Community members rallied alongside city leaders Thursday evening to protest the sexual exploitation of minors, shutting down 17th Ave at International Blvd in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood — a neighborhood where residents say encountering hookers, pimps and johns is a day-to-day part of life.
The event focused on solving the prevalence of the sex trade along International Blvd between 2nd and 23rd Avenues, and condemned the victimization of underage women by pimps who either lure or force them into prostitution.
“When I got elected I talked about taking back Oakland block by block, and this is clearly one of those blocks,” said Mayor Jean Quan. “You can’t make money off the lives of young children and expect to do business in this city.”
Speakers from the event sponsors, the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) and the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), called for action and posed direct questions to Police Chief Anthony Batts, Councilmember Patricia Kernighan and a representative of Oakland Unified School District Superintendant Tony Smith, all of whom were seated on stage during the rally.
Nhuanh Ly of Banteay Srei, an advocacy and support group for at risk youth, said that every young woman is potentially at risk, particularly in areas with issues of poverty, unemployment and cyclical violence.
“We need a holistic approach, based on strategies that include health centers, the police department, the schools and the neighborhood,” Ly said.
Ly said that pimps often approach young girls as the girls are walking to and from school, and emphasized that schools would be a vital part of preventing such behavior. A speaker from EBAYC asked Smith’s representative to commit to hosting OUSD’s first staff training on recognizing and combating sexual exploitation around its campuses by the end of 2011.
Batts was asked to commit to keeping at least two officers on a dedicated patrol of that section of International. While he promised to increase security to the fullest extent possible, he did not make concrete commitments, citing the department’s dwindling budget and staff.
Batts implored community members to help in any way they could, even if it meant standing on the streets on Friday and Saturday nights holding pickets signs and blowing whistles to keep, he said, pimps from “hiding in the shadows like cockroaches, pushing girls onto the streets.”
The National Lodge, a motel at 17th and International just behind the temporary stage set up for the event, was also one of the subjects of the rally, as many community members described it as a hotbed of prostitution.
“I can recall the day when things went bad in this neighborhood, and it was the day that the National Lodge opened its doors,” said Jodi Terrazas, a nearby business owner and 40-year Oakland resident. “It opened its door to prostitutes and pimps.
In a lawsuit filed last December, Oakland City Attorney John Russo accused three motels — The National Lodge, The Economy Inn at East 12th Street and 1st Avenue, and The Sage Motel on MacArthur near High Street — of being hubs for prostitution. If a judge rules in favor of the city the motels could be forced to shut down for up to a year and their owners made to pay fines and civil penalties up to $25,000.
Mike Patel, a manager at The National Lodge, said in an interview the day of the rally that he was aware of the lawsuit but that no prostitution takes place on its premises.
“There is nothing illegal going on here,” he said.
The Oakland Police Department has made 90 prostitution-related arrests in the last month according to the area’s newly appointed Captain, Ed Tracy — a point referenced emphatically by Chief Batts and Officer James Saleda, who assured the crowd that while officers on patrol might not be noticed because they “were looking pretty rough and scraggly,” they were always there.
But Jabari Shaw, an activist with the Laney Black Student Union, said that it was important to remember that more officers do not necessarily mean more solutions.
“We don’t need more police out here, we need more programs,” he said. “We need to get these women some jobs. You go taking a woman to jail for 72 hours, then she gets out and still has no money and nowhere to go.”