By Emma Whitford
Dozens of sex workers and their allies gathered just outside police barricades on Flushing’s Main Street Friday evening, with cardboard signs that read “Solidarity with massage workers” and “Rights not raids.” Steps away, in the basement auditorium of the Flushing Library, local City Councilmember Peter Koo was co-hosting a packed community meeting with the NYPD intended to raise awareness about human trafficking.
As curious commuters stopped on the sidewalk to listen, protesters said they hoped to dispel misinformation about the prevalence of human trafficking in local massage establishments, and honor the life of 36-year-old Yang Song, an immigrant massage worker who fell to her death during an NYPD Vice Unit raid in 2017 one block away.
“NYPD out of massage parlors!” they chanted, in English and Mandarin.
Meanwhile, inside the library, Koo — who last month announced plans to stamp out unlicensed massage establishments in the area — decried alleged sex solicitation outside nearby businesses while pledging to stop traffickers.
“Dozens of women walk the streets all day and night,” Koo said. “Small businesses constantly complain to my office that their businesses is suffering ... parents complain about drug use and open sex solicitation in full view of people.”
Koo urged the audience to report suspected human trafficking to the police, with the assurance that the NYPD connects alleged victims to experienced service providers. “We want victims to know help is out there,” he said.
To assist in this effort, Vice Lieutenant Christopher Sharpe said Friday, Flushing residents should be on the lookout for certain telltale signs of trafficking: tinted windows, surveillance cameras, used condoms in the trash. When it comes to alleged prostitution, said Queens North Inspector Chris Morello, “The root of the problem … very often is human trafficking.”
Back outside, advocates warned that this conflation of massage work with human trafficking — which must entail an element of force, fraud or coercion — is inaccurate, racist and dangerous. The myriad challenges that massage workers face, they said, can include poor working conditions, the risk of arrest and deportation, limited language skills and stigma.
Enlisting police to shutter massage establishments, they added, will only exacerbate some of these problems by eliminating an accessible job for immigrant women. (At least one local massage establishment, Tao Spa at 135-20 40th Road, received a partial vacate order in December for operating an unlicensed massage parlor, Department of Buildings records show.) Koo’s project, they say, contradicts the NYPD’s stated goal of building trust with immigrants who might then report trafficking when it does occur.
“Not only has policing never been the answer, it actively harms all of those people that we serve,” said Aya Tasaki of Womankind, a local nonprofit serving survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence. “And as service providers who have been in the community, who are tireless, we say, stop making our jobs harder!”
Events like Koo’s “recruit the public to be accomplices in racially targeted state violence under the benevolent delusion of rescue,” added Kate Z., a former massage worker and organizer with the newly formed grassroots coalition Red Canary Song. The coalition formed in direct response to Song’s death, and demands an end to police raids, as well as the decriminalization of sex work. Advocates say decriminalization would allow massage workers — those who engage in sex work and those who do not — to more safely organize for workplace rights.
Arrests of Asian New Yorkers on prostitution-related charges have declined from a 2016 peak of 336. There were 131 such arrests between January and September citywide last year, according to state data obtained by the website Documented NY. In Queens, people arrested on these charges are sent to a diversion court for mandated services in lieu of jail time. Meanwhile raids, like the fatal operation at Song’s workplace, continue. (A Queens DA investigation into Song’s death found no police wrongdoing.)
Nina Luo, of the DecrimNY campaign, confronted Koo about Song at the end of Friday’s event. “You know that Song was killed by NYPD and here you are today advocating for more policing,” she shouted.
Koo did not respond to Luo in the moment, though a person can be heard, in a video from reporter Caroline Lewis, saying, “We’d be happy to meet with you guys to have a conversation.” Koo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mandarin-speaking members of Red Canary Song have recently conducted street outreach around Flushing, building relationships with massage workers in the community. On Friday they distributed a statement from a massage worker named Elle, who, they said, was too fearful of police contact to attend the rally in person.
“The so-called ‘sting’ of human trafficking doesn’t really make sense for what’s going on at most massage parlors,” Elle wrote. “Most massage workers land their jobs through Chinese community chats [such as the app WeChat].” As a first generation immigrant, she added, “the massage business provides me with a means of survival.”
“If we are working 6-7 days a week, this can be a big problem,” Elle continued. “But these are all labor problems, not criminal problems. If workers had rights, and businesses were licensed, then we can check to make sure everybody is safe and has the working hours and wages they want, including healthier work environments and vacation times.”