There Is NO Justice in Louisiana
After the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, WWAV’s leadership was displaced and most of the organization’s founding paperwork and supplies were lost in the floodwaters. In the wake of the devastation caused by the government abandonment of New Orleans’s Black communities, WWAV’s foremothers made their ways back to the city of their birth. They asked Catherine’s daughter, Deon Haywood, to become the first executive director of WWAV, and they again hit the streets to find their people. Still, little could have prepared them for the first time a sex worker showed them her driver’s license stamped with “SEX OFFENDER” in orange block letters. All she knew was that she had been charged with what the law had deemed a crime against nature.4
What Danita, Catherine, and Deon were able to piece together was that amid the widespread gentrification and racist violence that followed the government’s mismanagement of the storm, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was now rounding up sex workers and charging them under Louisiana’s misdemeanor prostitution statute and also under the solicitation provision of the state’s felony-level Crime Against Nature statute. Both laws prohibited the offer or agreement to exchange sex for money, though a Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) explicitly criminalized only the solicitation of oral and anal sex. Moreover, while both laws carried the possibilities of imprisonment and fines, CANS was an automatic felony and mandated sex offender registration—fifteen years for a first offense, a person’s entire lifetime upon the second. The enforcement of CANS was solely up to police discretion, and NOPD used it almost exclusively against sex workers who were poor Black cisgender and transgender women. As a result, members of the WWAV community said that “there is NO Justice in Louisiana,” and their words became the organizing call going forward.5
The NO Justice Project was launched to fight predatory policing and the violence of CANS criminalization and registration requirements. WWAV drop-in hours became a vital time for crafting the organizing strategy. Sometimes participants would meet one-on-one with staff. Other times, weekly regulars would be joined by as many as ten to fifteen more participants. Together, they shared stories of the mundane terror of being expelled from New Orleans society through a CANS conviction: of completely losing any sense of privacy, of not being able to walk their kids to school, of having people use the sex offender registry to track them down and harass them at their homes. In this community of support, people with CANS convictions offered one another practical support for navigating the physical and emotional violence of sex offender registration. They also mapped the intimacies of this criminalization crisis and the war it waged on their relationships.
This organizing process confirmed the immediate and tangible difference it would make to repeal the CANS statute, but WWAV also did not want to set a legalistic or legislative end for their work. Looking to the law for redress would mean affirming the power of the very police, court, and prison systems that were using CANS to expel Black cisgender and transgender women from New Orleans. For that reason, the WWAV staff and participants believed that any challenge of CANS needed to unfold within a comprehensive abolitionist project to transform this web of injustices that people moved through daily in New Orleans. Striking down the statute would not matter if they did not change the logics that made their criminalization thinkable. The police would just find another tool, another tactic, and the complicity of parole officers, job interviewers, and store clerks would remain unchecked. However, if WWAV could disrupt the totalizing surveillance of Black cisgender and transgender women, even in small ways, they could begin to frame and actualize a vision for liberation.
The WWAV team began as they always did: by building relationships. Through their already decades-honed outreach methods, WWAV staff and participants, under Deon’s leadership, began to assemble the breadth of local, regional, and national coalition partners they would need to bring a constitutional challenge against the CANS statute. They partnered with Black feminist attorney Andrea J. Ritchie and activist lawyers from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to file a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana. They also persuaded Rep. Charmaine Marchand-Stiaes—who represented the most flood-battered district in Louisiana post-Katrina, the Ninth Ward and Lower Ninth Ward—to introduce a bill that would make CANS penalties equal to those for prostitution.6
On March 29, 2012, WWAV and the NO Justice legal team secured a federal judicial ruling against the statute. The victory in that case, combined with steady individual legal advocacy, resulted in the removal from the sex offender registry of nearly eight hundred individuals charged with CANS. The NO Justice win was tremendous for everyone in the WWAV community. One of the people named in the lawsuit said, “I’ve never been in court and had a judge side with me.” Another exclaimed, “I can taste my freedom!” When the NO Justice legal team started making calls to deliver the news of the ruling, nearly every WWAV participant who was a part of the suit cried upon hearing their lawyer say, “A judge has decided that the state of Louisiana violated your rights.”7