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Arizona student fights for right to walk while trans
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-04-01

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On April 11, Monica Jones— a 29-year-old trans woman and student of the Arizona State University's School of Social Work—will enter the Municipal Court of Phoenix and fight for her constitutional right to be able to walk down a city street without being arrested on suspicion of prostitution.

Section 23-52 A of the Phoenix Municipal Code prohibits the "manifest[ation] [of] an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution." Essentially, the code states that if—in the opinion of a police officer—a person shows an intent to commit an act of prostitution, that person is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Such an opinion and subsequent arrest can be gauged on whether a person "beckons to or stops to engage passersby in conversation repeatedly" or "attempts to stop motor vehicles by hailing or waiving of arms or other bodily gesture" or that the person "inquires whether a potential patron, procurer or prostitute is a police officer."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona agreed that the law gives Phoenix police broad discretionary powers. Should, for example, a female tourist travel to the city for the Super Bowl in 2015 wearing clothing that is appropriate for warm weather and if she attempts to hail a cab or wave to someone across the street or even ask a police officer for directions and that officer is of the opinion that she might be soliciting sex, she can be arrested.

Jones maintains that if that woman is transgender, the chances of arrest are heightened. If she is a trans woman of color, she might as well bank on it.

It is as a trans woman of color that Jones said she has come under police scrutiny numerous times in Phoenix neighborhoods, whether just talking to a friend or simply going shopping. The social work student is more than 6 feet in height and sticks out in a crowd.

In May 2013, she had been part of a crowd at a rally protesting a local initiative called Project Rose.

Created by ASU Associate Professor and Director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, MSW, Ph.D., Project Rose describes itself as an "alternative to arrest" of suspected sex-workers in Arizona. The project asserts that it addresses "the responsibility of local government to enforce applicable laws in a fair and impartial manner."

In a typical Project Rose sting, suspects are swept up and transported to Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix. Without access to legal counsel and in order to avoid prosecution, they are required to complete the "DIGNITY Diversion Program" which begins with a meeting with a caseworker and is followed by a course that involves counseling and education on topics including sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse and domestic violence. Failure to complete the program can lead to charges being filed in municipal court and possible jail time.

Jones said that Project Rose includes a week-long class of eight-hour days. "You sit in a room and they talk down to you," she said. "They talk about how bad it is to be a sex worker. There's a faith-based tone about it, like you are violating a moral standard. It is definitely religiously based."

She added that 80% of the women in Project Rose don't complete the program. "They're not making any money while they're in it. There is no child care, sometimes they have no way to even get there. They are set up for failure," she said.

A member and organizer of the Phoenix chapter of the Sexworker Outreach Project ( SWOP )—a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities—said Project Rose embodies a moral panic in the United States. Asking to be identified under an alias, "Sandra" maintained that the project sets out to undermine a person's autonomy and choices. "It's tied to and is seen as a model of an anti-trafficking movement in Arizona that has a ton of money and resources going into it," she said. "It further criminalizes sex workers and makes people think their tax dollars are going to work by strengthening the moral fabric of the country."

A "fact sheet" provided to Windy City Times by Roe-Sepowitz claimed that Project Rose "is not a faith-based or faith-oriented event though the host church and the Archdiocese of Phoenix play supportive roles as part of the partnership." The sheet goes on to add that, out of every average $1,500 raised for the sting, "one thousand dollars is given to Bethany Bible Church to pay for food costs to feed all clients, staff, volunteers and law enforcement over 24 hours."

"There's a stipend of money that goes to Catholic charities," Sandra said. "It's advertised as a 'well-intentioned savior project' that gets a lot of positive publicity. Dominique has been using Project Rose as a model to crack down on trafficking around the Super Bowl."

Jones—who describes herself as an "outspoken activist for human rights"—maintains that Project Rose paints all sex workers in Phoenix with the same brush. "They treat us like we are all selling our bodies for drugs," she said. "That wasn't my story so I didn't take to it. I told them that I have a right to my own body. 'You cannot tell me what to do with my body' I said, so they rushed me through the program. They told me it was because I had a 'strong personality and we don't want you to rub off on the other girls.' But when a program like this comes along, of course I'm going to stand up for my rights and everybody else's rights."

Prior to her taking part in the protest against Project Rose, Jones and Roe-Sepowitz had a discussion. "I was trying to get an understanding of where she [Roe-Sepowitz] was coming from," Jones said. "But we ended up just agreeing to disagree on the success rate of the program."

The day after the rally against Project Rose, Jones was arrested. She asserted that her arrest came about after she was seen by a police officer simply walking down the street. She was told that she was stopped because she lived in a low-income area known for prostitution. "So I was like no matter where I walk, because I live in a low-income area, I'm always going to be a target," Jones said. "They only target women and trans women of color."

While she couldn't go into specific details, Jones alleged that at the time of her arrest, she was denied both access to an attorney and the ability to make a phone call. "They took my purse and my cell phone," she stated. "I said 'I'm innocent' and I asked to speak to a lawyer. They said 'no you've got to go through this process' and 'well there's a lawyer in the next office.' They take me into the next office and it's a prosecutor. I asked to speak to a public defender and they said 'Oh we don't have that.'"

Jones said she was then informed of the charge of Manifestation of Prostitution and that she was going to be transported to the downtown jail. "As a trans-woman, they put you in with the males if you haven't had reassignment surgery," she said. "That was scary for me so I just signed this paper and said I was going to fight it later on."

Jones was eventually released. Four months later she received a letter in the mail pressing formal charges against her. They are charges she is choosing to fight in Municipal Court. It is a fight in which Jones has found herself with a great deal of support. Organizations like SWOP have helped to rally community and media attention around her case that was originally scheduled for March 14. "I have a great attorney," Jones said. "He's been supportive and he believes in what I'm doing."

The ACLU of Arizona is now involved. Legal Director Dan Pochoda said they are examining both the Manifestation of Prostitution law and Project Rose very closely.

"Project Rose does raise civil liberties issues," Pochoda said. "To use the coercive technique of arrest as a way to bring people into the program when it should be a voluntary decision and then to not allow them to have lawyers when they get there even though by definition they are under arrest, we just think it raises a whole lot of issues about the intermingling of the criminal system and so-called 'intervention.'"

"I don't know whether there is a church vs. state constitutional challenge yet," he continued. "There's often a gap between what good policy is and what is a proper way to treat people and what will be considered illegal and unconstitutional. The fact that they are literally brought there under arrest by the Phoenix cops, then it does raise questions. The project claims that the criminal process is somehow just suspended and that people are out to do good and help out. It's just nonsense and you couldn't have a worse model than starting off with an arrest as a way to bring in clients."

The ACLU helped draft a brief for Jones's defense lawyer challenging the Manifestation of Prostitution law as a violation of both the Arizona and U.S. Constitutions. Specifically, the brief addresses rights of pure speech and expression protected by the First Amendment as well as asserting that the law overly criminalizes protected conduct such as "talking and waving of arms" and—in Jones's case—protected conduct that expresses gender identity.

"The First Amendment protects the expression of one's gender identity through clothing and other items consistent with that gender," the brief stated. "For a transgender individual, like Ms. Jones, by wearing clothing and other items associated with a particular gender, one expresses their identification with that gender. Like clothing that symbolizes one's ethnic or religious beliefs, here Ms. Jones's 'tight-fitting black dress,' which prompted the officer to stop her, communicated the message that she is a woman and that the fact that she was assigned male at birth did not change her female identity."

The judge in the case postponed the hearing until April 11 to give prosecutors a chance to respond.

The brief also referenced the City of Chicago v. Morales—a gang congregational ordinance that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutionally vague through its authorization of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

"Local governments don't have the authority to enact ordinances that effectively provide absolute discretion to police officers to make moment-to-moment judgments on the streets as to whether the same acts by person A are crimes and the same acts by person B are not," Pochoda said. "The Manifestation of Prostitution law allows the cops to target anyone they want. There are no limiting factors. It makes being a trans woman a status crime."

Owen Daniel-McCarter, an attorney with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois and the TransLife project of the Chicago House, told Windy City Times that he thinks the Jones case will highlight the pervasive profiling of trans individuals who have faced arrest across the country for "walking while trans."

"It seems like the purpose of the Arizona law is in line with other laws recently enacted in Arizona that keep people out of public spaces who don't fit who lawmakers and voters want to see in their communities," he said. "It fits with the general trend of using criminalization to legitimize discrimination."

Daniel-McCarter added that trans profiling in Chicago is such a pervasive problem that there is a police general order stating that officers cannot use someone's transgender identity as reasonable suspicion that they have engaged in prostitution. However, he agreed that there is a danger that a program like Arizona's Project Rose could easily be repeated as a part of the continuing gentrification of Chicago's neighborhoods.

"Project Rose may come from a place that is a desire to do good," he said. "But actually it does exactly the opposite because there is not a systemic analysis of how profiling works, or the many, many reasons why people may engage in the sex trade and also the profiling of trans women and women of color. It's an example of how well-intended programs can backfire when they don't have that kind of analysis or the direct involvement in leadership of people who have lived the experience."

Jones has lived the experience and the stigma that a trans woman walking down the street is a sex worker. "Coming from my position as a trans woman, going through the system and now fighting the system, it's hard to leave that stigma behind," she said. "I get stopped at the grocery store, and they [the police] will say 'what are you doing here?' If I ask if I'm free to go, they start threatening an arrest for Manifestation."

Jones said that there's a great deal at stake for her April 11. She is worried that a loss will not only affect her continuing education but be devastating to other trans women. Should she lose, Jones pledged she will take her fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Dominique [Roe-Sepowitz] told me that once you're a sex worker you're always a sex worker," she said. "That's not how I view myself and I'm scared for other girls out there. People are like 'well this can't happen to me' but it does happen to them. These girls need to be educated and get legal counsel and have the option to fight."

Pochoda said that he and the ACLU are prepared and committed to fighting alongside her. "We want to assist Monica and her attorney at every stage as long as they want it," he said. "I would certainly want to be a part it this case as far as it goes in terms of its legal challenges to the statute itself."

He added that his office has begun meetings to garner the necessary information that would allow them to take steps to reduce the impact of Project Rose.

Meanwhile Roe-Sepowitz told Windy City Times she was "unable to participate in any discussion about specific participants involved in my research work." The fact sheet she sent instead claimed: "All clients brought to Project ROSE are contacted by law enforcement because they are participating in activity that is illegal under the Phoenix City Code and/or Arizona Revised Statutes. Clients are all found in plain view engaging in illegal activity. The enforcement against this illegal activity is supported by Arizona Revised Statutes and is done in the same manner as every other vice- enforcement activity addressing sex trafficking and prostitution."


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