Hiding in plain sight: Chicago neighborhoods fight modern day slavery

By Duke Omara

In the grand scheme of things, it was a small victory but for impoverished neighborhoods like Chicago’s Englewood, it was a triumph.

After a protracted and sometimes acrimonious City Council battle in March, a bill to allow city strip clubs to sell liquor on their premises was shelved after its sponsor admitted she wasn’t fully aware of the bill’s contents.

Under current law, there is a ban on strip clubs selling alcohol if those clubs feature nude dancers. The law also states that dancers in these clubs must wear “hot pants” and cover their chests.

Communities like Englewood, which fear a proliferation of strip clubs, are standing up to fight back against abuses they see as threats to their very foundations.

The sponsor of the rejected bill, Alderman Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward, withdrew the ordinance proposal after meeting stiff opposition from community leaders who saw a lifting of the liquor ban as likely to contribute to the growth of sex and human trafficking in the city.

“A drunk man is even worse than guys coming in just to see a strip because it causes more violence against women. I won’t support any of it. It became so heated so quick, they actually pulled back the legislation,” explained Alderman Toni Foulkes of the 16th Ward, and one of the ordinances most vocal opponents.

Human Trafficking
The US State Department has identified three ways to fight the scourge of human trafficking: prosecution, protection and prevention. (Photo: US State Department).

For local leaders like Foulkes, the kerfuffle over liquor licenses in strip clubs is something she considers a matter of communal survival.

Her fears are not unfounded.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, strip clubs are often fronts for traffickers and their clients.

“Strip clubs are designed to provide the space and environment in which buyers may purchase commercial sex. Victims of sex trafficking in strip clubs must adhere to extensive, predetermined schedules and are frequently moved between multiple clubs,” says the organization on its website.

“You listen to the stories of some of these actual young girls that got into it at 11 years-old, it will break your heart,” said Foulkes at a recent community meeting in Englewood that was called to draw attention to the issue.

The city, she said, has tens of thousands of sex trafficking cases, and those numbers don’t include “anything that is coming across the border from Indiana or from Wisconsin.”

Indeed, Chicago is now considered one of the country’s top hubs for human trafficking and the numbers that accompany this dubious distinction are troubling.

Human trafficking has been called modern day slavery, and the revenue it generates is astounding.

John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on January 29, 2015. (State Department photo / Public Domain).

Worldwide, the business is worth about $150 billion, which is roughly the same amount of annual profits the top five most profitable companies in the world made in 2015. Combined.

The number of people trapped in the trade totaled more than 20 million in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency tasked with developing and setting universal labor standards.

“Globally, two thirds of the profits from forced labor were generated by forced sexual exploitation, amounting to an estimated US$ 99 billion per year,” said a 2014 ILO report.

The law as it stands

In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) became the first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking in persons.

The law, which has been reauthorized multiple times, called for a three-pronged approach to the problem that includes prevention, protection, and prosecution. The law defined “severe forms of trafficking in persons” to include both sex and labor trafficking. Unlike previous acts, it specifically includes provisions that don’t require transportation across state lines to prove trafficking. Minors do not need proof of force, fraud or coercion to show they have been victims.

Many states have since followed suit, passing laws that build on TVPA and affording more protections to victims.

In 2011, Illinois enacted a law giving anyone who had been convicted of prostitution a chance to clear their names if their arrest “was a result of having been a trafficking victim under the Criminal Code of 1961 or a victim of a severe form of trafficking under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.”

“Victims of human trafficking are often forced into prostitution and other crimes against their own will, and too many of them are being prosecuted as criminals,” Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) and one of the bill’s sponsor’s said at the time.

“When we have evidence that involuntary human trafficking was the cause of the crime, even though the victim may not have had the ability or representation to prove it during trial, we must do the right thing and reverse their conviction so they can move on with repairing their lives,” Yarborough added.

The problem has been exacerbated by social media which has made recruitment of potential victims easier, according to Caleb Probst, the education manager of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), an organization that seeks to end all forms of social exploitation.

Modern day slavery
Many states are setting more stringent rules to combat the menace of human trafficking, a problem which often hides in plain sight. (Photo: State of California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General).

Probst said the internet had shattered old images and stereotypes about pimps and traffickers being flashy and flamboyant individuals who, often, were not afraid to show the world their true identities.

“A pimp today is nowhere near the corner. He is up on the internet, he is on a smart phone, he’s got his stable being advertised on sex sites, using social media as a way of setting up dates with customers, and also using social media as a means of grooming and attracting new victims,” said Probst.

On the other hand, this same technology can be used to bring down traffickers while spreading awareness because it is monitored by law enforcement officers to gather information and evidence, he said.

Many top technology companies, including the software maker, Microsoft, have also joined the fight. Their PhotoDNA application, for example, is used to identify images of children who are exploited online, and is available free to qualifying organizations. The Spotlight tool is also available to authorities and is used to aggregate numbers from online commercial sex advertisements. Agencies using this tool have seen a reduction in investigation time that is as high as 60 percent.

Probst said the Cook County Sheriff’s office has been a national leader in using the internet to crackdown on those using online marketplaces to engage in the vice.

“The sheriff managed to get the credit card companies for certain sites to stop using their credit cards to buy ad space for trafficking,” said Probst.

Although these may seem like small victories, their impact is very real and the issue is attracting those, like Englewood resident Kristin Boyckert, who say they are willing and inspired to dedicate their professional lives combating the scourge.

“Fighting against human trafficking is my passion. I am going to Vanderbilt University law school next year to be an anti-trafficking lawyer. When I found out that human trafficking and slavery still exist here in our backyards, I knew fighting it was what I wanted to do,” said Boyckert.

Photo at top: In many Chicago neighborhoods, like Englewood, (pictured), residents are banding together to fight the scourge of human trafficking. (Photo: Tonika Johnson. Used with owner’s permission).