In one of her last organizing projects as mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan announced last week a new effort to stop the sexual exploitation of children along a stretch of East Oakland that Quan said “the girls call the track.”
Spanning International Boulevard from about 1st Avenue to 109th, “the track” is now nationally notorious as a place where minors are subject to human trafficking, Quan said. “Children are basically sexually trafficked and [are] under slavery of a sexual kind throughout the United States and many places in the world,” Quan told reporters Friday afternoon at the Youth Employment Partnership (YEP), located at the corner of 23rd Avenue and International. “We are going to stand up against Oakland being considered one of those places.”
Quan said the initiative will “put sunshine” on sex trafficking throughout the area, creating a stronger community presence to let predators know their crimes won’t be tolerated. As part of the effort, according to Quan’s spokesman Sean Maher, the city began putting more police officers on the streets late last month in order to discourage pimps, as well as adult males seeking to buy sex, from preying on victims and minors at risk.
“It’s important to note that child prostitution is one of the most common forms of human trafficking in Oakland,” Oakland Police Department Police Lt. Henderson Jordan said at the news conference. “The OPD recognizes that sex trafficking is a victim-driven crime.”
With these new efforts, Quan warned potential Johns, “You’re more likely to be stopped, more likely to have your car towed, you’re more likely to have your picture posted.”
The officers plan to patrol the quarter between 16th and 25th avenues on bicycles from 4:00pm to midnight every day, Quan said, to allow for more agile access to suspected predators.
Neighborhood programs like MISSSEY, (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth) are available to victims who have become caught up in sex trafficking because they feel that they don’t have other options. “We feel like this is an abomination, and it’s happening on our watch” said Executive Director Falilah Aisha Bilal, who joined Quan, Jordan, and city council member Noel Gallo at the news conference. Funded by the voter-approved Measure Y (and by Measure Z next year), MISSSEY is a local nonprofit whose programming is inspired directly by the experiences and philosophies of different survivors. “We need to stand together,” Bilal said, “to help free them from this form of slavery.”
Over the next year, Quan said, different community groups will lead weekly walks from 6:30pm -8:30pm, similar to the city’s Ceasefire program, in which organizers talk to people directly in the trade or those who are most at risk of being recruited. Gallo, who represents the area that includes the troubled stretch of International Boulevard, told reporters that as a father to three daughters who grew up in East Oakland, he feels a special responsibility to involve himself in this effort to keep the area safe for women and children. “I live two blocks away,” Gallo said.
Quan said she and Gallo are participating in the community organizing effort in part because though the police and nonprofits can’t patrol the area around the clock, neighborhood residents can. This was the philosophy behind the “Dear John,” letter campaign, a community initiative that began in 2011 and is supported by the City of Oakland, the Oakland Police Department, and local community organizations. That campaign teaches locals to identify and report the license plate numbers and state of origin of cars driven by people who appear to be soliciting sex. The information is sent anonymously to the police, sometimes with the help of community groups like the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) or Oakland Community Organizations, a coalition of churches, schools and neighborhood groups that relies on religion as a community organizing strategy.
“This is a neighborhood of children and families,” said Andy Nelsen, Deputy Director for Public Policy and Organizing at EBAYC and an active community member who, according to Quan, organizes local parents on marches to raise awareness around sex trafficking. “This issue is a business and it is about supply and demand. And so one of the things we’re trying to do is to disrupt the demand.”
Community activist and local parent Genice Jacobs said Oakland’s sex trade has evolved into a regional business, and suggested that schools educate young people on refusal tactics to avoid recruitment by boyfriend pimps and Internet predators. Around the U.S., Jacobs argued, the rate of sex abuse is alarmingly high for both under aged girls and boys. “In a city like Oakland, with so much poverty,” she added, “the odds are much worse.”
Quan said the area’s sex trade operations now appear to have a national reach. “Many of the girls that are working the streets are from out of town now,” she said. “I met a young lady who had been brought from New Orleans.”
The mayoral effort will work in partnership with The Alameda County District Attorney’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit (H.E.A.T. Watch), which launched in 2010. A five-point program that involves working with both the community and the police to reduce sex trafficking, H.E.A.T. Watch asks residents to submit tips on suspected behavior by email or through a telephone hotline. “We, in our county, are prosecuting 40% of the human trafficking cases that are being prosecuted in the state of California,” said Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick. “We cannot turn a blind eye to 12, 13, 14-year-old children who are being sold for sex in our back yard,” she said.
Drenick said that the message to the community remains the same. “If you see something, say something.”
The city’s other initiatives to support the effort include a revised towing policy to target those who use cars to solicit sex. “If you come to Oakland you have a greater chance of getting prosecuted,” Quan said. “We’re not open for business – this kind of business – any more.”