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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 ArcherPhoto: Jason Kerzinski

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.

Cali 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.’”

Bettie 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.”