Cannon: Human trafficking and the forgotten women of Cleveland

This September marked one of the few occasions that I could recall a highly publicized sentencing of a pimp in Cleveland. I wasn’t shocked by the premise of a pimp operating or prospering in Cleveland. In my experience, sex workers were never cloaked by the pitch-black shadows of the streets—they were visible, often well-spoken, vigilant and frequently in the company of upper-class white men (these businessmen somehow found themselves in a lions’ den at 2 a.m.).

The pimp in question is Dorian Brown, and with the aid of Jason Dowell, he had constructed an interconnected and expansive prostitution ring that targeted underage girls between 15 and 17 years old. He established makeshift brothels by arranging meetups between prostitutes and potential clients in hotels throughout Northeast Ohio.

Brown was recently given an 18-year prison sentence. I agree that Brown deserves to be locked behind bars, but this instance doesn’t absolve the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) of their past shortcomings. They are guilty of mishandling cases associated with missing women of color that were labeled as sex workers or drug addicts. It doesn’t absolve the CDP of previously overlooking the many and blatant conduits of human trafficking.

As glad as I am to see that the CDP and their neighboring counterparts have consciously decided to take more initiative to combat human trafficking or interpret reports of missing women, I can’t act as if countless women did not perish under their jurisdiction during Anthony Sowell’s prolonged reign of murder and terror. Sowell, arrested in October 2009, was a serial killer who targeted African-American women throughout Cleveland.

The reality of sex work is nothing new to me. I knew of women who used Backpage, an open and public forum that is similar to the setup of Craigslist, to engage in various forms of sex work. I had friends who would chauffeur sex workers around as a part-time “hustle” when we were teenagers. I never perceived it as something distant or incomprehensible. It was as common as drug use or gang violence.

To be quite honest, I was much more surprised to finally see legal action being directed at a small fraction of the predators that have always participated in human trafficking. These women and their stories are often unheard. Even when they do seek help, they’re often sent away— villainized by our society’s preconceived notions of sex workers.

Many of the women killed by Sowell—including the aunt of my close friend Olivia Oluonye—were accused of being sex workers or drug addicts; both of these titles carry immense social stigmas, and ones that often resulted in their cases being ignored.

It would never be my intention to critique the value or worth of sex workers that engage in these activities willingly and are of legal age. I’ve had family members that were known drug dealers, murderers or even gang members; I am in no position to judge sex workers. I came from the same environment. I understand the feeling of destitution in that atmosphere. I have blood on my own hands from my own faults and misadventures, so I’m in no place of moral purity or virtue to pass judgement. I am here to highlight how local police departments harbored a culture that perpetuated a social stigma that dehumanized and belittled women of color, whether they be sex worker or drugs addicts, and essentially failed to notice a consistent geographical pattern of missing women.

I’m glad that they caught Brown. I’m glad that his network of accomplices was dismantled. I’m glad that the city of Cleveland is taking human trafficking more seriously. But I can’t seem to forgive them for the sake of the many African-American women that perished as a result of Sowell’s utter disregard towards human life.

Christopher Cannon is a third-year student studying English and history.