Seeing similarities to Stonewall, activists protest Rentboy case, criminalization of sex work

Activists outside the Brooklyn Federal courthouse oppose the criminalization of sex work, and the activists see the Federal government's case against Rentboy.com as an example of the kind of discrimination and prosecution of sex work that more and more human rights groups, like Amnesty International, oppose.  SOURCE :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

Activists outside the Brooklyn Federal courthouse oppose the criminalization of sex work, and the activists see the Federal government's case against Rentboy.com as an example of the kind of discrimination and prosecution of sex work that more and more human rights groups, like Amnesty International, oppose.  SOURCE :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

By LOUIS FLORES

Approximately 100 LGBT, public health, and social work activists protested during the noon hour on Thursday outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Brooklyn to demand that the nation's top Federal prosecutor in Brooklyn drop all charges in the Rentboy.com case.

With the controversial assistance of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the New York Police Department, Brooklyn Federal prosecutors investigated the business of Rentboy.com, an online community bulletin for male escorts.  In a criminal complaint searing with sexually-graphic descriptions of sex that included descriptions including, but not limited to, fisting and the use of a rimchair, Brooklyn Federal prosecutors alleged that Rentboy.com officials operated a brothel.  Besides prostitution, charges against the defendants included the crime of money laundering.  Yet, some activists said they questioned the charges of money laundering, since the Web site operated as a business separate from any business possibly transacted between male escorts and their customers.  Some activists believed that some of the criminal charges may be foundationally weak, given that Brooklyn Federal prosecutors relied on the lurid and graphic descriptions of sexual acts in the complaint in an apparent effort to stigmatize, and therefore prejudice in the public's mind, the work of Rentboy.com's Web site users.

At times, protesters chanted, "Sex workers' rights are human rights !"

Protesters peacefully carried signs and formed a circling picket that first began on a public sidewalk along the eastern edge of Cadman Plaza Park, but then protesters began to picket on the roadway known as Cadman Plaza Park East, which runs in-between the park and the Brooklyn Federal courthouse. 

As LGBT, public health, and social work activists peacefully demonstrated on Cadman Plaza Park and on Cadman Plaza Park East, Federal marshals stood guard with automatic rifles with high capacity magazines outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Brooklyn in a display of excessive force that some activists say they found obnoxious.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

As LGBT, public health, and social work activists peacefully demonstrated on Cadman Plaza Park and on Cadman Plaza Park East, Federal marshals stood guard with automatic rifles with high capacity magazines outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Brooklyn in a display of excessive force that some activists say they found obnoxious.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

"We are outraged at this latest example of the abuse and selective terosecution of sex workers.  We are sick and tired of this misuse of government time and money to persecute members of the sex industry.  This unrelenting harassment and persecution endangers the health and safety of these workers and their clients, and disproportionately targets the poor and people of color.  We demand an end to this system of criminalization," read a press release issued by the groups of activists, who organized Thursday's protest.

Some of Thursday's protesters, like Andy Humm, a former member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights during the administration of former Mayor David Dinkins (D-New York), said they believed that the  investigation by Brooklyn Federal prosecutors began when U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was still the U.S. Attorney for New York's eastern district, which is based in Brooklyn.  

"This started under Loretta Lynch," Mr. Humm said.  Questioning the government's decision to prosecute such a high-profile prostitution-based case against consenting gay adults, he added, "Is this the policy of the United States of America ?"

In recent years, the LGBT community has fought back against government-sponsored forms of discrimination, such as a ban on LGBT Americans from serving in the military and bans on marriage.  However, many leaders of New York's LGBT community see the Rentboy.com case as a regression into forms of de jure discrimination, similar to when gay businesses were routinely raided by law enforcement officials as a form of harassment and discrimination.

To Allen Roskoff, a prominent leader in New York's LGBT community, the use of law enforcement to shutter Rentboy.com harked back to the use of law enforcement to shutter New York City's gay bars in the 1960's -- another example in a long line of examples of government-sponsored harassment and discrimination that decades ago sparked the Stonewall riots.  Mr. Roskoff called the raid of Rentboy.com a "digital Stonewall."

"We're back in the days of Wagner, where the mayor and the police department could allow consensual sex to be criminalized" said Mr. Roskoff, referring to the late, former, three-term Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. (D-New York City), who closed many of New York's gay bars using the excessive force of the NYPD.  In the years before the Internet and smartphone apps like Grindr and Scruff, gay men would have to physically meet in person at gay bars and socialize, before becoming romantically involved.  

Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that the U.S. Federal government was looking at our "dick pics," activists have been pushing back against the government's intrusion into the sex lives of consenting adults.  There were hints to that messaging in some of the protest signs carried by activists at Thursday's rally in Brooklyn.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens 

Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that the U.S. Federal government was looking at our "dick pics," activists have been pushing back against the government's intrusion into the sex lives of consenting adults.  There were hints to that messaging in some of the protest signs carried by activists at Thursday's rally in Brooklyn.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens 

While speaking to reporters at the demonstration, Mr. Roskoff was joined by Randy Wicker, a pioneer in the gay liberation movement of the 1950's and 1960's that was gathering steam in the time leading up to each of the Stonewall riots and the broader social movement for equality that followed.  

Mr. Wicker, who said he first joined the Mattachine Society in 1958, said he saw parallels between the raids on Rentboy.com and on gay bars, like the Stonewall, saying that law enforcement were ruining the lives of gay men by encumbering them with criminal charges for basically being gay and engaging in consensual sex.  What is more, Mr. Wicker added, the government's focus on prostitution charges showed that the government was intent on criminalizing the poor, because, he said, "You do not do prostitution, unless you're really desperate." 

For years, police reform groups have opposed the discriminatory and neoconservative policing theory known as Broken Windows that is practiced by the NYPD and defended by each of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton for its intention to target the poor for very minor offenses and infractions.

After describing the case of one of his friends, who was arrested for prostitution, Mr. Wicker said, "The judge said, 'Plead guilty, and your record will be cleaned.' "  Mr. Wicker then described how his friend's life was still ruined 20 years later by the case against him, telling reporters that, "Your record is never wiped clean at the F.B.I.," Mr. Wicker said, referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Federal marshalls guarded the entrance to the U.S. District Courthouse with automatic rifles with large capacity magazines in an effort to intimidate peaceful protesters during Thursday's rally.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

Federal marshalls guarded the entrance to the U.S. District Courthouse with automatic rifles with large capacity magazines in an effort to intimidate peaceful protesters during Thursday's rally.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

In remarks to the press, Mr. Wicker lamented the lack of trans* women and minorities at Thursday's demonstration, because, he said, those communities are primarily targeted by the police for prostitution charges.  Activists noted that oppressed communities don't always feel safe directly challenging Federal law enforcement authorities, especially under conditions that a protest directly outside a Federal courthouse would create.

That the U.S. Department of Homeland Security chose to use Federal resources nominally allocated and directed to the fight on the war on terror to, instead, raid Rentboy.com, was a  miscarriage of justice, some activists said Thursday.  As noted in a prior report by Progress Queens, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security may be trying to justify its bloated and dragnet approach to a war on terror that has largely not impacted American soil since the coördinated attacks of September 11.  Questions presented by Progress Queens by e-mail to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a prior report were never answered.

Other protesters questioned why Rentboy.com's Manhattan offices were raided by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's Office when the Web site's headquarters was located in the district of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.  Still yet other protesters, like Mr. Hummn, noted that the office of District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan) communicated that it did not participate in the Federal raid on Rentboy.com, raising more questions for activists about the motivations of the nation's top Federal prosecutor in Brooklyn reaching into Manhattan when Manhattan prosecutors chose not to become involved.

An activist held up a protest sign against the government's intrusion into the consenting sex lives of gay adults during a demonstration outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn on Thursday.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

An activist held up a protest sign against the government's intrusion into the consenting sex lives of gay adults during a demonstration outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn on Thursday.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

At one point, a small pocket of protesters within the larger circling picket chanted, "Fire the U.S. Attorney," referring to Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie, who assumed leadership of the Brooklyn Federal prosecutors' office on April 27, 2015, and who is leading the Federal prosecution of Rentboy.com officials in the case filed at the Brooklyn Federal courthouse.  The principal demand by protesters on Thursday was for Acting U.S. Attorney Currie to dismiss the charges in the Rentboy.com case.

A spokesperson for Acting U.S. Attorney Currie declined to make a statement to Progress Queens in response to each of the nature of protest, to the activists' demand that Federal prosecutors drop the charges against Rentboy.com officials, and to the demand of a small group of the activists that Acting U.S. Attorney Currie be removed from office.

Some of Thursday's protesters said that the demonstration outside Brooklyn Federal court should also put Mayor Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton on notice that the LGBT community would hold them to account for the NYPD's role in the criminalization of a gay business, like Rentboy.com.  The NYPD are known to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity profiling into their discriminatory policing policies.

That the LGBT community is planning to exert significant pressure politics on Mayor de Blasio at a time of recent political upheaval in his administration represents a stark turn of events.  During the 2013 municipal election cycle, Mayor de Blasio's campaign was buoyed by key support from the LGBT community, backing that undermined the campaign of his chief political rival in the mayoral race, former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), an openly lesbian public official.

Other demands made Thursday by protesters included calling for an end to the criminalization of consensual sex between adults, particularly consenting gay men, who were ostensibly Rentboy.com's Web site users and visitors, and for the introduction and passage of legislation that would end the ability of law enforcement to raid New York City's LGBT businesses once and for all. 

Activists noted the many political and diverse groups, which endorsed Thursday's demonstration, including the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, the Syliva Rivera Law Project, MUSKAN, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, and Housing Works, amongst others.  Mr. Humm specifically noted the many mainstream groups, which have called for the decriminalization of sex work.  Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Programme, amongst other groups, were noted as having joined to call to end the criminalization of sex work, according to the press release issued by Thursday's demonstration organizers.