Community

Tabled Sex Work Decriminalization Bills Incite Discussion

Protesters Confront Council Member at Health Forum

Although a highly contentious 14-hour D.C. Council hearing has, for now, quashed further discussion about decriminalizing sex work in the city, supporters of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act said they’ve laid the groundwork for what they predict will be the bill’s successful passage during the next council session.

For Nnennaya Amuchie, an attorney and chair of the Black Youth Project 100’s District chapter, a key strategy in continuously promoting the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act as of late involves publicly engaging council members, particularly those opposed to decriminalizing sex work.

Such was the case last week when dozens of BYP 100 members interrupted a health forum headlined by Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) at the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization headquarters in Northeast.

For 15 minutes, groups of protesters sitting among guests stood up with signs and smartphones in hand, chanting their support of sex work decriminalization and admonishing Gray for missing the Oct. 17 hearing before event organizers escorted them out at the request of older, perturbed audience members.

“We recognize decriminalization as a way to reduce arrests and exploitation of [Black women, girls, and non-gender-conforming people]. The industry is underground and sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation when they’re criminalized,” said Amuchie in her support of policy that doesn’t penalize people who make a living by engaging in consensual sex acts.

In recent weeks, BYP 100 members have made known their intentions to organize around this issue during the 2020 election, when Gray and other council members seek reelection.

“Decriminalization alone wouldn’t stop the policing,” Amuchie said. “It’s just one small part of a larger issue, but we have multiple campaigns for housing, people making sure the police budget is decreased, and increasing housing and other things. We’re also stopping the construction of the new jail. We talk about mass incarceration, but we don’t talk about how gender impacts mass incarceration.”

On its second go-around, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act, introduced by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) in June, had the support of Council members Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Robert White (D-At Large), and Anita Bonds (D-At Large). Councilman Charles Allen, who co-sponsored the legislation, brought it before the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on Oct. 17 during a hearing he later said made him apprehensive about moving forward with it.

On that day, several people and organizations on both sides of the issue weighed in until the early morning hours, with opponents of the bill arguing that it would increase human trafficking. In their comments, proponents prioritized curbing sex worker arrests and exploitation by undercover police officers.

Discussion about the bill’s legal implications, inside and outside the Wilson Building, has happened amid increased complaints and responses to sex workers in Logan Circle, Thomas Circle, and in the eastern parts of the District.

A prostitution sting in Northeast this month led to seven arrests, the latest of 57 that have transpired since the start of the operation. Earlier this year, the FBI announced the launch of a sting operation targeting “prostitution bosses” around Northwest’s Logan and Thomas circles, both of which have seen an uptick of on-the-street activity since authorities have shut down solicitation websites.

Last year, police made more than 60 of their 110 arrests along 14th Street on one block.

With the council discussion about sex work decriminalization at its end for 2019, the status quo remains. Some residents have called this move the best course of action for those living in communities plagued with a bevy of issues.

“This [legislation] would add to the melting pot of our existing problems,” said Robbie Woodland, ANC commissioner of single-member District 8C03. “D.C. has so much lawlessness. We don’t discipline the teenagers who go around jumping people on the Metro. Our law as it stands right now is a joke. If you want to stand outside and sell your body, you should get a criminal record. Do what you feel is necessary, but understand the legal ramifications.”

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