Community Activist Jeri Williams spoke for an hour at the event, recounting her story of surviving sexual child abuse, domestic violence, rape, gangs, drugs and prostitution in Portland.
“It starts in the household—the things that happen there determine how you’re going to think of yourself and the choices you’ll make in your life,” Williams said.
Williams says teenage girls are a common commodity. She herself was 20 when she was raped by ten men to induct her into a gang, and then forced out on the street to sell herself, while by day she was kept locked in her room as a prisoner. Horrifying as this was, Williams also witnessed her pimp recruiting girls as young as 12 — 14. “These were good girls from Beaverton, Hillsborough,” she said. She explained that the pimps look for runaways, teenagers who have had fights with their parents. They’re recruited in malls, parks, trains and bus stations.
Williams discussed the old solution Portland had come up with, the Prostitution Free Zone. “It didn’t bust any pimps, it didn’t help people who needed help. It just moved the problem to a different location. If it wasn’t 82nd it would be 102nd, or 122nd.” Williams went on to talk about how we could make a difference (solutions below the break).
“We need to change laws and legislation against pimps and johns," Williams said. Amy Trieu, Policy Coordinator for Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, agrees. "We need to separate out the buyers and sellers," she says. "Right now the women and the men get charged equally, which is completely unfair to the women who are being forced into doing this."
Williams also talked about building more shelters to help those who need help. “We need a safe place for these girls so they can be deprogrammed and reprogrammed. You don’t understand the mindset of people who have been beaten and beaten and beaten. You don’t reach out to CDSS when they say their goal is to take your children away. You don’t reach out to the police when they hold a rifle to your head.”
Senator Ron Wyden is currently working on approving a federal grant that would award Oregon $2.5 million to put into changing the outdated legislation and building new shelters.
“Sex trafficking is slavery, pure and simple. It’s time to take a harder line in prosecuting those who prey on young girls and lure them into a life of sexual exploitation,” Wyden says. “The first step in doing that is separating them from their pimps and providing them with a safe and promising alternative so they can provide law enforcement with the evidence needed to bring the real criminals to justice.”
Wyden is working closely with Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel. “Safe housing is a desperately needed next step in combating the sexual exploitation of our youth," McKeel says. "We can’t stand by idly any longer as thousands of young women are victimized right here in our own country every year.”
A new support center, the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence, will be opening in September, and Trieu described a housing placement project for women that is a pre-cursor to the shelter they hope to build with the grant money. "With the housing first model, women are assured they will not be kicked out. It's about building trust. This way they've always got a safe place to come back to." Also on July 1st, a new emergency women's shelter opened downtown.
Many local bands also played in the event on Sunday, which brought audience members such as Sarah Taylor, who wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. Taylor describes her shock after hearing Williams’ story. “It was really intense,” Taylor says. “You don’t think of that happening in Portland. It definitely created more awareness for me. It made me realize that global issues are local issues as well.”
Sunia Gibbs, who is on the board of directors for the Pacific Center for Justice, also talks about empowerment starting at a local level. “In our backyard we can take deliberate action for dealing with this issue,” she says. “It takes normal people deciding to stand up and take action.”
This was the first event by Arts for Justice. They will be holding another in November.
Those who are interested in helping the cause can learn more by visiting http://oregonoath.org.
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