the most liberal reform person as being intuitively offensive.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: Uh, that’s a really high number to me. And I know, I know that in certain county jails the numbers are as high as seventy, eighty percent because that’s sort of where what county jails function as. And these bail reform groups that have emerged over the past few years have seen some pretty good progress. I know that in the city of Chicago the number of people who are currently in jail pretrial has gone from about 8,000 to about 6,100. So you’ve seen some actual consequences. And there was a ruling recently to not institute bail that was beyond what people can pay. Can you talk about those movements and what the momentum surrounding them is and what the prospect of their success is?

Josie Duffy Rice: Sure. So bail reform has just kind of exploded in terms of an issue that people focus on and there have, there has been for a long time certain pockets of criminal justice reformers or the criminal justice movement that has focused on bail, but now I think we can agree that it’s getting a lot more traction, a lot more publicity and we’re actually seeing some real changes on the ground. There are different ways of handling this, right? So one of our first episodes of our podcast, Justice In America, is on bail. And one of the people that we’re talking to is Alec Karakatsanis, who runs Civil Rights Corps. Civil Rights Corps is an organization that is taking the approach of suing different counties nationwide for their use of money bail. That’s one approach that people are taking. There’s a legislative approach. For example, New Jersey outlawed cash bail. There’s, like you mentioned the bailouts, Mama’s Day Bail Out, which is an effort to raise money to bail out people who are serving time. It’s kind of a spinoff of community bail funds, which we’re also seeing more of, Brooklyn, Chicago. There are efforts on sort of every different plane to kind of address bail and these community bail funds are really incredible and they’re really a brilliant idea because they are a response to the bail bondsman relationship that you see for many people who are trying to pay bail, which is really predatory and harmful to those who don’t have the money to pay. Um, and so bail funds are a grassroots community response to that and that’s truly incredible. I think that like, for myself, and I think everyone who runs a bail fund would agree with me, the goal is that one day these funds are obsolete, right?

Adam: Yes.

Josie Duffy Rice: The goal is that one day we don’t need them because in a fair system justice can never be tied to wealth. It can never be tied to money. So we truly have to rethink what pretrial holds and pretrial release look like. And that is what so many people are doing on the ground today. I think a lot of people are also trying to figure out if not bail, what do you use? Because there are some issues we have to grapple with. On one hand, it’s not fair that anybody is incarcerated before they’ve been convicted. On the other hand, if Ted Bundy, which is, uh, you know, always the rights’ example, but I’m going, I’m trying to think of someone extreme, you know, if he gets arrested and he hasn’t been convicted, but he’s, he’s a suspect in thirty murders, like maybe you don’t want him back out on the street. I think that the amount of people that we should be holding in pretrial should be one percent of what we’re holding now. Most people are not a danger to themselves and others once they’ve been arrested.

Adam: Yeah.

Josie Duffy Rice: Most people are not a flight risk. It’s just not actually practical or reasonable how many people we hold, not to mention ethical-

Adam: Yes.

Josie Duffy Rice:  But regardless of what we decide to do about pretrial release more generally the answer can never be that it’s tied to money.

Adam: Um, yeah. I mean, we’ve heard stories about people who’ve been in prison for years without a trial who haven’t left jail simply because they can’t afford a five, ten thousand dollar bond, which, you know, this is one of these issues where I don’t think most people really get it or know the wild racial and economic disparities that exist in the bail, in terms of bail and getting people out of prison pretrial. And I feel like when you explain that in those terms and you put a face on it, it de-abstracts it because we, you know, prison reform, and I understand why, but we talk a lot in big numbers. We talk a lot about ‘twenty five percent of the world’s prison population,’ you know, ‘X amount of people,’ ‘Y amount of people.’ But I mean these are people who are in prison before they’ve been found guilty of anything who for months, if not years, who can’t get a job, can’t go to school.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.

Adam: You know, they lose bonds with their father, with their sons, with their daughter, with family members.

Josie Duffy Rice:  Yep, yep.

Adam: Uh, there are statistics and statistics that show you’re actually way more likely to win a case if you’re out of jail. So then you have that compounding aspect where it’s almost impossible if not incredibly difficult to quarterback your own defense because obviously a lot of public defenders are sort of, you know, they kind of phone it in. Um, and so there’s all these sort of tremendous consequences for pretrial detention and it’s one of the things that I know that your podcast is going to focus on and I’m super excited to hear about it on the first episode.

Josie Duffy Rice: Great yeah, we’re excited to talk about it.

Adam: Sorry. It’s one of those things where I get kind of angry about it.

Josie Duffy Rice: No, it’s outrageous.

Adam: I’m supposed to be the dispassionate host, but you know.

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think that ship sailed.

Adam: Yeah, I’m pretty sure it did. So there’s an interesting conversation surrounding how to quote, “reform police,” where DAs can kind of come in as well, where there’s this idea that the Department of Justice comes along under Obama, Jeff Sessions doesn’t do it anymore, but under Obama they would come and they would review these police departments and give a series of recommendations in a really kind of cynical, liberal or I guess someone argued neo-liberal spending mechanism. Several mayors have used this line of police reform or the movement for police reform to actually increase the budgets of police departments. You see this time and time again. In a 2015 interview with The New Republic, then candidate for president Hillary Clinton, when she was asked what her Black Lives Matter platform was one of the things she told the interviewer was that she wanted more money for police departments so they could train people. Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is building a $95 million police academy and he’s using the DoJ recommendations for police reform to justify the cost, which the police academy, especially since dozens and dozens of schools in Chicago have been closed, has been met with tremendous pushback. Um, to what extent is there a worry that attempts to quote unquote “reform the police” or criminal justice in general will just end up funneling more money into the system itself?

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think that’s a real concern and I think it also touches on something, even taking the increased funding out of the equation, you’re touching on something that is, for me, a very frustrating issue because it’s treating the means to an end, as an end. Right?

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: And so we see it all the time, ‘Oh, we need more community policing, we need more implicit bias training.’ You know, ‘We need more community events with the police.’

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: ‘The police have to see these residents as people and the residents need to see the police as people. And we need like kind of trying this, this construct of building more humanity among all the parties and how that will lead to a changed police force.’ And what I would say is like maybe, but probably not, but regardless, that’s not the goal. The goal is not implicit bias training, right?

Adam: Right.

Josie Duffy Rice: The goal is less involvement by the police with the police. The goal is less brutality. The goal is a more functional police presence, if there’s a presence at all. And we have to rethink what we’re asking for. When Rahm Emanuel says, ‘We are going to do more implicit bias training.’ I don’t really care how you get there, but you have to get there. You can do implicit bias training all day and if it doesn’t actually change the numbers on the ground, people’s experiences, then it’s not working and we have to move to plan B, C, D, E or F. You know, I’m not a believer that implicit bias training works. The numbers don’t bear out.

Adam: Yeah. There’s a weird kind of meta ethos you see sometimes where people think the solution to gross racial disparities is not to lower the amount of African Americans in prison but is somehow to increase the amount of white people.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: The thing is, we’ve done all this before. In the nineties when all the major, the major crime reform bill that put tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of African Americans in prison, was floated in the nineties, they used the term “community policing,” it is a very popular term.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: If you actually go through and read the media at the time it’s ‘Bill Clinton argues for community policing’, which was a totally BS, like liberal nonsensical term that is just a way for putting more police on the streets. And then when, when, when I saw Hillary Clinton used it again in 2015, she used the term “community policing.” It’s a way to kind of launder what is basically the same old thing. There are some marginal improvements around the edges in terms of, yeah, you know, it’s all things being equal its probably better police forces being more diverse, like sure, but you know, the LAPD, the racial makeup of the LAPD is completely almost one to one representative of Los Angeles and it’s one of the most abusive and racist police departments in the country.

Josie Duffy Rice: Right.

Adam: So I’m not sure there’s a lot of empirical evidence that supports these kinds of liberal half measures and I think when people speak about vagaries and the idea that it’s somehow a moral failing on the part of individual police officers, yeah, I think it generally kind of misses what we really need, which I know from people who work on the streets and who are more of the kind of grassroots Black Lives Matter, one of the primary animating, I guess, causes, is simply just to defund the police more and that the last thing we need is a $95 million dollar police academy in the middle of Chicago where you train more people to manage the city’s poor population.

Josie Duffy Rice: I think the half measures being mistaken for whole measures is an epidemic especially in criminal justice reform. I think over and over we see among people trying to reform DAs, prisons, police, basically asking for the wrong thing and settling for the wrong thing as a win. The reality is that it’s quantifiable. We can talk about how many people are getting arrested, what those people look like, how they’re being treated, what kind of sentences are facing, what their experiences with the police versus other neighborhoods. This is what needs to change and if having a more diverse police force got us there, if more training got us there, then it would be a conversation worth having. I have seen no evidence that that’s how it works. The evidence isn’t there and so I’m not going to sleep well at night. I’m not going to be able to think about doing anything else with my life until I see the numbers change and the numbers haven’t changed significantly enough to think of these other solutions as solutions. They just haven’t.


Adam: Well Josie, thank you for coming on. That was great.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you. Before you go, I want you to let us know when exactly your podcast will launch or when people can expect to see it.

Josie Duffy Rice: So my podcast with Clint Smith is called Justice In America, it will be launching early June and we’re super excited.

Adam: I’m looking forward to it. Thanks so much for coming on.

Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you so much Adam.

Adam: That was Josie Duffy Rice, a senior lawyer at the Fair Punishment Project, contributing writer to The Appeal and host of the upcoming podcast Justice In America. Be sure to check that out. It’ll be on iTunes, Stitcher and other places you can find podcasts. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is The Appeal Podcast. It is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams with executive producer Sarah Leonard. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll catch you next week.

Meet the DA Who Has Been Accused of Sexual Misconduct That Affected a Murder Trial

In the era of #MeToo, can we hold law enforcement officials accountable?

Maricopa prosecutor Juan Martinez
Matt York / AP

Meet the DA Who Has Been Accused of Sexual Misconduct That Affected a Murder Trial

In the era of #MeToo, can we hold law enforcement officials accountable?

In  June 2008, Travis Alexander, a 30-year-old salesman, fell off the radar, not answering calls and missing important work meetings.  After a few days, a group of friends went to his home in the suburbs of Mesa, Arizona, to check on him.  They found his mutilated body in the shower. “We think he’s dead, there’s lots of blood,” one of his friends frantically told the 911 dispatcher. “There’s blood in his bedroom, behind the door and all over,” she said. It was a gruesome scene: Alexander had been stabbed almost 30 times, his throat had been slit, and he had been shot in the head. By the time his friends found him, he had been dead for five days.

On July 9, exactly one month after Alexander was found, his ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias was charged with first-degree murder. Initially, Arias insisted she didn’t do it. “No jury is going to convict me … because I’m innocent and you can mark my words on that one,” she told “Inside Edition.” She swore she hadn’t seen Alexander in two months. But her story changed and then changed again. Eventually she admitted killing Alexander, but insisted it was self-defense. Her trial made national headlines, largely because of Arias, a young brunette woman the media breathlessly described as “beautiful,” “lovely,” “attractive,” and “soft-spoken.”

The case was tried by Juan Martinez, a star prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Martinez had handled some of the county’s most prominent cases throughout his career, but the Arias trial was big enough to eclipse all of them.

Martinez was known in Maricopa for being aggressive, charming, and playing fast and loose with the rules. Phoenix magazine described him as “the most reviled and revered person at the Maricopa County Courthouse.” He is one of the few prosecutors who has what could reasonably be called a fan base — the Juan Martinez Prosecutor Support Page on Facebook has over 13,000 members, and is filled with praise for Martinez and disdain for defendants and their lawyers. There are no detractors here, just people calling Martinez “Mr juanderful,” “a classy gentleman,” and the “Best Prosecutor ever!!!!”

But many feel differently. Martinez has what Phoenix described as a “proclivity for salacious yarn-spinning and below-the-belt tactics.” Said one Phoenix lawyer, “He has a way of getting what he wants in the courtroom, and he is truly relentless. This is not necessarily a compliment.” Mel McDonald, a former judge and prosecutor and current defense attorney, was more explicit. “Juan is a victory-at-any-cost prosecutor driven by his own ego,” he stated. “He lies easily and he always overreaches, always plays to the mob mentality. … He doesn’t play clean, and he is far too devious for me to have any respect for him. He is dangerous.”

The stakes are as high as it gets.  Martinez has been described as one of the top death-penalty prosecutors in the state, racking up at least eight death penalty sentences during his career. He has been accused of prosecutorial misconduct in six of those cases. The state court identified 17 instances of inappropriate behavior by Martinez in one case alone. And new allegations indicate that Martinez’s misconduct doesn’t stop at the courthouse. Since Arias’s conviction in 2015, Martinez has been accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior by multiple women. In February 2017, Karen Clark and Ralph Adams, attorneys representing Arias in her appeal, filed a bar complaint that accused Martinez of significant inappropriate sexual misconduct related to the case, including having sex with a member of the press in exchange for favorable coverage and sexting jurors. In March of this year, they presented the state bar with new sexual harassment allegations, supposedly from as many as eight women. The new allegations raise even more questions about his professional conduct, especially when it comes to his relationships with women.

According to the attorneys, Martinez egregiously violated various ethical rules throughout the Arias trial. Martinez allegedly had sexual relationships with two bloggers who were covering the Arias trial. (Both women denied these claims, though Clark and Adams included extensive supporting evidence, including text messages and corroborating testimony. Martinez neither denied nor admitted to having sex with these women.) According to the complaint, Martinez “did so for his own selfish reasons, including so that they would publish certain non-public information that was damaging to Arias’s defense.”

The attorneys went even further than accusing Martinez of leaking information that would be inadmissible in court to the media. Martinez allegedly used one of the bloggers to “help him gather ‘dirt’ about a seated juror” because he thought the juror would be unwilling to sentence Arias to death. Martinez was unsuccessful in his effort to get the juror unseated, but his instincts were correct: That jury member was ultimately the only holdout on a death penalty conviction, resulting in a mistrial for the sentencing phase. (Mysteriously, “minutes” after a mistrial was declared, the juror’s name was made public.)

Martinez’s obsession with finding out private details about jurors resulted in additional violations of ethical boundaries during Arias’s sentencing retrial, according to Clark and Adams’s complaint. He allegedly engaged in an “inappropriate telephone and text-message relationship” with a juror who had been dismissed midtrial. The relationship, the complaint alleges, included the woman sending him nude photos and was encouraged by one of the bloggers. The dismissed juror later said that both Martinez and the blogger tried to get her to disclose private details about other jury members.

Clark and Adams presented the state bar with a wealth of evidence to support these allegations, including text message records, interviews with persons involved, and corroboration from friends and family. What’s more, Martinez did not explicitly deny most of the allegations, stating that his “private sexual life is no one’s business but his own.” Yet, in January, the state bar’s legal counsel dismissed the charges outright, refusing to even refer the case to the bar’s probable cause committee, which could have recommended consequences or sanctions, or to refer his case to a disciplinary hearing.  Although the bar stated that “some of the charges relating to [his] conduct …would undermine public confidence that her case was administered justly,” they said that there was not “clear and convincing evidence” that he engaged in the behavior he was accused of. And while the bar called these alleged relationships “ill-advised” and stated that they would “predictably result in allegations of misconduct,” they also ultimately agreed with Martinez, concluding that sexual relationships with members of the media “does not constitute a violation of the ethical rules.”  

Clark and Adams insist, in their appeal of the bar’s decision, that, “the sex is not the point.” The point, rather, is that Martinez allegedly “engaged in improper, undisclosed relationships with these members of the media covering the case; provided them after-hours access to non-public areas of the MCAO offices and non-public information about the case; used them in many ways … with the prosecution of a death penalty case,” they wrote.

“The improper relationships exist within the context of voluminous other acts of misconduct: which taken together constitute a gross violation of Respondent’s duties as a minister of justice, and a gross lapse of judgment in how he should conduct himself in the most serious case for which a prosecutor can be responsible: a capital murder case in which he seeks the death penalty.” (In March, the bar’s Attorney Discipline Probable Cause Committee ordered the state bar to reinvestigate Martinez, in response to Clark and Adams’s appeal.)  

It’s not the first time the State Bar of Arizona has dealt with allegations about Martinez’s conduct. In just the three years since Arias was sentenced to life without parole in 2015, Martinez has faced six bar complaints on various grounds. All have been dismissed.

Even now, in an era that demands both increased accountability for sexual harassment and increased prosecutorial accountability more broadly, almost no one seems willing to hold Martinez responsible—not his boss, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, not the courts, and not the state bar.

The same leniency has not been extended to Martinez’s opponents in court. In 2016, Arias’s former attorney, Kirk Nurmi, self-published a book, Trapped with Ms. Arias. The book included what the state bar described as “disparaging remarks” about the defendant and revealed details about private conversations Nurmi had with Arias and members of her family. It also included evidence that had been deemed inadmissible by the trial judge. A bar complaint was filed against Nurmi, and he was disbarred for publishing the book.  

Like Nurmi, Martinez published a book in 2016 called Conviction: The Untold Story of Putting Jodi Arias Behind Bars. Similarly, his book promised to “unearth new details from the investigation that were never revealed at trial, explor[e] key facts from the case and the pieces of evidence he chose to keep close to the vest.” The book also included unfavorable characterizations of Arias, and alleged that one juror was in love with her. A bar complaint was also filed against Martinez for his book. Although Nurmi was disbarred, Martinez’s complaint was dismissed.

Of course, as a defense attorney, Nurmi’s decision to speak negatively about Arias has significantly different implications than Martinez’s decision to do the same. But whether or not Martinez’s decision to write a book was technically improper, it was certainly unprofessional. The state bar agreed. “The perception created when a prosecutor attempts to immediately profit from his participation in a high-profile case is also very concerning,” stated the court’s order of dismissal. Others also criticized Martinez’s book. Dan Barr, an attorney in Phoenix and a former member of the State Bar of Arizona’s Ethics Committee, said it was a “horrible idea.”

“I can’t imagine what the County Attorney’s Office is thinking,” he stated. “There’s no upside for the county here in Juan Martinez publishing. There obviously is an upside for Juan Martinez in promoting himself and publishing his book.”

Not only has the state bar declined to hold Martinez accountable, but judges have repeatedly turned down opportunities to penalize outrageous behavior. In 2005, Martinez compared a Jewish defense lawyer to Adolf Hitler, which the Arizona Court of Appeals described as “reprehensible.” During that same trial, Martinez told the jury that the defendant had covered up past crimes, even though the judge had ruled that information could not be disclosed to the jury. The Court of Appeals called the disclosure “improper.” Still, the case was not overturned and no action was taken against Martinez.

Also in 2005, Martinez prosecuted Cory Morris, who was convicted of killing five sex workers and dumping their bodies in an alley. Martinez accused Morris of necrophilia, telling the jury that the defendant “continued to have sex with their bodies until they rotted and fell apart.” There was only one problem—the medical examiner hadn’t concluded any such thing. Yet, the Arizona Supreme Court excused his behavior, concluding that prosecutors have “wide latitude,” and did not overturn Morris’s case.

Even without the state bar and the courts, Martinez is presumably accountable to his office. But his boss, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, has repeatedly swept aside the misconduct allegations. Montgomery has even blamed the recurring complaints against Martinez on the ability of people to file complaints, implying that they are frivolous. Montgomery and his line prosecutors are emphatic about being tough on crime, and adhere to an ethos of harsh consequences. Yet, when it comes to Martinez, that attitude does not seem to apply.

Clark and Adams’s petition is still under consideration, so there remains a chance that Martinez will be held accountable by the state bar. But until then, he continues to be one of the most powerful prosecutors in Arizona—and continues to evade consequences.

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The New Orleans Police Raid That Launched A Dancer Resistance

From local charities, to the editorial pages, to city politicians, New Orleans strip clubs were blamed for human trafficking, leading to abusive police raids – harming the dancers they claimed they were protecting, and pushing the dancers to fight back.

Lyn Archer
Photo: Jason Kerzinski

The New Orleans Police Raid That Launched A Dancer Resistance

From local charities, to the editorial pages, to city politicians, New Orleans strip clubs were blamed for human trafficking, leading to abusive police raids – harming the dancers they claimed they were protecting, and pushing the dancers to fight back.

On a quiet Thursday night in mid-February, just two days after the revelry of Mardi Gras day, the narrow gutters and treacherous potholes lining Bourbon Street are nearly empty. Only days earlier, tangles of gold and purple and silver beads, drifting like sea foam trapped by French Quarter curbs, were swept away just before Ash Wednesday services began.

Cutting easily through the thin Bourbon Street crowd was Lyn Archer, with pale blonde hair and an efficient walk. She turned us right onto Iberville, past the Penthouse Club and its cool blue spotlights, to stop at an adult establishment called Gentleman’s Quarters. It was closed. Next to Gentleman’s Quarters was Dixie Divas, also shuttered. This whole stretch of Iberville, just a block away from the mayhem on Bourbon, heading in the direction of the Mississippi River, was hushed in the dark, and for a few minutes we were all alone.

Archer has worked as a stripper in New Orleans for two years, after growing up in California’s Central Valley and dancing in Portland and in Key West. She had dreams of one day taking over Dixie Divas, imagining it as an establishment run by dancers. Dixie Divas was one of the smaller clubs that wasn’t connected to a larger corporate brand, like Hustler or Penthouse. It shared a wall with the equally modest in size Gentleman’s Quarters. “You could drill a hole through the wall and hit the stripper on the other side,” Archer said.

But Dixie Divas was closed – permanently – after state and local law enforcement raided it and seven other clubs in late January, putting hundreds of dancers out of work just weeks before Carnival season kicked into full swing.

Law enforcement portrayed the clubs as fronts for human trafficking, but their evidence was thin to nonexistent. Prior to the January raids, undercover agents posed as club customers, itemizing conduct – such as a dancer touching their own body – that they said was in violation of the regulations clubs have to follow to maintain their liquor licenses. But these alleged regulatory violations, documented in notices of suspension from the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC), were not indicia of trafficking. So why the highly publicized raids and the club closures that followed?

Prior to law enforcement’s undercover club visits, local paper the Times-Picayune ran a three-part investigative series purporting to reveal trafficking on Bourbon Street and French Quarter clubs. Reporters said the head of a local arm of an international charity with ties to the Catholic church, Covenant House, was “integral” to their reporting. While the Times-Picayune stories included two previously reported cases of potential trafficking, they offered no examples of trafficking inside the clubs. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko criticized it as a  “three-part newspaper series in search of a problem” but the Times-Picayune’s editorial board claimed “the French Quarter’s most famous street is a hub for sex trafficking.”

Then came the raids. In eight clubs during one week in late January, ATC agents along with officers from the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) entered the premises during business hours, corralling and questioning dancers. Officers refused to let them change out of their work attire. They read dancers’ legal identification aloud in front of customers, and photographed them – partially undressed – on their mobile phones. “I witnessed women weeping until they vomited,” one dancer said.

At a Jan. 29 press conference, Louisiana ATC Commissioner Juana-Marine Lombard acknowledged that that no trafficking arrests were made, yet NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison deemed the undercover investigations and raids a “first step” to “confront human trafficking.” Meanwhile, the New Orleans City Council was prepared to vote on a proposal to cap French Quarter strip clubs, with the goal of limiting them to one per block. That meant more clubs would share the fate of Dixie Divas.

More harm than help

From the charities to the editorial pages to the politicians, backers of the campaign against alleged human trafficking in New Orleans clubs failed to take into account the harms they perpetrated against the dancers they claimed they were protecting. Official explanations of the raids caricatured strippers as, at best, unwitting victims, and, at worst, as willing participants in a “hub” of human trafficking, But most important, and what most city officials failed to acknowledge, was the raids put hundreds of strippers out of work.

Within days of the raids, dancers and other workers in the French Quarter clubs led an “Unemployment March” to protest the club closures. They sold dollar bottles of water labeled “Stripper Tears,” carried signs reading “Twerking class hero” and “Your political agenda shouldn’t cost me my future.” They chanted, “Strippers’ rights are human rights,” “my body, my choice,” and “I am not a victim! I do not want to be saved!” The large and passionate protests brought media coverage that was starkly different from the pre-raid pieces with Covenant House-guided narratives: it actually acknowledged the dancers could speak for themselves.

Photo: Lyn Archer

The Times-Picayune was now covering their protests, somewhat sympathetically, and so was the national media. An energized and powerful protest movement of dancers trained its sights on a Jan. 31 press conference by departing Mayor Mitch Landrieu to announce Bourbon Street’s infrastructure progress. Dancers gathered behind local tourism officials and drowned them out by chanting “Sex work is real work” and “Workers’ rights are women’s rights.” Landrieu himself appeared to be a no-show even though he was scheduled to speak at the event, leading to speculation that he had been scared off by the large and boisterous protest.

Dancers organizing under the name BARE—Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers—had taken the attention off of Bourbon Street infrastructure and onto club closures. It was an action that tapped into BARE’s roots: some dancers had been organizing back in in 2015, after another series of ATC strip club raids, dubbed “Operation Trick or Treat.” That’s when Lyn Archer began working as a stripper on Bourbon Street. By the January 2018 raids, Archer was BARE’s most visible spokeswoman.

When we met after Mardi Gras, Archer explained a theory that her colleague, Devin Ladner, had about the 2018 raids: If the clubs raided closed for good, then the city would have achieved its one-club-per-block plan. “Let’s just drum up the grounds to raid these clubs anyway, and then we’ll just say it happened through ‘natural attrition,’” Archer said. “They died on their own.”

Ladner was getting ready to return to work at the Penthouse Club on Iberville when we met that same week. The club is on the same street as the now-shuttered Dixie Divas, but on the brighter end nearest Bourbon. Ladner took a seat on her living room floor in her house in Uptown, her long legs in thin over-the-knee socks. Though the Penthouse club was not raided, she said she has to go to work and interact with patrons under the assumption that any one of them could be for undercover with the ATC or NOPD.

Despite ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard’s claim that “we have no issues with the dancers,” it was the dancers’ conduct that officers monitored, not the conduct of the club owners or management. “It’s been hard to be a fantasy anymore,” Ladner said. “I’m worried that it could incriminate me for a solicitation charge, even if I’m not facilitating.” For example, if customers want her to engage in dirty talk, purely as a fantasy—a common request—she’s concerned that could be misconstrued as facilitating prostitution.

Ladner brought over her makeup kit, spreading out eyeshadows in their lidded black plastic pots on the glass-topped coffee table, next to copies of the books Striptastic! and The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Her mobile phone, wrapped in a pin-up skin, was at her knee. She hasn’t been stripping for long, she said—almost a year and a half. But the idea of losing her job frightens her, because that would mean a return to the work she used to do.

Before dancing, she had been a bartender and a waitress. “The hours that I was working and the emotional abuse I put up with being in the service industry as a woman,” she explained, “and making shit for pay and not ever being respected and always being something that can be easily replaced … I can’t go back to it. Because I know what something else is like.”

A history of and against vice

Despite its reputation for perpetual, decadent decay, New Orleans—which celebrates its 300th birthday this year—has a history of running vice out of town, especially when political opportunity and sensationalism collide. “This is what they used to shut down Storyville,” Christie Craft, a New Orleans dancer and writer who had been documenting some of the protests on her Instagram account, said as she sipped a lemonade that Mardi Gras week. She sat in a French restaurant on Rampart Street, which separates the French Quarter from the historic African-American neighborhood, Treme.

One hundred years ago, Craft began, the city’s legal red light district, Storyville, was shut down in a swirl of wartime propaganda about venereal disease, bolstered by a national campaign by social reformers attacking “white slavery.” Brothels shuttered and workers scattered. “What’s there now,” Craft explained, “is leveled public housing and dilapidated buildings.” Storyville had been bounded on one side by Iberville, now home to several newly closed strip clubs, and it ran along the legendary Basin Street, parallel to Rampart. Craft notes the irony that Covenant House sits right between Rampart and Basin. Covenant House, of course, is the Catholic-affiliated charity that helped shape the media narrative that the French Quarter was a trafficking “hub.”

The executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, Jim Kelly, has long campaigned against the clubs, claiming that stripping leads young women to become victims of trafficking.

In 2016, Kelly offered to help the New Orleans city government hire an attorney who specializes in creating city ordinances that regulate adult businesses, according to emails obtained by BARE and shared with The Appeal. That attorney, Scott Bergthold, has been working at least as far back as two decades to tightly regulate strip clubs and other adult businesses. Bergthold describes his law practice as “assisting communities in protecting their citizens against the detrimental impacts of the sex industry.” A few months before the raids, the city hired Bergthold.

Covenant House’s anti-club campaign, which helped drive the raids, Craft explained, was an extension of a long, historical arc beginning with the moral panic about “white slavery” that helped take down Storyville a century before. But this time, sex workers would not be so easily disappeared.

Hundreds of dancers, far beyond those directly involved in groups like BARE, organized in resistance. “It was a turning point,” Ladner, the dancer, said, adding that one of her friends who had not been politically active told her, ”I have to say what is going on in my life because I don’t know how else I am going to feed my kids.”

By targeting so many dancers—one owner said they had 1,500 contract workers across two clubs—there was simply no way to ignore attempts to erase them from the French Quarter. On the black gas lamp posts along Bourbon, stickers fast appeared and remained through Carnival: a dancer’s bright red heel crushing an NOPD patrol car, captioned LEAVE US ALONE / NO PIGS IN OUR CLUBS.

And when dancers took to the streets in the days after the raids, they marched under that simple, yet powerful slogan: Leave us alone.

“That’s actually all we want,” Lyn Archer from BARE told me, as she joined Craft at the Rampart Street restaurant. “All you have to do is leave us alone. And it’s not possible for them, for law enforcement and even city officials to comprehend that that could be a possibility.”

If what public officials really want is to prevent trafficking, Archer continued, then they “need to create a space where people can report their crimes. And every human rights group in the world has said that.” Among those groups, who support the rights of sex workers by calling for the decriminalization of sex work, are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several UN agencies including the World Health Organization.

But with the raids, New Orleans is moving in the opposite direction: Instead of decriminalizing prostitution in order to protect sex workers, law enforcement is trying to link dancers to prostitution. “They are taking the biblical shepherd’s crook,” Archer said, “and pulling you into criminality.”

In the wake of the raids, one club, Dixie Divas, closed permanently; according to the ATC, another club, Lipstixx, surrendered its liquor license, while another, Temptations, lost its permit. The remaining clubs agreed to temporary license suspensions and hefty fines, as well as to hold mandatory human trafficking trainings for workers and some to fire workers “being involve [sic] with prostitution or drugs” on the first offense.

Now, according to Archer, “there’s a bunch of new rules, rules that aren’t going to protect the worker or make them feel better. It’s kind of like TSA.” And club owners and management have just shifted the burden of protecting the club from crackdowns onto the dancers themselves.

A surprise win

About one month after Carnival season concluded, the New Orleans City Council finally voted on a cap on Bourbon Street strip clubs, a variation of the measure  which had been introduced by Councilmember-at-Large Stacy Head last fall, without the one-club-per-block restriction. As written, the proposal would allow existing clubs to remain. But in capping “through attrition,” the proposal meant that if clubs were cited for new violations—like those shuttered in January after the NOPD and ATC raids—they would not be allowed to reopen.

But it was a very different political moment when the City Council convened on March 22: With their disruption of Mayor Landrieu’s press conference in late January, the dancers had scored a significant direct hit on a popular Southern politician, who, with a popular new memoir, was making the rounds on national television and garnering talk of a 2020 presidential run. The dancers’ protests themselves also received surprisingly sympathetic coverage in the mainstream media.  BARE and their supporters packed the meeting, with Lyn Archer the first to speak. “I’m here standing for a group of strippers and nightlife workers that was founded because of these measures,” she said.  “Please take us at our word that it is us–we are the people being hurt by this. … Please don’t look at us and take our jobs away, and just say, ‘Let them eat cake.’”

Photo: Lyn Archer

Proponents of the club cap like Head called it “merely a land use matter”—but no one from the community showed up to speak in its favor.

The hearing then took a stunning turn when Councilmember-at-Large Jason Williams said he could not support the cap because the NOPD and ATC-led raids were carried out “seemingly in conjunction” with the legislative effort at the council. “I do have some deep concerns with why we would have wasted police manpower on those raids,” he began. “I understand that there were a number of what I believe were clear constitutional violations: having people line up against the wall, that are workers, and patrons are just sitting there watching, using their real names, taking photographs of them wearing their dance attire. That’s horrible, it’s offensive, it’s misogynistic.”

Williams’s broadside against January’s club raids, along with Archer’s passionate protest about the harms that would come to sex workers because of the cap, moved other council members to vote against it. “I assumed I was going to walk in here and vote for it, and it was an easy vote,” Councilmember James Gray said. “And I am going to vote against the proposal…. and what convinces me is the statement that a grown person has a right to do what they want to do, with themselves and their bodies and their lives.”

Minutes later, the cap was defeated in a 4-3 vote, the clearest sign yet that the protests had made their mark.

The next fight

It has been nearly four months since the raids, and the NOPD and ATC have yet to to announce any alleged human trafficking in the French Quarter clubs. Meanwhile, despite those saying they have the best interests of dancers at heart—like Councilmember Kristin Palmer, who in a 2016 petition in support of dramatically curbing strip clubs in the city suggested she spoke for women in the clubs “who have no voice and no resources”—more deep-rooted and long-standing challenges faced by New Orleans dancers remain unaddressed. This has only been exacerbated by the raids: The dancers have expended so much energy on simply keeping the clubs open and keeping their jobs that day-to-day struggles have been ignored.

The issues dancers actually face are far less sensational than fears of human trafficking. Some of the clubs in the French Quarter possess beautiful historic architectural details like “medallions on the ceilings,” as Archer told me, and solid wood stages. But their age often means that they are decaying and unsafe to work in. In one Bourbon Street club where Archer worked, rainwater leaking into the building produced “a waterfall coming down into a trash can at the top of the stairwell.”

“I stopped working there,” Archer continued, “because I saw a rat in the dressing room that was literally the size of a cat, and faced it off on the dressing room counter. There’s no respect here.”

And just as before the raids, there’s no incentive for club owners to improve working conditions. “They don’t have to care about their workforce because they are always going to have a work force,” Archer said. “No matter how bad it gets it’s always going to be better than the minimum wage here.” When Archer worked at the rat-infested and problem plumbing plagued Bourbon Street club she could have gotten a job tending bar. But she remained at the club nonetheless. “It was still better,” she said. “Rat world was better.”

City officials clearly grasp the often rough conditions at the clubs but have yet to understand that their crackdowns merely make things worse for dancers. “You want to be treated like other workers,” Councilmember Head told one speaker at the club cap hearing in March. Then she asked why dancers weren’t fighting the clubs when they didn’t respect their rights, like by offering workers’ compensation. “That is something you should be fighting for.”

“We don’t have any time to fight for this,” the speaker responded, “because we are here fighting you.”

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