Saying Never Again to the Violence in Atlanta Means Saying No to More Policing

Saying Never Again to the Violence in Atlanta Means Saying No to More Policing thumbnail

The confessed Atlanta mass shooter, according to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office, described his targets as “an outlet.” As police put it in a statement, he told them the crimes were “not racially motivated,” that he “blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.”

Compare that to
groups like Street Grace, a Georgia-based “demand reduction” group that has
been cited as an expert on massage businesses after the shootings. The group’s CEO described its values in congressional
testimony as “Christ-centered” and “demand centric”—using its Christian
values to combat men’s demand for commercial sex. It tries to “intercept” men
who are looking to buy sex, according to one of its outreach training manuals, and offer them, among other things,
resources to address sex addiction to “aid them in taking the first step in
receiving help.” Other such
anti-trafficking groups have claimed explicitly that sex addiction drives
men to buy sex. As part of their work to end “commercial sexual exploitation,”
then, Street Grace and groups like them seek to eliminate massage businesses.

This is the
uncomfortable truth yet to be faced after the shootings: Massage businesses
have long been subject to eliminationist sentiments, which manifest in
community vigilantism, in police raids, and in airless policy debates
disconnected from the reality of the women who do massage work. The
extraordinary violence of last week, which took eight lives, including women
workers’, is continuous with that status quo, one that would rather eradicate
massage businesses than regard the workers there as worthy of rights, of
dignity, of belonging.

And that mindset—that shared politics of elimination—is
a product of the anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that communities
are now mobilizing against across the United States. But their work can only
ever get part of the way there in confronting those interlocking oppressions if
that work does not also confront the oppression of people who engage in, or are
believed to engage in, sex work and massage work, and repair the ways they have
historically been excluded from community responses to violence. Sometimes they
have even been blamed. This time may point to a new way.

There is no one cause
here, just as there is no one reason someone may work at or be a customer at a
massage business like those that the confessed shooter reportedly told
investigators he targeted. If we take at face value that his motives are
what law enforcement report, where did he get the idea that massage businesses
were to blame for his “sex addiction,” a phrase with no consistent
meaning? It’s an idea that could have come from his faith community or the evangelical “treatment” center he turned to.
It could have come from self-described anti-trafficking groups like Street
Grace. It could have come from growing up in a country that has long regarded
all Asian immigrant women as sexual temptations for men, a racist idea woven into American anti-immigration law, into
popular culture, and that has now been reinforced in statements shared by police.

Police are now, as
they always are, being turned to for safety—and it is massage workers
themselves who are among the loudest voices to challenge that, to demand
something more. “We want people to step up,” Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer
with Red
Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant massage
workers, told me a few days after the shootings. They are one of the very few
groups in the U.S. that provide outreach and mutual aid to massage
workers, and in which massage workers are organizing for their own safety and
rights. The violence in Atlanta put them in the national spotlight. If we want
to address and prevent such violence, Red Canary Song members said in a statement, we cannot look to the police. “We
understand the pain that motivates our Asian and Asian-American community
members’ call for increased policing, but we nevertheless stand against it.”

Asian migrant massage
workers are already policed, by officers who want to raid their workplaces or
pose undercover as customers in order to arrest them—including having sexual contact with them under false
pretenses. Red Canary Song formed in response to such abuse. In December 2017, sex
workers and massage workers came together for a protest and vigil after a New
York Police Department raid in which a massage worker, Yang Song, fell or jumped to her death from the window of
a massage business in Queens. Around that time, vice raids targeting massage
workers had spiked in New York, like those on 40th Road in
Flushing, a historically Chinese immigrant neighborhood, where Song had worked.
Arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both
unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and
2016, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid
Society. The unlicensed massage charge can be a felony, meaning Asian massage
workers are more criminalized and face more punishment than others charged
merely with prostitution-related offenses. It amounts to another form of
racialized policing against Asian migrant women.

The alternative, Tong
Nguyen told me, begins with looking to massage workers themselves.

“We keep us safe,”
she said. “But it can’t just be the 10 people in Red Canary Song.”

Massage workers in
Seattle who are also organizing against violence echo Red Canary Song. Emi, a
member of the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, or MPOP, told me that they visited women working in massage businesses in their
city after the shootings. “Needless to say, women were afraid,” wrote Emi on behalf of the
collective. “We talked to them about how they keep themselves safe, and
they said that they rely on each other and some said on their boyfriend. None
of them mentioned police. In fact, none of them has called 911 when they
experienced violence in the past.” Still, while there is “fear and
uncertainty,” she wrote, there’s also “a lot of community coming together to
support each other.”

Policing that targets
massage businesses helped sow that fear and uncertainty. Even before the
shootings in Atlanta, Emi wrote, their work to create a network of support with
massage workers can be disrupted by police raids, like a coordinated raid at 11 massage
parlors across Seattle in 2019, along with two smaller ones in the last month
alone, they report. “No more raids, because they are harmful to the workers and
have no benefits whatsoever,” they wrote. “Media narratives about massage
parlor raids frame them as ‘rescue’ operations, but that is not what actually
happened to the women.”

Such narratives,
driven by anti-trafficking groups and police alike, amplified often
uncritically in the media, claim that these businesses should be pushed out
because they are fronts for abuse, exploitation, and violence. The message the
neighbors of massage businesses and the broader community get is that if they
want to help the women working in massage businesses, the answer is to shut
these businesses down. In turn, police are presented as the ones to call, even
when the consequences could be humiliating arrests and traumatizing—or
deadly—raids.

Massage businesses become “targets of anti-trafficking movements,” said Elene Lam, executive
director of Butterfly, a group based in Canada, formed in part by sex workers,
and which provides support to and advocates for the rights of Asian and migrant
sex workers. “Typically many workers are Asian, so they are able to use racist
ideas about Asian women” in their campaigns and messaging—“that they are too
ignorant, they are too naïve, that they cannot recognize they are victims.”
Those are powerful assumptions, she said, and they can encourage
anti-trafficking investigations.

Perhaps the most
prominent anti-human trafficking organization in the U.S. is Polaris,
which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline and has been supported, in part, by millions of dollars in federal funding since it began nearly 20 years ago.
In the last few years, Polaris has begun focusing on what it calls “illicit
massage businesses,” releasing a report in 2018 and a national campaign aimed at giving communities
tools to identify, investigate, and close these businesses. Polaris is opposed
to the decriminalization of sex work, which Red
Canary Song and other massage workers’ groups support. Polaris has additionally
supported actions like the Department of Justice’s seizure of Backpage and the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, which led many
other websites sex workers relied on for advertising to shut down. Polaris is frequently cited as experts on massage businesses, as was seen in coverage of
the shootings in the Atlanta area over the last week in The New York
Times
, USA Today, and The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
.

In the 2018 Polaris
report, the group claimed there were more than 9,000 “illicit massage
businesses.” However, when my reporting partner, Emma Whitford, and I attempted
to substantiate the figure at the time, it was
unclear which massage businesses Polaris was referring to. The group used it
variously to refer to massage businesses where sex was sold, or where labor law
violations may be present, or where human trafficking had occurred, according to
reports Polaris had gathered from hotline calls, massage business review sites,
and other sources. Years later, the number still circulates widely in
connection to efforts to eradicate massage businesses: In 2020, it was cited in
a Missouri news story about an attorney general’s campaign to shut down parlors, along with
stories about closing massage businesses in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; in Austin, Texas; and in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio; as well as a story about a proposed
anti–sex work law in Richmond, Virginia, among others.

“This tragedy is
piled atop the ongoing tragedies taking place every day behind the walls of
some of these businesses,” wrote Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris, in an email
sent Monday to its supporters and donors, after the shootings. “This life, in
these businesses, was no one’s version of the American dream. We all mourn the
victims of the Atlanta shootings together, and pledge to continue working
towards a world where sexual violence, including sex trafficking, is no longer
normal or normalized.” When I asked about the group’s support for closing
massage businesses, Chen wrote in a statement, “We believe that
survivor-centered, trauma informed law enforcement are a vital part of the
comprehensive response to trafficking,” and added, “We believe that the massage
businesses that are trafficking people should be shut down.”

Massage workers and
those organizing alongside them have offered their own solutions to labor abuses and violence, though
they do not get the same access to lawmakers as a group like Polaris. Their
solutions reject using police to identify labor abuses and instead center on
regarding massage workers as workers,
who are both the most accurate and most direct source of knowledge about working
conditions. “We
need to protect workers’ right to fair treatment, [and] freedom from violence
and exploitation,” wrote Emi with MPOP. Massage workers are so often treated as
workers in need of intervention, not workers who can organize together on their
own behalf. They shouldn’t be considered an exception based on the work they
do, when we already have policy models that would be helpful; like, as Emi
wrote, “local ordinances and laws protecting other workers that share the
demographic backgrounds or vulnerabilities of massage workers such as hotel
workers, domestic workers, exotic dancers (strippers), and others, that can
help inform what policies could protect massage workers.”

Something about the
shooting seems to have pushed Polaris to distance itself, or at least appear to
distance itself, from its massage business work. Within days of the
shootings, Polaris had begun reportedly removing some pages about massage businesses
from its website, including the report’s page, which now redirects to a “typologies
of modern slavery” page. Still, it has not backed away altogether. Instead, it has used the shooting to talk about alleged trafficking in massage
businesses, though there is no indication, from law enforcement sources or
otherwise, that any of the three massage businesses where people were shot and
killed on Tuesday were involved in human trafficking.

It’s that conflation
that has helped make massage businesses into targets for groups like Street
Grace, which installed cameras and monitored massage businesses in the Atlanta
area. It surveilled online message boards, as Polaris had, where men
allegedly discussed buying sex at massage businesses. It issued a report based on all this—much like the one
Polaris appears to have pulled offline this week—which was just cited by The
New York Times
and The
Washington Post.
Such groups have long pointed to massage businesses and
demanded they must be eradicated because, they say, they are places where
men can pay for sex with women. (That’s what they mean when they call what they
do “demand reduction.”) Police
dutifully follow these calls to eliminate massage businesses; the businesses
where women were killed had been subject to past undercover stings, in which women workers were
arrested, followed by more pressure to shut the businesses down for good. And
the confessed shooter in the Atlanta killings believes, or at least the police
want us to believe, that he is on a similar mission.


“So much of what
we’ve been trying to push against has been the stigma in the community and the
way that neighbors and others in the area around massage businesses treat the
workers,” Yves Tong Nguyen from Red Canary Song told me. “If we don’t want
police to be in the neighborhood and harming people, then neighbors have to
step in, and they have to step in in supportive ways … not call the cops on
you.”

The calls for more
police and more patrols are extremely worrying to Butterfly, as well. “They are
not the solution, they are the problem,” Lam told me last week. When neighbors
and the broader community turn their back on massage workers, it leads to more
discrimination against and isolation of those workers. “It’s affecting their power
for them to advocate for themselves.”

This discrimination
and exclusion is woven into laws and policies regulating massage businesses,
as Buttefly has documented and as Lam detailed to me—workers can be prohibited
from locking the doors in the rooms where they work, for example, and licensing bylaws may restrict massage business
to industrial areas, or not permit more than one business to operate within a
certain radius. “We cannot change the safety of the community,” Lam concluded,
“without structural and legal change.” This is the thing they have to confront
now, to challenge “the racism and the anti–sex worker discrimination” in these
laws and reinforced by them.

Whether or not the
confessed shooter believes his killings at massage businesses were
racially motivated, those businesses themselves are racialized, and the women
who work in them face anti-Asian racism. Those businesses are also associated
with sex work, whether or not sex work happens in them, and by extension, the
women workers face anti–sex work discrimination, too. All the groups of massage
workers I spoke to in the week after the shooting underscored this point—the
focus on whether the women who were killed were sex workers is evidence
of those multiple oppressions, which are inseparable. They also obscure the
actionable point that matters more: how to support those women workers.

Some may do sex work,
and may not identify as sex workers. Some may not consider the sexual services
they provide to be sex work. “For us, it’s very clear—we support migrant and
Asian women who work in massage parlors,” Lam said. “For us, no matter what
service they provide, they deserve to be protected.” Among all those workers,
she said, “there is a lot of common agenda and common need.” While “it’s wrong to equate
massage work with sex work,” as Emi with MPOP in Seattle wrote to me, the Atlanta
shooting demonstrates that prejudice and violence against sex workers can harm
massage workers, whether or not they personally engage in sex work. “The focus
should be on the violence and oppressions rather than who or what the workers
are.”

This “hyperfocus,”
said Tong Nguyen from Red Canary Song, “on were they or weren’t they? That is
coming from whorephobia.” It is the result of people not having thought about
sex workers as part of these communities or conversations about massage work.
When a member of the press
asked Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms if
the victims were sex workers, or if the businesses the shootings targeted
offered sexual services, she replied, “We certainly will not begin to
blame victims.” Captain Jay Baker, the
now-benched spokesman for the Cherokee County
Sheriff’s Office, who said of the shooter, “He was pretty much fed up and at
the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what
he did,” effectively echoed Lance Bottoms, saying at the same press
conference, “I agree with the mayor, we are not going to do any
victim-shaming.”

Such efforts to avoid
victim-blaming can also reinforce the idea that sex work is to blame. “If we
were to say they did sex work, that wouldn’t further stigmatize them—the stigma
already existed,” said Tong Nguyen. “People are entrenching that. Because even
if they were sex workers, they deserve to live.”
 


“Many people are trying to capitalize on
the murders,” as Emi with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project wrote me,
“including anti-trafficking groups that want to use it as a justification for
shutting down massage parlors, as well as Asian American leaders who decry
anti-Asian violence while ignoring specific hardships faced by women, recent
migrants, and people who work in a field that has an overlap with sex work.”
Massage work has been made invisible in some community vigils and other
responses to the shootings. On Monday, MPOP organized its own
vigil in Seattle, held
intentionally in the morning so that massage workers could attend and not miss
work. It wants to ensure “that their voices are actually heard, not what other
people think massage workers’ experiences are like.”

On Thursday, at a vigil organized by Red Canary Song, one of
its few outspoken supporters in any legislative body, New York state Assembly Member Ron Kim, spoke out against both violence and the resistance to talking about massage workers. “Even at this dark hour,” he told me by phone before the
vigil, “we have people who feel ashamed that there are these workers who are
being brutalized by men who don’t see these workers as human. I don’t know how
to get past it. All I can do is support groups like Red Canary and groups like
them to create lanes for others to come in.”

But in the short
term, Kim said, we can resist the easy solutions, like stepped-up policing: “I
constantly refer back to what my constituents like Yang Song went through. When
our response to violence is more state-sanctioned violence, we’re just
continuing the violent cycle.” At the same time, in this case in Atlanta, “we
want people to understand that a hate crime occurred.” Kim told me that this
was not for “punitive reasons, that we want more punishment,” but instead
because “the recognition that there was racism is very important for not just
Asians in Atlanta, but for Asian-Americans in this country.”

What’s needed is
improving social conditions for workers and the community, said Kim, and
addressing “where the violence and hatred come out of. I think those are much
more difficult conversations, and policymakers, lawmakers don’t want to have
that. Now they would have to be held accountable—what are you doing to improve
social conditions? Are you going to provide more housing, health care?” By
comparison, “it’s much easier for politicians to individualize the violence and
hatred, and say, we’re giving an extra $50,000 to create a task force in the
police department, take a picture, and then we’re going to punish the crime and
make examples out of people.”

Groups in the
communities the mass shooting targeted, like Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, or AAAJ–Atlanta, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated
to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans in Georgia and the Southeast,
haven’t called for increased policing, either, said Phi Nguyen, litigation
director with AAAJ–Atlanta. There is a concern, she said, “among community
members, including myself, that increased police presence is not welcome and
would lead to further violence and criminalization, and we don’t think that’s a
solution.”

Two days after the
shootings, 60 such groups had convened to talk about how to respond and what
was needed, Nguyen told me. “There’s a broader community-level fear and trauma
we want to address and hold space for,” and there is is a longer-term
conversation about “how to address some of these root causes of violence, and
that’s a conversation we’ve been having before mainstream media started
covering anti-Asian violence more regularly.” In that work, sex workers and
massage workers cannot be excluded. “We support sex workers,” Nguyen told me,  “and we want to remove the stigma, and they
deserve to be talked about with dignity.”

In 2017, there was no
national outcry when Yang Song died after a raid on the massage business where
she worked. Few media outlets reported on her life or investigated the role
police played in her death. At the time, it seemed that stories about Asian
migrant massage workers were most often given media coverage when told through
the staff of anti-trafficking organizations, the massage workers’ own voices
largely absent. That violence and silencing is what led Red Canary Song to
organize in the first place.

 More than 20,000
people came to their vigil on March 18. But the group itself, “we’re at most 10 people,” Tong Nguyen, the Red Canary Song organizer, told me. “We’re not
paid to do any of this.… It’s just us showing up.” They had been doing that work
for years when it felt like no one was listening, she said, and now they’re
suddenly hearing from so many big media organizations. And it’s hard, she said.
“Where were you before the people died? … Anytime anyone dies—not just this
community—it feels like it was preventable if only people were there before.”

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