by Tim Gratz, Program Policy Chair, Keys Coalition…..
On Sunday, February 1st Keys Coalition presented an anti-sex trafficking rally to a well-attended and attentive audience at Fifth Street Baptist Church.
The rally was hosted by City Commissioner Teri Johnston. Also attending were her fellow Commissioner Tony Yaniz; School Superintendent Dr. Mark Porter; Nicole Rampos, Keys’ aide to Congressman Carlos Curbelo; and Janet Leto, founder and CEO of Samuel’s House.
Johnston began by introducing Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Magby, of Trinity Presbyterian Church, President of the Coalition. For those who do not know her Rev. Magby is a strikingly beautiful African American with a presence made even more dramatic by the fact that she is blind, and a leader in her denomination.
Rev. Magby welcomed attendees and began by noting that the afternoon was a very important date for two reasons: in just a few hours the 49th Superbowl would begin in Glendale, Arizona; and two, it was the 150th anniversary of Freedom Day (more on that later).
“What,” she asked the crowd, “does the Superbowl have to do with child sex trafficking?” Two things, she stated, and called on me as the Coalition’s program chair to explain the first.
I read from a January 3ist press report from Yahoo Sports indicating that Superbowl authorities and anti-trafficking advocates were expecting a huge increase in sex trafficking at the Superbowl, as has happened at earlier Superbowls. The article indicated the aggressive steps law enforcement was taking both to prevent trafficking and arrest perpetrators.
The article’s predictions were correct. According to news reports, 570 men wanting to purchase sex, often from minors, were arrested in a law enforcement sting operation, involving 37 different law enforcement agencies from 17 states. Twenty-three pimps were also arrested, and over 60 girls, many of them minors, were rescued. In addition to felony sex trafficking, some pimps were also arrested for kidnapping, drugs and the illegal possession of fire arms.
Next, twenty or so high school students from Heidi Golightly’s Be the Change program came from the rear and walked on stage. They stated, in unison. that every year over 100,000 minors are sexually exploited for commercial gain, a number that shocked most in attendance. One fourteen year old in the group stated that in 2012 a girl just her age was trafficked by two different pimps. These beautiful young people, our city’s children, are the targets and victims of sex traffickers. Seeing them made a powerful point.
Back to the Superbowl connection. Rev. Magby noted that it would take two Superbowl stadiums to house all of the 100,000 annual minor sex victims since the capacity of the Glendale stadium is only 56,000. Many of us will remember that fact at every subsequent Superbowl.
Next to speak was Dr. Mark Porter, Monroe County School Superintendent who had led the audience in the pledge of allegiance. Dr. Porter said:
“One of the great benefits of working in public education is the opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of young people. Tonight we have come together to join in combating efforts of others who want to make a truly negative difference in the lives of our students. It will take all of us learning together and working together to successfully defeat those who seek to lure young people into the dark world of trafficking. Thank you for being here and thank you for joining in the fight.”
Next Rev. Magby turned the crowd’s attention to Freedom Day. She stated that Freedom Day began in 1948 with legislation to designate every February 1st as a day to commemorate the date that President Lincoln signed the joint congressional resolution that became the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in this country. The idea of Freedom Day originated with an elderly, wealthy Philadelphia businessman who was himself an ex-slave. “And today,” Rev. Magby noted, “is a very special Freedom Day since it is exactly 150 years ago that President Lincoln signed the resolution which initiated the 13th Amendment that freed the slaves.”
Then we heard about another ex-slave who had moved to Key West and a dramatic story it was. Rev. Magby introduced a fellow pastor, Rev. Rochelle Pearson-Majors of the beautiful Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church on Whitehead Street which last fall celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rev. Pearson-Majors noted she was the first female pastor in the church’s long history.
Many of us did not know why the church bears the name “Cornish.” Sandy Cornish was a freed slave who moved to Key West in the 1850s. When he found out that there were plans afoot to re-enslave him he self-mutilated his hands (cut off some fingers), broke his legs, and threatened to disembowel himself so he could not be useful to any slave-master. He would rather be a crippled free man (which he was the rest of his life) rather than return to slavery. At great risk to himself he helped treat the dangerous yellow fever that plagued the Keys in the 1850s and 1860s. He became a very successful businessman and he established the church on Whitehead Street that bears his name. Sandy Cornish is a true Key West hero.
Next up was Hayward Magby, Rev. Magby’s husband, who told about slavery in the Keys and its dramatic increase as slaves were used to help construct Fort Zachary Taylor. Hayward then shocked many of us by telling us little known facts about Stephen Mallory. Mallory, a slave-owner, became Secretary of the Confederate Navy whose forces killed many loyal Union sailors. When the Civil War ended, Mallory was tried for treason and imprisoned.
As final part of the Freedom Day section of the program, Veronica Stafford, “the Coconut Lady,” recounted stories her great-grandfather told about the horrors of slavery, as told to her by her mother, who died recently. Veronica’s stories reminded us that not that many years ago a large percentage of the Key West population suffered the horrors of slavery.
Nicole Rampos, the Keys aide to Congressman Carlos Curbela, was introduced. She had lost her voice so I spoke on her behalf. I noted that Rep. Curbelo is committed to doing all he can to prevent sex trafficking, and he advised us that the House had recently passed, with bipartisan support, several important pieces of anti-trafficking legislation.
One of several other bills still pending, introduced by a freshman representative who is a doctor, would require mandatory trafficking awareness training for health care professionals and in medical schools. I noted that the Coalition also strongly supports legislation to impose criminal and civil sanctions on web-sites which openly advertise commercial sex, including with minors. I work for a pizza company. It has been correctly but sadly noted that a man can go online and order a minor girl for sex and have a girl delivered to him as fast as he can order a pizza on-line.
Introducing the program’s documentary film, “In Plain Sight”, I started by noting that when Congress passed the nation’s first anti-trafficking act in 2000 it was also titled the “William Wilberforce Act.” I asked the audience, “How many have heard of William Wilberforce?” Few hands were raised. Wilberforce was a member of the British Parliament who worked almost single-handedly, over a period of twenty years, to persuade Parliament to abolish the slave trade. His bills were repeatedly defeated but by ever decreasing numbers, until he finally succeeded in 1807. Wilberforce is a hero to many modern-day abolitionists.
Wilberforce’s primary technique was to raise public awareness of the horrors of slavery. After he had demonstrated the horrors of slavery, even by visiting slave ships, he would tell those with him “You may choose to turn away, but you will never again be able to say that you do not know.” I told the audience, “After you have seen this film, you will never again be able to say, ‘I did not know.'”
“In Plain Sight” featured interviews with several trafficking survivors. The horrors they described were often almost too hard to bear. But the film offered hope, presenting stories of several women from throughout the country who have started aftercare shelters to both house traffic victims and provide them opportunities to heal.
Following the film, Danielle Lohan, an aide to The Samaritan Women from Baltimore, one of the organizations featured in “In Plain Sight” described the work it does and answered several audience questions.
Janet Leto of Samuel’s House thanked Lohan for coming and stated she was sure there was undiscovered trafficking in Key West. As an oft true aphorism states, the absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence. When the Coalition started in late 2011, the reason for its existence was questioned because, our critics charged, sex trafficking does not happen in the Keys. The illogical assumption of our critics was that, because trafficking has not happened here yet, it will never happen here.
Unfortunately, our critics were proven wrong. Since 2012 there have been five minor girls from the Keys who have been sold for sex. As noted by one of Heidi’s girls, one victim was only fourteen. And what happens to minor sex slaves is horrific; they are typically expected to have sex five or six times per day. Being minors, each encounter is a rape.
The scourge of sex trafficking occurs throughout our country and statistics indicate that Florida is the third leading state for sex trafficking. The question we must ask as a community is what can we do to prevent it from happening here? Because even one more case is one too many.
People wanting to help, and to learn the possible indicators of a trafficking situation, can write us, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305.600.8000. To learn more, visit the website of the Polaris organization. which is one of the country’s leading anti-trafficking organizations. It derives its name from the “north star” that nineteenth century slaves followed to freedom.
Tim Gratz is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin Law School. In 1969, while a sophomore at the UW, he and three friends started an alternative newspaper, The Badger Herald. He practiced law in Wisconsin for nineteen years, winning two out of three cases he argued before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In Key West since 1993 he worked many years in hospitality and is now a CSR representative for Domino’s Pizza.
He works part time at Domino’s so he can devote full-time on raising awareness and preventing minor sex trafficking. He first became interested in the horrors of modern day slavery when he saw, on a dateline NBC program in 2007, that girls younger than his daughter, Melody, then ten, were being sold for sex in third world countries. Four years later he discovered to his horror that child sex trafficking exists in America, and that was the genesis of Keys Coalition.
His “hobby” is researching Keys’ connections to the Kennedy assassination and he has co-written a book on that subject, with a second in the works. He and his friend Shirrel Rhoades are giving a seminar on the Kennedy assassination this Tuesday night at the Tennessee Williams Theatre.