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Vol. 27, No. 3: The Abolitionist South

Keep the South Dirty and Our Needles Clean

by Laura McTighe, Catherine Haywood, Deon Haywood, Danita Muse

Thirty years ago, Women With A Vision (WWAV) was just an idea, thought up by a collective of Black women on a front porch in New Orleans, Louisiana. The year was 1989, and the so-called War on Drugs had already been raging for nearly two decades. Black women were increasingly being demonized as “welfare queens” in order to justify the total gutting of the social safety net, just as sensationalized stories about “crack babies” were used to criminalize Black mothers and users in a rapidly ballooning prison industrial complex. The impacts of these policies were lethal. Rates of HIV infection were peaking and the numbers of new HIV infections among Black people exceeded those of white people; those differences still hold today. By the early 1990s, HIV was the second leading cause of death for Black cisgender women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four. WWAV’s founders shared an intimate knowledge of how the twin epidemics of HIV and mass criminalization were decimating their communities. They also saw how funding and supportive services were systematically being denied to their people. And so, from their health and human service positions citywide, the WWAV foremothers did what Black women always do: they set their hands to building what their community needed.1

The WWAV foremothers did what Black women always do: they set their hands to building what their community needed.

This essay is grounded in thirteen years of organizing and research partnership with WWAV. Together, we tell the stories of WWAV’s more than three decades of Black feminist struggle at the intersections of harm reduction and abolition in New Orleans. The methods that our founders used to keep forgotten and dying Black people struggling with addiction alive in the early 1990s were the same as those used to fight back against post–Hurricane Katrina sex work criminalization. These methods continue to guide WWAV today in our work around decriminalizaiton. As our foremother Danita Muse puts it, “For WWAV, practicing harm reduction in the South has demanded first and foremost the tenacity to believe in what we believed in. It’s also helped us to hone our ability to change with the times and continue to be open to new ways of doing things, which we are always developing in partnership with the drug user and sex worker communities with whom we stand.” This essay is built, as WWAV’s work has always been, in relationships and by doing the work.2

You Have to Build a Relationship

As the story goes, Danita Muse and Catherine Haywood locked eyes across a crowded health department conference room at the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, Catherine, or “Lady,” as she is more often called, was working for the Children’s Pediatric AIDS Program on a project to increase access to HIV testing among people who inject drugs. Danita was working for the Office of Substance Abuse (now the Office of Behavioral Health) and running support groups for people struggling with addiction. Both women had seen firsthand that the white-led HIV response efforts were only targeting gay bars in their outreach efforts; none were reaching out to poor Black people in New Orleans’s ten housing projects, which had the highest documented incidence of HIV transmission in the city.

When the Office of Public Health called a meeting after the city received an influx of funds to address a surging syphilis epidemic, both women were in attendance. This time, however, the outreach maps were following the epidemiology. When the city’s zip codes were called out, Catherine and Danita claimed the ones to their uptown neighborhoods, including the St. Thomas, Magnolia, Melpomene, and Calliope Projects. That was when their relationship started. They drove the city—Danita in her truck, Lady in her car—to make deliveries. The health department simply wanted them to drop off boxes of condoms at bars, grocery stores, beauty shops, and laundromats. It took a few weeks before Danita and Catherine figured out that the people who ran these businesses were selling their free condoms for $1.50 apiece. And so they quit bulk-dropping condoms and strategized how to get them into people’s hands for free. That was when their work to decolonize public health started. The syphilis outreach funding dried up, and the HIV epidemic in their community got worse. Danita and Catherine decided to shift from work hours to after-work—and from their vehicles to front porches.

Catherine’s mantra is: “You have to build a relationship.” During their first years of work, their relationships grew exponentially. Starting around 5 or 5:30 p.m., Catherine and Danita would just sit with people in the St. Thomas, Magnolia, Melpomene, and Calliope Projects on their porches, talking with them and learning the struggles of their communities. With that trust, the WWAV foremothers were able to chart a network of what they called “gatekeepers.” The term “gatekeepers” is typically used vertically to describe people who stand between someone and the services they need in top-down hierarchies. Danita and Catherine deployed the term horizontally to talk about the insider/outsider boundaries maintained by people in heavily criminalized and surveilled communities for their own protection. “Gatekeepers,” for them, were the people who ran shooting galleries or crack houses and could disseminate vital health information and supplies to those who were actively using but were not being served through street-based outreach.3

Gradually, their presence in and with community enabled the WWAV foremothers to start producing their own knowledge about precisely how the logics of systemic poverty and targeted criminalization were driving HIV vulnerability and a whole host of other health issues. They leveraged this intimate knowledge of structural injustice to create a unique model of community outreach that continues to guide WWAV’s community engagement, advocacy, and research today.

After their first five years of work on the ground in New Orleans, Danita and Catherine went in search of others who were working in community like they were. That search landed them in a just-forming national harm reduction network. In concert with this community, Catherine and Danita spent the next decade-plus leveraging their knowledge of the social determinants of health disparities in New Orleans to grow and disseminate a nationally recognized model of community outreach. They built this ground-up analysis of health and wellness by being in relationship with the very people that service providers and government agencies had only seen as problems to be managed. Catherine and Danita spoke about their analysis and practiced their model wherever they went, funding be damned. They strategically partnered with public health researchers when they thought that their community could benefit. And they were too often then erased from public health literature that rested on their work, treated as gatherers of data rather than as the architects of the work in an all too familiar process of dispossession.

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

Especially in the South, most people feel like we come in last. But this is where the Civil Rights Movement started. And today it continues in the South.

This was also a victory that only made sense in community, and WWAV was clear how this victory should be understood. In a letter announcing “Our Win,” Deon explained the abolitionist vision that grounded the NO Justice Project and would continue to guide WWAV’s work going forward:

At a time in this country right now when we feel like justice is not on the side of the people, the people most affected spoke their truths—not some abstract “speak truth to power,” but their truths from their hearts—and that is what made the difference. . . . This was not a legal fight or a legislative fight. This was a fight for people’s lives and wellbeing. This was a fight, simply put, about everything. . . . Especially in the South, most people feel like we come in last. But this is where the Civil Rights Movement started. And today it continues in the South.

That is not, however, how the media chose to tell the story. In their reporting, CANS was “pinkwashed” and reframed as a threat to LGBTQ rights. Judge Feldman was championed as a visionary; the NO Justice attorneys were lauded for their determination. WWAV and the Black cisgender and transgender women they stood with were not even mentioned. Two months later, this narrative erasure turned physical. On May 24, 2012, as the clock approached midnight, WWAV’s offices were firebombed and destroyed by still unknown arsonists.8

We Claim the Power We Were Born With

Days later, at a local fundraiser, Deon addressed WWAV’s community for the first time. She affirmed that everyone at WWAV was deeply shaken but recovering. Most of all, the WWAV foremothers and staff were worried about how they were going to provide for their people during the rebuilding. WWAV was still so far from realizing the transformation that had been envisioned in the context of the NO Justice Project. But the work would continue. “Fire has long been used as a tool of terror in the South,” Deon explained, “but it can also be a powerful force for rebirth.”

That night, Deon spoke WWAV’s rebirth into existence. Methodically, WWAV turned the NO Justice victory into a systematic challenge to the criminalization of Black women and girls. With city council support, WWAV established a multipronged racial justice partnership to redirect people arrested for street-based sex work out of the criminal justice system and into the WWAV organizing community. It was a blow to the growing moral panic around sex trafficking, which was being used to expand surveillance and criminalize sex workers. WWAV flipped the script: “There are no victims at WWAV. We claim the power we were born with.” Inside the Orleans Parish Prison, WWAV staff worked to support the release of hundreds of women incarcerated because they were too poor to make bail. In so doing, they amassed rare and intimate testimonies, observations, and glimpses of this system in crisis. They then translated this analysis into abolition-oriented reforms to reduce the power of policing, prisons, and surveillance. WWAV drafted an ordinance to decrease interaction between NOPD and people who are engaging in sex work, and are now working to ensure that the newly elected New Orleans district attorney will decline to prosecute any sex work–related charges. Each step in this now more than thirty-year history has brought WWAV to the place they are today: mounting a statewide campaign to decriminalize sex work within a comprehensive organizing vision for abolition. And the methods for that expansion rest on the very same principles that have guided WWAV since their founding. Go to the people. Build with them through solidarity. Fight to make the world we need.

And still we rise.

This essay first appeared in the Abolitionist South Issue (vol. 27, no. 3: Fall 2021).

LAURA MCTIGHE is assistant professor at Florida State University and cofounder of Front Porch Research Strategy. She has worked for more than twenty years in our country’s movements to end AIDS and prisons. Her first book, Fire Dreams, is a collaborative ethnography of southern Black feminist histories of mutual aid and transformative justice, coauthored with Women With A Vision.

CATHERINE HAYWOOD is cofounder of Women With A Vision. For more than thirty years, she has worked to address health disparities in underserved populations in New Orleans, ensuring that community is at the table when public health research and programs are designed. Currently, she is executive director of the Louisiana Community Health Outreach Network.

DEON HAYWOOD is executive director of Women With A Vision (WWAV). For more than twenty-five years, she has been a human rights defender and advocate for Black women, low-income women, and LGBTQ communities in the South. Through her relentless advocacy, she has grown WWAV into a leading voice on Black women and criminalization locally, nationally, and globally.

DANITA MUSE, PhD, is a cofounder of Women With A Vision. As a harm reductionist, she believes in providing community members with all the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. Now a retired social worker, she has a twenty-five-year history of building grassroots programs for condom distribution, syringe exchange, and HIV/AIDS education in New Orleans.NOTES

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1993), In Killing the Black Body (1997), Dorothy Roberts situated racist myths of “crack babies” and “welfare queens” within centuries of abuse of Black women’s bodies and reproductive lives, from rape by enslavers to forced sterilization that continues to this day. Since scientific studies have consistently shown that there is no difference in long-term physical and emotional development between babies who had been exposed to crack and those who had not, the actual factor that affected childhood development is structural: poverty. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage Books, 2016). In 2018, the New York Times ran a series of reporting acknowledging its role in fueling the “moral panic” that “expanded the war on drugs into the womb” and promoted “the view that fetuses needed to be protected from dangerous mothers who would kill them.” “Slandering the Unborn,” New York Times, December 28, 2018, Today, Positive Women’s Network–USA leads national efforts to change policies and create, support, and advocate for programs that meet the needs of women living with HIV and their communities. Grounded in human rights and positive women’s leadership, PWN-USA focuses on six priority issues that impact women living with HIV. Positive Women’s Network USA, “Policy Agenda,” accessed June 18, 2021,
  2. Danita Muse, in discussion with the author, December 2019.
  3. Catherine Haywood, in discussion with the author, June 2013.
  4. The government abandonment of New Orleans’s Black communities and mismanagement of the disaster has been widely documented. Bill Quigley, who was one of WWAV’s attorneys in the NO Justice Project, attempted to quantify the ethnic cleansing and widespread gentrification that followed the storm through an annual “New Orleans Katrina Pain Index.” Bill Quigley, “New Orleans Katrina Pain Index at Ten: Who Was Left Behind,” Common Dreams, July 20, 2015, We documented WWAV’s analysis of the storm and refusal of the government’s use of the word “resilience” to whitewash the organized abandonment of Black New Orleanians in Laura McTighe, with Deon Haywood, “Front Porch Revolution: Resilience Space, Demonic Grounds, and the Horizons of a Black Feminist Otherwise,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 1 (Autumn 2018): 25–52.
  5. Ninety-seven percent of women registered as sex offenders were mandated to do so because of a CANS conviction, and 79 percent of those registered because of CANS were Black. Women With A Vision, “Just a Talking Crime”: A Policy Brief in Support of the Repeal of Louisiana’s Solicitation of a Crime Against Nature (SCAN) Statute, February 2011, After the CANS victory, the Center for Constitutional Rights built an online archive of the Crime Against Nature by Solicitation litigation, which includes a case timeline with links to the Doe v. Jindalcomplaint and the amicus brief filed in support of plaintiffs: “Crimes Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) Litigation,” Center for Constitutional Rights, last modified January 4, 2013,
  6. Doe v. Jindal complaint,” Center for Constitutional Rights, accessed July 9, 2021, The day the lawsuit was filed, WWAV and the legal team held a press conference that included WWAV staff, the NO Justice Project attorneys, and several local allies including Shana griffin, Rosana Cruz, and Wes Ware.
  7. NO Justice Project attorneys Andrea J. Ritchie and Alexis Agathocleous each published article-length analyses of the CANS lawsuit. See Andrea J. Ritchie, “Crimes Against Nature: Challenging Criminalization of Queerness and Black Women’s Sexuality,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 14, no. 2 (2013): 355–374; Alexis Agathocleous, “When Power Yields to Justice: Doe v. Jindal and the Campaign to Dismantle Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature Statute,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 14, no. 2 (2013): 331–354; and Alexis Agathocleous, “Building a Movement for Justice: Doe v. Jindal and the Campaign against Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature Statute,” chap. 16 in The War on Sex, ed. David M. Halperin and Trevor Hoppe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017). For a Black feminist analysis of the CANS lawsuit and the NO Justice Project within larger movements to end police violence, see Andrea J. Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).
  8. Women With A Vision, “OUR WIN – Letter from Executive Director Deon Haywood,” March 30, 2012,; Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 4; Michael Kunzelman, “Louisiana Sex Law Violates Offenders’ Rights, Federal Judge Rules,” Times Picayune, March 29, 2012; Women With A Vision, “Arson Destroys Women With A Vision Office,” May 25, 2012, YouTube video, 1:51,
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