The abuse of women convicted in Washington, DC, is a crime

Tonya Kamara and her grandson Antonio walk to the entrance of DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility to visit April, Tonya’s daughter and Antonio’s mother.

The United States has the largest prison system in the world. With a constantly shifting population, in state and federal facilities, our communities suffer from the hardships of physical distance, loss of capital and an overall detrimental impact on our most vulnerable communities. Take Washington, DC, as an example. Since the Revitalization Act of 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons houses District of Columbia sentenced felons, a DC prison no longer exists. This “revitalization” legislation means persons convicted of a felony in DC can be housed at federal prisons anywhere within the United States, regardless of physical proximity or personal circumstances.

For women prisoners, the lack of regard for how far those convicted of a felony in DC are housed becomes a salient issue. The incarceration rate of women, specifically women of color, is constantly on the rise throughout the country. Washington, DC, has a Correctional Treatment Facility where women are placed before sentencing. Then they are turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for placement. Information concerning the placement of women who are convicted of a felony in DC is vague and ambiguous. The lack of clarity shows how this issue is neither discussed nor on the forefront of our minds, as it should be. Why are we not questioning the whereabouts of women who are incarcerated in the Nation’s Capital? Are we not more concerned because the population that this issue affects is a population that constantly faces factors of oppression, a population that this country treats as if they hold no value? The needs of female prisoners have been constantly overlooked and handled inefficiently due to a male dominated environment where they are disadvantaged because they are the minority in numbers. Women prisoners’ needs not being met results from stereotypes of female criminality, which place women outside the norm of gendered behavior. As a society, then, we care less because female offending doesn’t fit within the norm of a how women are supposed to behave.

When convicted in Washington, DC, women are housed by the Bureau of Prisons and can be placed a long way from their families. By placing women thousands of miles away from their families, the assumption is made that men and women share the same experiences. For example, women have children and many women who are incarcerated have had the experience of motherhood. According to the idea of gendered normed behavior, women are the caretakers to their children. Therefore, the long distances punish women offenders twice over, once for the crime and then for having stepped outside the norm of dutiful mother. Sending women far away completely discounts any significance to their being mothers. While men also shouldn’t be subjected to this treatment, if we analyze how society thinks in terms of a mother and child relationship, disregarding and dismantling this relationship is shameful.

At the same time, communities incur a loss of capital due to the increase of prisons. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has traced the relationship between land development and the prison binge. In California and other places, prisons were initially located in urban areas. Then, they shifted been to rural areas where the land value was initially low. This shift brings to surface numerous problems including the financial value the area holds and the shift of political power. Inmates are often counted within the census in the area they are located in so that the area the prison is moved to has an increase in population, especially if the area was initially rural. Urban areas already face forms of oppression in terms of political representation and are considered to posses no social capital. Shifting prisons from urban to rural areas is an extension of that claim.

The prison system seems to be a way to further silence urban minority communities. Whether it’s destroying a mother and child relationship or stripping the power from an entire community, the United States prison system is growing at the expense of those who are vulnerable. When will these silenced populations be given a voice? When will those communities be repaid for the theft of their value, and when will Black and Latina women of Washington, DC, be reinstated and repaid for the losses they have been forced to endure?

 

(Photo Credit: Vera Institute / Gabriela Bulisova)

DC Will Vote Wednesday on a Bill to Keep Teens Out of Adult Jails

In America’s capital, juveniles in the criminal justice system are treated badly. Federal prosecutors in Washington, DC have “unfettered discretion” to send youth to adult court and correctional facilities, and they often do.

Take Alisha, for example, who was tried and charged as an adult in DC Superior Court when she was only 16 years old. She was sent to DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). There are no special units for female youth at CTF, so Alisha was sent to solitary confinement. For weeks at a time, she was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, was unable to attend school, and could not participate in any programming available at the jail. Her attorney fought to move her to a more appropriate place that could also address her mental health concerns, but she remained here for a year and a half. Understandably, Alisha was depressed as lonely. In solitary confinement, she attempted suicide.

Alisha is not alone. “Youth who are incarcerated in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities,” according to Carmen Daugherty, Policy Director at Campaign for Youth Justice. They are also much likelier to be physically and sexually assaulted. “The adult system is no place for kids,” Daugherty declared.

A May 2014 report by DC Lawyers for Youth and Campaign for Youth Justice stated that “incarcerating youth in the adult system is developmentally inappropriate, unsafe, and does not decrease recidivism.” In fact, the report found that trying youth in the adult system actually increases recidivism.

DC is a particularly bad place for juveniles, as the report shows. A criminal justice consulting firm assessed the Juvenile Unit at CTF in 2013. They found that: “1) the facility space is too limited to provide adequate programming or sufficient physical activity, 2) most youth are not able to have in-person visitation with their family members, 3) some staff working the unit are inadequately trained to address the needs of youth, and 4) the amount of structured programming offered to youth is inadequate.” Yet, children continue to be sentenced here.

Who are the youth most affected by DC’s current practices? Disproportionately, they come from the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the district: low-income communities of color. A staggering 97% of the youth incarcerated at CTF between 2007 and 2012 were African American and 3% were Latino. Almost all of them come from the eastern half of the district or identified as homeless.

Twenty-three states have taken steps to decrease reliance on the adult justice systems in youth cases. Yet, the nation’s capital continues to prosecute youth as adults. Public policy in Washington, DC needs to change.

This Wednesday, November 12, the DC Council’s Judiciary Committee is voting on The Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014 (Bill 20-825). YOARA would keep teenagers awaiting trial out of adult jails, keep more juvenile cases in family court, and end the practice of “once an adult, always an adult,” which allows teens’ prior offenses to be used against them. Contact DC Councilmembers and urge them to pass YOARA here!

 

(Photo Credit: African Globe)

La Palabra: In DC, women of color resist school closures

 

Public school closures are sweeping the nation, devastating cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and our home of Washington, D.C. Since 2008 DCPS has closed 29 schools, and Mayor Vince Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently announced plans to close up to 20 more schools by the end of the 2013 school year.

It’s a trend located in a larger shift toward privatization in education and elsewhere—a move that threatens democratic access to vital social resources.

It’s also a racist trend: overwhelmingly, families of color are affected. With just the most recent wave of closures in DC, of the 3,800 students who will be displaced by closures, only 36 are white. Of those students, 80% are low income.

In DC, activists are fighting the closures—in the courts, and on the streets. La Palabra, an internet radio project broadcast on WPFW’s Latino Media Collective, is interviewing people at the schools slated to be closed. They have interviewed grandparents, parents, and other caregivers affected by the closures and the response is unanimous: Mayor Gray, Chancellor Kaya Henderson, you CAN NOT have my school!

Since women are overwhelmingly the primary caregivers in families, women are the most burdened by these closures, after, of course, the students themselves. Some parents at Ferbee-Hope elementary school have already survived multiple school closings. Mothers and grandmothers are worried about the impact on their kids lives, the safety of the new neighborhoods they’ll be in. They see a city government that cares more about paving the way for development than about their kids.

Children with disabilities will be especially hard hit by the displacement and disruption the closures entail. Their entire learning community will be relocated without their input, and the staff on which they depend will be forced to reapply for their job. Tamara, a mother at Sharpe Health (a school for special needs kids), observes that the mayor and chancellor “don’t care about the emotional stability, the physical stability of our children.”

But mothers in DC care, and La Palabra is listening—parents are ready to act and block the closures! Support their voices with yours by signing Empower DC’s petition calling on an immediate moratorium on public school closures.

La Palabra, http://lapalabradc.tumblr.com/. Beck Levy,  beck@astropressdc.com

 

(Photo Credit: http://lapalabradc.tumblr.com)

Womanhood, the original ‘pre-existing condition’

Every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted.

On September 11th the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) discovered that domestic violence is legally considered a ‘pre-existing condition’ in eight states and the District of Columbia and therefore a reason to deny health insurance.  The issue, however, is not new and in fact the Senate HELP committee voted on the issue in 2006; 10 Senators blocked the bill that would have made such discrimination illegal.  Unsurprisingly, all of these Senators are white, male, Republican and over 40.  In contrast, women are 85% of persons affected by domestic violence and the type of cold logic that looks at women in abusive situations as merely not cost-effective is not limited to either the insurance industry or Congress.

Victim-blaming happens every two minutes, at least.  The same neo-liberal ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ discourse that places responsibility for healthcare, childcare, all care really and economic stability on the backs of individuals equally without regard for privilege is used the blame individuals for their situations.  A woman being abused by her significant other, usually but not always a man, is blamed for the fact that this other person has chosen to mentally, physically and/or sexually abuse her and is in turn punished for it by the government and private insurance companies. The primary underlying assumption here: that someone being abused is actively choosing to be there or at least hasn’t chosen to leave. Aside from the gross ignorance and arrogance required to assume that all individuals have the personal financial, legal, physical and emotional capacity to pick up and leave an intimate partner, the fact that U.S. media and society removes all culpability from abusers is in every way abhorrent.  A woman may be a victim worthy of pity, if she never fights backs, but her abuser rarely is affected by his own actions.  Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S.

The mentality which allows for trivialization of domestic violence plays itself out much more often in the public sphere than the private one.  Anyone who has ever been whistled at, flashed, followed or fondled on the streets could tell you that. Street harassment has been garnering more attention in the last few years and Washington, DC has become a city notorious for the intensity of the harassment that primarily women are subjected to every day on their ways home, to work or anywhere. With even a casual glance at HollaBack DC, one of a dozen blogs nationwide devoted to empowering individuals to end gendered street-based sexual harassment through talking about it (how novel), patterns become obvious.  The victim-blaming myths that preach that women are harassed because of how they act, what they wear and where they are when fall apart.  Harassment and abuse occur because someone chooses to harass and to abuse.  They occur because they happen in a culture which says that abuse is a private issue and that women are asexual and helpless.  Because street harassment, like domestic violence, is rooted in privilege.  It is a reminder that gender must be performed in certain ways and that certain groups are more equal than others.

Street harassment against women is generally committed by men and in DC it seems that most harassment is propagated by men of color.  This is not accidental considering that DC remains one of the most segregated cities in the US and that communities of color in the metro area are disproportionately poor and in the prison system.  While men of color are intensely disempowered, they still are able to gain power and reinforce privilege over women on the street.  Street harassment is the perfect tool for this because it is based in exploiting gendered assumptions of female sexuality, the most effective manner of gender policing in existence.  Whore, slut and cunt are after all still some of the most degrading terms for women in American English.

So what do we do?  The Tokyo police are in the midst of a so-called ‘groping prevention week’ in which police presence on the subway trains is significantly higher and gropers can expect to receive as much as 7 years in jail.  Some trains are even equipped with ‘women only’ cars now, a flashback to the 19th century in which women were seated apart from cars where men were smoking.  It’s swell and all that the government is taking the issue seriously in Tokyo, but this is a band-aid and instead of tearing a little skin, its segregating women and sending people to prison for almost a decade.  Not exactly productive.  In the U.S., gropers, if they were ever actually prosecuted, would have the added joy of being labeled a sex offender for the rest of their lives and be subject severe job and living restrictions.  But, recent events involving Philip Garrido have shown that these sort of punitive measures do little to stop abuse.  Separating men and women more and placing the police in the role of protecting women’s sexual purity is not just a bad idea, but ineffective.  Street harassment, domestic violence, asshole politicians and insurance companies are symptoms of larger privilege based problems which have only been exacerbated by extreme neo-liberal rule for the past 8 years.  There is no singular fix all and none of these things can be solved separately, but empowering discussion and action is a good start.  And getting some of those guys out of government wouldn’t be bad either.

(Image Credit: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network))

Martyring the ‘Ballbreakers’

Shrine in memory of Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack

Last Wednesday, August 28th, residents of the 200 block of Q St. NW in Washington, DC were shocked by a brutal assault against two women, one of whom was killed.  Violence is nothing alien to DC, the District was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the U.S., but this act stands out.  The motive, officially, is unknown.  The act occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon in broad daylight after the assailant had followed both women for several blocks and was exceptionally brutal. Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack was stabbed in throat; her injuries were fatal. The women involved were also both African-American, male-to-female transgender, were possibly been sex workers and there were supposedly several anti-LGBT epithets used by the assailant. The scene was also only a few blocks from a local transgender health center.  Yet, the motive is said to be unclear.

What is clear, other than that the attacker saw them as less than human, is that the media is not entirely sure how to talk about these women.  Different news outlets used several different ways of referring the Mack’s and the other victim’s gender.  A local television affiliate of Fox utilizes no uniform language at all.  Aside from one line mentioning that the victims were transgender women, the piece contains quotes utilizing exclusively male pronouns and refers to Mack by her birth name, Joshua, while focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of neighbors.  The focus is not on the victims but rather fear and the violent disruption of a normally tranquil area.  Coverage by the Washington Post, however, is a step worse.  The Post article refers to the women as transgender people and biological men living as women throughout the piece, again only referring to Mack by her birth name.  The writer, Paul Duggan, seems to be scraping for some shred of objectivity, but his own discomfort is readily apparent.  On the other end of the news spectrum, the Washington Blade, a local LGBT newspaper, utilizes Mack’s taken name and gender while focusing much more on what happened to these women, family’s and friends’ reactions and violence against transgender people more generally. All of these articles relate to the same incident but provide radically different information.  The kicker is that all of this criticism is possible after all of the articles, save Chibarro’s article in the Blade, had already been re-edited.  The original versions all referred to Mack and her friend as “transgender men”. News articles that blatantly disregard the gender identity of Mack and the other victim are no less policing than the act of violence itself.  One is simply more subtle, hiding behind science and journalistic integrity, and reinforces the fears that feed these acts of violence.

On the other side of the world, the media and science are policing gender more overtly.  Over the last couple of weeks, Caster Semenya has been ever-present in the international press, not because of her 800m win which would have garnered little attention in mainstream press, but because her sex was under scrutiny.  The media’s scrutiny and judgment of Semenya is more obvious perhaps because it is not tempered by a major act of violence.  But words are weapons and they feed already active fires that are raging against women outside of and within the LGBT community.  Semenya was required to take a gender test in order to be eligible to compete because she did ‘too well’ in recent competitions.  Such athleticism is not thought possible for women and Semenya’s muscular body was used as additional evidence to justify the testing.  The fact that she is a professional athlete and that most female athlete’s are muscular does not seem to dissuade the judging officials.

This case is disturbing and unsurprising for several reasons.  First, Semenya’s sex is called into question due to the combination of her athleticism and her apparently masculine or nonfeminine presentation and features.  The assumption is transparent; women are supposed to be soft, white and frail.  It is an assumption and argument that has been at the core of colonial politics and postcolonial politics.  There is actually not a chance in hell that Meadows would have been tested had she ran as well as Semenya did.  Second, Semenya’s family, like President Obama in a surprisingly parallel situation with the birthers, was able to furnish a birth certificate.  However, the documentation provided by a poorer black community in South Africa is apparently not reliable enough to be considered proof of the girl’s sex.  Would it have been has the runner come from a wealthy, Western and white family?  Third, the media has chosen to not only vilify and attempt to embarrass this young woman, but has likewise conflated several unrelated and yet entirely related issues: sex, gender and sexual orientation.  The latter two categories are not actually relevant to the IAAF’s argument of fairness.  The only thing they relate to is heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

The results of Semenya’s test later revealed that she had 3 times the ‘normal’ female amount of testosterone in her system.  This was released on the same day as a BBC article claiming that high levels of testosterone turn women into “risk takers” and “ballbreakers”.  The implication is that ‘masculine’ women are practically not even women and that only masculinity can and should be able to compete in our society. Thus, by questioning her sex so publicly and utilizing gossip and conjecture as evidence, the media has placed Semenya on the 21st century’s version of the pillory.  She is meant to be an example for all young girls, especially if they are darker skinned and athletic, of what they can’t be: strong. In the same way, Tyli’a Mack was publicly murdered to warn against those born male being anything other than hypermasculine.

Caster Semenya

(Photo Credit 1: Washington’s Other Monuments) (Photo Credit 2: John Giles / PA / The Guardian)

Increase the peace, not the police

As someone who lives in deepest Southeast DC (Alabama Avenue and Stanton Road), I’m living in an area where the global collapse of capitalism has stalled gentrification. Of course, in my predominantly African American neighborhood, it wasn’t called that. My new neighbors are participating in “revitalization,” which has meant the literal razing of the old projects and the construction of flimsy new townhomes.

What hasn’t been built is the community center for all the youth, many displaced from closed low-income housing in NE and NW, like Sursum Corda, now living in this high-density zone. Summertime has been getting lively around here, to say the least. In anticipation of the coming summer:

“DC Council member Jim Graham has introduced a bill to the DC City Council that would create Hot-Spot No-Loitering Zones. The police chief would be able to declare one of these zones at any time, thus giving police the power to move people off the streets in the targeted neighborhood. The zones would make it a crime to be gathered with two or more people on public property. If people did not disperse when told to by the police, they could be arrested and given up to a $300 fine and/or 180 days in jail. This all just for being on public property.” (from an email to the CCJP listserv).

I’m not sure the bill, if passed, will even have any effect on my neighborhood. It seems likelier that it will be used in NW and NE neighborhoods, where gentrification has more of a foothold, to harass youth and others who just want to get out of the house. From what I can see, the police already have all the powers they need to stop, intimidate, search, detain, and generally make miserable ordinary folks going about their business.

While I haven’t been able to identify the original composer of the information below, I do agree that greater police powers are not the solution to high spirits (pun intended). My neighborhood is desperate for folks who offer a middle way between shooting craps on my doorstep and jail. A fabulous new community center, the ARC, has been built eight blocks from where I live. More than increased police presence, we need a shuttle bus running between the ARC and my neighborhood every 15 minutes to pick up and drop off the young folks for all the activities there, and provide a safe space for youth from different blocks with different beef to meet up and question their differences.

Here’s what we can do to divert energies from increasing policing to increasing the peace:

Talking Points

*      Being outside in a city should not be a crime!
*      We need more programs, like recreation centers, quality schools and housing.
*      Anti-loitering laws have a long history of discrimination and racial profiling; this is not a part of history that the DC government should participate in.
*      We need viable, community-based strategies for safety, not more policing and incarceration.

What you in DC can do:

*      Write your city councilmember and the at-large council members (contact details below)
*      Call the councilmembers
*      Testify at the hearing on March 18th at 10am. To testify send an email to htseu@dccouncil.us or call (202) 724-7808 by 5pm on March 16th with your Name, Address, Phone Number, and Organization and Title, if you have one. Everyone who testifies will have 5 minutes to speak. You may also submit written testimony, which can be longer, and you can do without being at the hearing.
*      Talk to people about this bill, why it’s a problem, and talk about other solutions to create safety and justice in our communities.

And you everywhere, this is an issue that concerns Right to the City, and this is an issue that concerns Women In and Beyond the Global. Its particular form and application may be local, but the issue is global. We need to take action now!

[For those in DC, here are the contact details:

Vincent C. Gray – Council Chairman (undecided): vgray@dccouncil.us.

David A. Catania – Councilmember (At-Large) (co-sponsor): dcatania@dccouncil.us.

Phil Mendelson- Councilmember (At-Large) (undecided): pmendelson@dccouncil.us.

Kwame R. Brown – Councilmember (At-Large) (co-sponsor): kbrown@dccouncil.us.

Michael A. Brown – Councilmember (At-Large) (undecided): mbrown@dccouncil.us

Jim Graham – Councilmember (Ward 1) (Introduced bill): jgraham@dccouncil.us

Jack Evans – Councilmember (Ward 2) (co-sponsor): jackevans@dccouncil.us

Mary M. Cheh – Councilmember (Ward 3) (undecided): mcheh@dccouncil.us

Muriel Bowser – Councilmember – (Ward 4) (co-sponsor): mbowser@dccouncil.us

Harry Thomas, Jr. – Councilmember (Ward 5) (undecided): hthomas@dccouncil.us

Tommy Wells – Councilmember (Ward 6) (undecided): twells@dccouncil.us

Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7) (co-sponsor): yalexander@dccouncil.us

Marion Barry – Councilmember (Ward 8 ) (Undecided): mbarry@dccouncil.us].

(Photo Credit: DC Jobs with Justice)

Pushing the Sex Out of the City

In 2004, then D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams announced a plan to build a brand new baseball stadium around Half and O Streets SE to house the newly purchased Montreal Expos. The land chosen for the new baseball stadium was home to one of the largest conglomerations of gay bars and clubs in the city including a couple of strip clubs.

On February 13th, the first of the displaced clubs was able to reopen in SW after much debate about the ordinances restricting the rebuilding of all the clubs.  The location chosen for the stadium seems hardly accidental, as this less than picturesque area of the city had been considered too seedy and dangerous for the average citizen, especially at night.  Yet, it was the only area where these clubs had been allowed to exist.  Queer culture had literally been peripheralized and pushing it out of this area, by way of literally dropping commerce onto it, meant that this section of SE had just been designated for gentrification.

Over the past decade, the D.C. landscape has been transformed both by physical structures and in the dispersal of its population.  The city’s gentrification is far from accidental beginning with the plan of Mayor Williams to increase tax revenues for the city.  Entire sections of the city have been re-established as middle-income trend spots where there once existed rent-controlled low-income housing and families.  This has also meant that historically black neighborhoods, like Shaw, U Street and Columbia Heights, have changed drastically in their ethnic make-up as well as class.  While the black exodus moves further east and into Maryland, the landscape of the city becomes de-urbanized and includes oddities like a corporate mall on 14th and Park Streets NW where there was low-income housing 4 years ago.  With the higher class and sometimes semi-suburban façade comes an expectation of what types of people will be frequenting and living in these areas.  Such assumptions about what safe and higher-class look like have from the beginning been police-enforced.

While gentrification is an intensely complicated and problematic situation overall, I am concerned that it has been an assault on the sexual geography of the city as it had been known for decades.  Overt alternative sexualities, like sex work and queer culture, are displaced by gentrification and city ‘beautification programs’.  These elements are often correlated to dirty underbelly of the city and not to be seen in civilized or safe areas of town.  Sexual elements, however, do not disappear simply because the rent goes up in a neighborhood; after all queerness did not flee the city when the bars were paved over.  Visible signs of sex work or queerness is physically pushed beyond the perimeter of “good” areas of the city and into progressively more neglected areas.  In D.C., this has meant that street work has been moved further east and closer to the Maryland border as well as literally marching a group of workers to the Virginia border.    The pushing is being done by the Metro Police Department’s prostitution unit, which has been given more tools and legislation to combat prostitution.  Remember the “prostitution free zones”?  They aren’t just saved for major events and tourist attractions but are usually used crack down on groups who have started working within the gentrified zone.  I’m sure that those lovely signs are very assuring to the residents of those areas.  A fancy billboard in certain areas, I think, could do wonders for real estate values.

Harass, though, is probably a better word than combat, if we’re defining the role of the prostitution unit.  Even MPD doesn’t claim to be able to make prostitution end within the District.  They don’t even necessarily claim to make life easier for those performing it on the streets.  Considering some of the propositioning that takes place by officers, some sexual harassment protections or a decent firehose could really be useful on the streets.  Instead, former police Chief Ramsey portrays “those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods” as ‘victims’ of prostitution.

The areas that workers are forced to move to are often more residential or industrial but they are also significantly less safe than the areas previously worked.  This is because these areas are both geographically and literally peripheral.  They are often very low-income if they are residential or highly unregulated and violent.  Such policing creates a progressively more dangerous and violent situation for those being regulated.  This is ironic considering that so many proponents of the abolition of prostitution sight women’s rights as justification.  Yet, it assumes that by practicing sex work a person somehow forfeits their ability to be treated humanely rather than prodded and herded like stray cattle.  These tactics, however, assure that the issue remains out of sight and therefore out of mind for the majority of the public.  How can this be service and protection?

(Image Credit: StudyLib)

The Security of Sex: Inaugural Edition

In case any of you may have missed it, January was a big month in the District of Columbia.  A new American President and government were sworn-in to much ado and it was celebrated with a larger than life level of pomp, circumstance and security.  It seemed as if every newscast, article and discussion on the inauguration was incapable of discussing anything else, but what was actually meant by “security”? The obvious security presence involved the area immediately around the National Mall, which was cordoned off, surrounded by thousands and National Guardsmen/women, patrolled from above and regulated.  However, the geography of security expanded far beyond the areas around the mall and affected much more than was necessary for general safety of the Mr. Obama and the invading throngs here to see his inauguration.  Those living and working within the district realized that security was just as, if not more so, concerned with regulation as safety.  The two have actually been conflated; something, which becomes apparent through debates regarding the closing of bridges linking Virginia to DC.

Making this more apparent is actually the exercise of section 104 of the District of Columbia’s Omnibus Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act of 2006, which allows the Chief of Police to designate “Prostitution Free Zones”. The area around 5th and L St, NW was declared a PFZ and heavily regulated by MPD during the inauguration period.  Such a name insinuates that perhaps that when such places have not been designated or any areas beyond “the zones” may be considered legal areas of prostitution. Alas, they are not and the absurdity of this designation has not been lost on commentators including Jay Leno, who seems to be in the minority of people aware of the law.  Prostitution within DC is criminalized; a person receives a $500 fine and 1-90 days imprisonment for the first offense with the punishment graduating in severity from there with each additional arrest. 

So what is a “Prostitution Free Zone”?  Anyplace “where the health or safety of residents is endangered by prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” may be declared a “zone” for up to ten days using taped signs and banners.  This means that “any group of two or more persons congregating on public space for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” who haven’t dispersed after being warned may be arrested on site and be fined $300, imprisoned for up to 180 days, or both (there is a list of acceptable group activities).  While normally one must be caught engaging in the act, these zones require no such proof for individuals to be arrested.

These penalties and targeting seem excessive for an act in which no one is physically harmed; they do after all include mandatory imprisonment.  Yet, DC Chief  of Police Charles Ramsey  justified the institution of the “Prostitution Free Zones” and quickly rebuffed the idea that prostitution may be a “victimless crime” saying, “nothing could be further from the truth for those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods”.  He goes on to congratulate the city in combating “the presence of brazen street walkers in many of our communities” which is a “serious problem”.  While I’m sure that brazenness is in fact quite serious, it hardly seems an argument to justify such restrictions on movement, congregation and labor.  It also seems oddly reminiscent of justifications for “Black Codes” after the Civil War.  Such a comparison, however, seems less odd when you notice that Chief Ramsey seems to be talking solely about street workers, who are primarily woman-identified, low-income and African-American, as opposed to those who work primarily in brothels, massage parlors or out of their homes.  These are the people targeted by “the zone”.  This law and the continued focus on punishing prostitution within DC is yet another way in which the law has been utilized to regulate Othered bodies and continues to regulate black bodies.

Ironically, despite all this talk about extreme security due to the swearing in of the first African-American president in U.S. history: the inauguration of Barack Obama still only utilized half as many security personnel as the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush.  The true irony? These numbers only refer to those personnel who were dealing immediately with those entering the city and the mall, it does not include the task forces sent to “clean-up” the city for the throngs.  While war was being waged on sex workers, as it continues to be, tourists and locals alike gathered in the millions to see hope personified and sworn-in, to physically see their government transition to one which respected basic human and civil rights, one based in the community organizing and that might actually repeal some of the sexual Puritanism of the last eight years.  Yes we can! But why aren’t we, really?

(Photo Credit: The Kojo Nnamdi Show / Daniel Lobo)