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Strippers Protest New Orleans Police


Bourbon Street in New Orleans is a tourist destination that's long been known for live music bars and, yes, strip clubs. But this year, with Mardi Gras just a few weeks away, many of those clubs have temporarily closed after police say they found evidence of human trafficking. Jess Clark of member station WWNO reports from Bourbon Street, where strippers march this week to protest the police crackdown.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us dance. Let us dance. Let us dance.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: Lit by the neon lights of Bourbon Street signs, a stripper who goes by the stage name AZ blows into a rhinestone-covered whistle and leads the crowd in the chant of the night - let us dance.

AZ: You think I'm being trafficked. You think I have a pimp. You think I don't have a voice for myself. But I can speak up. I am a woman. This is my body. And I feel fine about it.

CLARK: AZ is among hundreds of strip club workers who have been out of work since police raided eight clubs in the tourist-heavy French Quarter and suspended their liquor licenses, effectively shutting them down. Many workers say they've dug into savings to make ends meet or are traveling out of state to strip. And some strippers deny that human trafficking happens in their clubs. New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison says that's just not true.

MICHAEL HARRISON: They may be a part of it. They may not be a part of it. Or they may not even be aware. But there are many cases that are happening inside the clubs.

CLARK: Harrison says an undercover investigation turned up evidence of several trafficking cases, along with dozens of illegal drug and prostitution cases.

HARRISON: We're following the complaints of other citizens, other legitimate businesses who are hurt by this and other people who agree that human trafficking and prostitution and drug sales erode the fabric of society and erode the fabric of people's quality of life who live and work and visit there.

CLARK: The police say they're trying to protect the women who work in these clubs, but it's safe to say their tactics aren't giving club workers a sense of security. Some strippers have complained to the press that police officers mistreated them during the raids, verbally abusing them, watching them change or calling out their legal names in front of customers - a big no-no in the industry. Strip club manager Leatrice Jarvis was at the march. She says the raids only made workers less likely to seek police help.

LEATRICE JARVIS: They're supposed to protect us. And right now they feel like more of an enemy. Like, I'm more afraid of them than I am to walk on the street.

HANNI STOKLOSA: You cannot arrest. You cannot prosecute. You cannot rescue and raid your way out of trafficking.

CLARK: Hanni Stoklosa is co-founder of HEAL, a national group that seeks to end trafficking and support survivors. Stoklosa says trafficking needs to be seen not as a crime issue but as a public health issue, with more resources going to address the root causes that leave people vulnerable to trafficking - things like poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence and addiction.

STOKLOSA: That's a lot to tackle. But if we're not thinking upstream, we're only just, like, trying to put our finger in a dam, really.

CLARK: Police Chief Harrison says his job is to enforce the laws on the books and that the clubs were breaking them. And he says he expects to make several trafficking arrests soon.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us dance. Let us dance. Let us dance.

CLARK: Meanwhile, strip club workers are waiting for the clubs to serve out their suspensions. They say they're ready to get back to work. For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.