NO HUMAN INVOLVED
This evening 12 years ago Marcia Powell's life was about to end. I worked with some amazing people all across Arizona to make a documentary about what happened, reclaiming life and showing the tenacity of people who fought for justice in her name. This film is called No Human Involved. The activists are still going and I want to let you know more about that. Join with us in Miami, Arizona for an in person screening on Saturday May 22, 2021 at 7 pm Arizona Time. Thank you to Peggy Plews and Kini Seawright for making this screening possible. Sign up here: https://may22event.eventbrite.com/
On the anniversary of Marcia Powell's death, PJ Starr returns to Arizona to spend time with prison abolitionists and people affected by incarceration. Join us at Miami Memorial Park at 7 pm on May 22 for the screening of No Human Involved including discussion with film participants and representatives of organizations working for rights. Entrance to the event is free but donations will be accepted. Funds raised will be in benefit of the women in prisons and for the panelists.
More about the film: In 2009 after she was sentenced to more than two years of imprisonment for solicitation of prostitution, Marcia Powell was locked in a metal cage in the sun at an Arizona prison. Hours later she collapsed in the over 107 degree heat and by day's end she was dead. Even though an internal investigation carried out by the Arizona Department of Corrections revealed that prison guards had denied her water and ridiculed her when she pleaded for help, no one was held accountable. The story of how Marcia came to be incarcerated and the circumstances of her death reveal the impact that inhumane prison conditions are having on a wide range communities of sex workers—including the homeless, young people, transgender people and immigrants—across the United States. The documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED chronicles how a movement formed around this case, seeking justice in her name.
In the last few weeks all on the documentary team for No Human Involved has been thinking about the way that Marcia Powell should be remembered as we approached the anniversary of her death. She was put in the cage on May 19, 2009, was removed from life support by Charles Ryan the Director of Arizona Department of Corrections late in the evening and she died in the early hours of May 20, 2009.
Ten years ago.
Today we received this special letter from the women at Perryville Prison who are still there remembering Marcia. This is the best way. There is no need to say anything more because they have said it all. There is reason to support actions to change the circumstances the women describe. Find out more about recent actions that might make a difference.
When some one is locked up, we on the outside may start to lose contact with them because the barriers to communication are so great. Letters are returned, phone systems broken, sometimes we don't know where are loved ones are at all. The institutions can keep meticulous records, however, and from these pages we get echoes of the humanity trapped behind these walls.
July 1995, report from a CSO at Perryville Prison
Subject: IM Powell 1094416 Missing Store
On the above date and approximate time I was sitting at the picnic table with [an inmate] when she told me that IM Powell had shopped today and had bought "one case of soda and almost a full net bag of food." She then explained that Powell had given all of it away to various people... I went to Powell's room and asked her if she had shopped today. She confirmed that she indeed had bought the case of soda and an almost full net bag of food. When asked what was left of her purchase all she had was one jar of peanut butter. All the rest had been given away. She claimed she owed a small amount to other inmates and the rest she gave away or was asked for it. She did not think it was strange not to have anything left because she had "made a lot of people happy."
Some chalk, an open spot in a park and a whore. Or many. That’s what comprised last Sunday’s exhibition of performance art in Washington Square Park. Named, “Whore in a Box,” the event’s name reflects the motives behind the spectacle. The goal was to invite the public to come over and ask question of and make statements about sex workers to their faces. This sort of in person, one-on-one conversation facilitated the compassion and connection that is often lost in the world of protest.
Instead of yelling through a microphone in a mass group (which, at times, can be quite effective), this form of personal activism produced genuine connections that allowed those with stereotypical views of sex work to engage in conversation with sex workers to understand the industry from a genuine human perspective.
The event was conceived and led by the Black Sex Worker Collective, with the support of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, Best Practices Policy Project, Glits Inc, and the Outlaw Project on June 2nd to commemorate the work done by French Sex Workers in 1975. The “Whore in a Box” idea was created by Joy, a representative of the Black Sex Worker Collective. The event was conducted between Washington Square Park and the steps of Judson Memorial Church, and the use of performance art as a way to resist against systematic oppression caught the eye of many walking bye, producing some unique conversations.
Akynos, the founder of the Black Sex Worker Collective shared the conversation she had with a pedestrian who came by to ask the “whore in a box” a question. “He came into the conversation voicing every stereotypical comment made about sex workers,” she observed. The man referenced trafficking, violence, and disease in his critique of sex work. Not only are these tropes the most commonly referred to when discussing the industry, but they are predicated on a scrutiny that applies to sex work and is largely void in conversations about other industries.
Akynos discussed with him how the “trafficking” trope is overused when it comes to sex and underused when it comes to other forms of trafficking, such as trafficking within the food and factory industries. People turn a blind eye towards other forms of trafficking but hone in on its presence in sex work. Akynos elaborated on this with a comment about the media, saying “the media doesn’t always represent the other side of the sex work industry, and that is the side of those people who don’t feel coerced or forced into sex."
The conversation concluded with the man sharing that even he had seen a sex worker once or twice. His mind had been opened by the interaction with sex worker rights organizers. Akynos viewed this conversation as “ good and insightful,” as she felt that this “man on the street” accepted her occupation and the interaction with her “very well.” Filmmaker and activist PJ Starr voiced a similar conclusion to the event at large, saying that “because of the way the action was set up, people could make a real connection.”
Other conversations were held with passersby, including local students. One student was so moved by the dialogue she had with Akynos that she felt compelled to act. She offered to volunteer and intern with the Black Sex Worker Collective, a much needed infusion of support and energy for the summer.
After four hours in the over 90 degree heat--and a symbolic storming of Judson Memorial Church to recreate a photo of the 1975 protests in Lyon--the demonstration concluded. Akynos reflected on the event saying their “message was taken [by the public] really well.” She added that she was “happy to have taken the route of performance art to bring awareness to sex work and the industry in general.” This creative platform, as opposed to a megaphone protest style, brought about interpersonal connections facilitated dialogues that would have otherwise not been possible.
Beyond a way to gain presence and educate the public, the Whore in a Box was a powerful coalition of diverse leaders within the sex worker community. Leadership from five different groups were present at the event, each individual coming from a very different background. There was representation from cis-men and women, transgender individuals, immigrants and queer bodies, each of integral importance to their organization and sex work activism in general. The diversity of this event and within the organizations that sponsored it is a remind of the importance of heterogeneity within activism. To approach the issue of sex work without an intersectional lens is a disservice to the cause. Sex work (and all types of work for that matter) is not done by any one kind of person. Activist groups should seek to reflect this workforce diversity in their organizing to ensure that the group is accessible to everyone and all individuals feel welcome.
Report back by Dayna Beatty for No Human Involved
“We were at our wits end. We were sick of going to jail, of being abused. Do you realize that the police would sometimes let their dogs loose on us?”
The opening line to La Revolte des Prostitutuees succinctly explains the feelings and experiences of French sex workers in the late 20th century. The documentary, produced by Eurydice Aroney and Radio France Culture, details the eight-day, nationwide strike by French sex workers in 1975. In response to years of horrific treatment, executed by police, French sex workers took action against the oppression and violence they experienced on a daily basis.
In their efforts, the sex workers of France found an unlikely ally: Father Louis Blanc of the Church of St. Nizier. When plans to occupy the church of St. Bonaventure went awry, it was Father Blanc who redirected the sex workers to the Church of St. Nizier. With his cooperation and some quick footwork, the protest was relocated and the safety of all those involved was secured. Father Louis Blanc was also instrumental in spreading the efforts beyond Lyon, by encouraging other priest to cooperate with the protestors.
While the work of sex workers in Lyon is the most well known and created the original movement, similar events occurred across France. Notably, in Paris, 200 sex workers protested in the Chapel of Saint Bernard.
Eight days after the start of the strike, police were instructed to remove the striking sex workers from locations across the nation. However, this end was just the beginning for sex workers across the globe. Movements all over the world have taken inspiration from the events of 1975, some mimicking the church occupation, others creating their own form of peaceful protest. An event organized by the Black Sex Workers Collective in New York on June 2nd--beginning at noon--will take inspiration from the work of the French sex workers in 1975. Members of the sex worker community and allies will gather at Washington Square Park in New York City and symbolically storm Judson Memorial Church. Later, this action will join a protest in front of StoneWall a few blocks away.
International Whores Day, also known as Puta Dei, is June 2 to commemorate the original strike and occupation by French sex workers in 1975. Across the word, June 2nd is a day of celebration, advocacy, and protest. At the time of the sex workers’ strike in France, they had the support of the Catholic Church. Today, sex workers are joined by allies from different standpoints, backgrounds, and lifestyles. The human rights of sex workers cannot be ignored. Join the cause in your local community in solidarity with sex workers to denounce the violent and oppressive systems that make their lives difficult.
Posting for No Human Involved by Dayna Beatty.
Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at an event organized by the Black Sex Workers Collective about how Backpage came to be and the importance of the Village Voice as a form of alternative press. As I proceeded with my research, I found so many connections to my experiences in Phoenix while making the film NO HUMAN INVOLVED that I decided to share my notes here. These thoughts are a work in progress and may become a more developed and carefully thought out piece later on. What struck me as I wrote these notes that very often this story is about white guys of relative (and often great) privilege being in control of the means of publication. However, sex workers are in this story too, as are Phoenix jails and prisons.
The Village Voice was established in 1955 as an alternative press in NYC. Today we remember the Village Voice as a form of progressive journalism--including on LGBTQ issues--but at its foundation the newspaper was anti gay even though the paper's office was right next to Stone Wall.
The news room was a tough and uncompromising environment to work in. One person recalled the "tantrum file" stored on a shared office computer where staff was rated in terms of how extreme their meltdown had been. Points would be lost if a person backed down and apologized.
In 1996 Village Voice became a free publication, relying on classified advertising revenues to stay open. David Schneiderman the former CEO of Village Voice Media is quoted as saying that this decision allowed the paper to continue: "it wasn’t going free that hurt the paper. It saved the paper. Kept it going, making money." Often the contribution of sex workers to local economies is not acknowledged. Given the number of ads sex workers placed in the adult and escort sections, they effectively paid for this alternative press.
The Village Voices income stream was eventually undercut by online sites. “Craigslist is the biggest single crisis the Village Voice has faced in its whole 50 years,” Schneiderman is further quoted as saying in a feature article in New York Magazine.
In 2004, in response to the growth of sites such as Craigslist, New Times Media, a publisher of 11 alternative newsweeklies, launched a free classified website called backpage.com. In 2005, New Times Media acquired the Village Voice--and its five affiliated papers including the L.A. Weekly and adopted the name Village Voice Media.
I had read that people in Phoenix had been arrested in April 2018 as a result of the federal seizure of Backpage. I went on an online search to find out more about the people named as having been arrested--Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin--and their New Times papers. The penny soon dropped that they were also the owners of the Phoenix New Times, the news paper that had printed all of the influential pieces about Marcia Powell written by Stephen Lemons. I had always been impressed with the direct approach the newspaper had taken on Marcia and the clear indictment in its pages of the Arizona Department of Corrections in her death. Digging into the history of the Phoenix New Times, I learned that it had been founded by two working class men. Michael Lacey, the son of a construction worker and recent Arizona State University drop out, established the paper in 1970 as an alternative to the conservative Arizona Republic. Soon after Larkin, a Phoenix local, joined to run the business side of the paper. Michael Lacey later summarized his approach to journalism saying, “As a journalist, if you don’t get up in the morning and say ‘fuck you’ to someone, why even do it?”
Beginning in 2010, Backpage was confronted with numerous lawsuits pertaining to adult section advertising. Repeatedly Backpage won these suits, arguing that content was protected on First Amendment grounds (free speech) and under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allowed that, "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
In March 2012, anti-prostitution crusader Nicholas Kristoff wrote a piece about Backpage in regards to forced prostitution and trafficking. The Village Voice went through his claims and found numerous inaccuracies. Kristoff brushed off concern about the accuracy in his reporting, directing readers to focus on the issue of sex trafficking. Late in 2014 it was revealed that Kristoff had also hyped other questionable "facts" that turned out to be fictions in regard to a set of stories about sex trafficking and prostitution in Cambodia.
Later in 2012 Backpage separated out from Village Voice Media as a result of pressure from so many lawsuits. It was eventually sold to a European company. In early 2017 it ended adult section advertising.
On April 6, 2018, Backpage was seized by the United States Department of Justice, and it was reported that Michael Lacey's home had been raided by authorities. Lacey, James Larkin and five employees were arrested on federal charges. 120 people formerly worked at Backpage and lost their employment overnight. I am not sure about this issue and am still researching it, but I believe that people arrested in Phoenix would have been held in a Phoenix Jail or perhaps a prison.
One part of the almost finalized discussion guide for NO HUMAN INVOLVED is "why do prisoners use the mail?"
In 2014 I was interviewed by Tits and Sass about the process of making NO HUMAN INVOLVED. This week in the wake of the pardoning of Joe Arpaio I was approached by the Tits and Sass team to provide an update about how abuses in Maricopa County jails intersect with the prison system.
Here is the information from the update, the complete piece can now be viewed here.
How did Sheriff Arpaio’s inmate human rights abuses contribute to Marcia Powell’s death?
Marcia Powell died in Perryville Prison, a state facility in a town called Goodyear outside of Phoenix. State prisons are overseen by the Arizona Department of Corrections so there is no direct relationship to the Phoenix/Maricopa county jail facilities that Joe Arpaio ran for six terms until he was voted out of office in 2016. The person who [was] overseeing the prison where Marcia Powell died was Charles Ryan, who is still currently the director of Arizona Department of Corrections. (For more about the difference between County Jail and Prisons in AZ, see this.)
Even though the people in charge of the jails and prisons are different, the abuses in places like Tent City—a collection of tents set up under the direction of Joe Arpaio in a dusty lot next to Maricopa County Jail—are part of a continuum of what happens in the prison industrial complex. The tents in Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail are reported to heat up to over 150 degrees. Placing people in intensely hot environments like this is similar to what we know killed Marcia Powell.
In 2012 I visited Tent City, I saw inmates in the tents, and it is as bad as you could imagine it would be. Joe Arpaio wanted the public to see how badly he treated prisoners because he was proud of what he had done. Maricopa County Jails have been cited numerous times for violating health and rights for these and other reasons. After she was arrested, Marcia Powell spent time in a Maricopa County Jail in 2008 while awaiting court hearings and before being transferred to Perryville Prison. In No Human Involved, a woman who saw Marcia enter Perryville Prison described her as being “all tore up” because she was coming in from County Jail and explains that everyone who comes in from County is that way due to the conditions there.
In the years following Marcia Powell’s death in 2009, the ACLU AZ filed a lawsuit against Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, regarding failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates. Many of the advocates I met during filming No Human Involved contributed to this suit—it was filed in 2012—and I had the chance to learn a lot about the situation, reading over the documentation of the incredible suffering people have endured while in prison in Arizona.
In 2015, Arizona Department of Corrections settled the suit, committing to provide health care and take 100 other measures to rectify the issues. But Ryan has not done so. In July this year, a federal judge compared Charles Ryan to “the recently convicted Sheriff in our county who thought he could do as he wished” because he has challenged the legitimacy of orders to comply with the settlement. Once again the theme of just how hot it can get in Arizona was noted by the federal judge who--it was reported in the Phoenix New Times-–visited a “prison health clinic that was so hot that his hearing aid was destroyed from sweating so much.” The judge found this worrying because “inmates who are taking medications that make them extremely sensitive to heat have to use that same clinic.” Marcia Powell was also taking medications that made her more sensitive to the heat.
During your work on the documentary, what did you discover about how other sex workers suffered from Arpaio’s violations of inmate human rights?
What I learned is that each year hundreds of sex workers and people convicted of prostitution-related offenses are subjected to the rights violating and unconstitutional conditions of Maricopa County Jails. And until 2016, they were serving under Joe Arpaio’s reign. In Phoenix, approximately 1000 people per year are arrested for prostitution, though in some years it can be nearly double that figure. Raids–such as [those for] the now defunct Project ROSE–can result in more than 100 people being arrested at a time over a weekend. Many of the people arrested for prostitution await their court date while locked up in Maricopa County Jails and then serve their sentence in Maricopa County Jails. Jail time for prostitution offenses is written into the law in Arizona, 15 days for the first offense, 30 for the second, 60 for the third and after that people are charged with a class 5 felony and must spend 180 or more [days] in prison. That is why Marcia was serving more than 2 years time, because she had 5 prior offenses so she received the standard mandatory sentence as per this sentencing chart.
It is very hard to fight prostitution charges in Arizona and very few people have the resources to do so. During Monica Jones’ initial court appearances after she was arrested for “manifestation of the intent to prostitute,” we got some indication of just how pervasive it is to route people through the system and into jail. At her initial court appearance in 2013, Monica indicated that she intended to plead “not guilty” and this was such a surprise to the court functionaries that they had to delay her appearance and send her to another courtroom. The reason? The primary courtroom set up for people charged with prostitution related offences is set up purely for people to plead “guilty.”
What sort of conclusions do you make from Marcia Powell’s death and the blood on Sheriff Arpaio’s hands about the necessary connection between the sex worker rights movement and prison reform/prison abolition?
I keep thinking back to something Peggy Plews (of Arizona Prison Watch) said to me back in 2012 on election night when people were hoping that Joe Arpaio would be voted out. She noted that even if Joe Arpaio were removed from his office that the system would continue with another Sheriff. It was such a good reminder of keeping focused on the overall picture of what needs to change and to not be distracted by a short term “win.”
Based on what I’ve read, Joe Arpaio is similar to Trump in terms of courting media attention in spectacular ways and trumpeting [his] participation in human rights abuses to get that attention. It would be very easy to say that now that Arpaio is no longer there, things must be better because he built himself up in such a grotesque manner to make himself seem all powerful and essential to the system.
Yes, I am relieved that Arpaio is no longer in office, but day to day the system continues on without Arpaio because no one person is essential to it. The Phoenix vice squad is still out there arresting sex workers, the court system still operates exactly as it did when Marcia Powell received the mandatory sentence of 2.25 years, and Arizona systems of incarceration are just as dehumanizing and dangerous as they ever were. As sex worker rights advocates, we need to hold the totality of what needs to change in our minds–and activists I admire such as Peggy Plews, Monica Jones, and Kini Seawright do that–at the same time as concretely taking the system apart one bit at a time.
NO HUMAN INVOLVED screened for the first time in the UK as part of Unrestricted View in April 2017. Radio Ava had a chance to attend the screening braving the rainy weather. They recorded what they heard at the location and then interviewed PJ Starr later on. We were happy to hear that they had many questions provoked by seeing the film and some issues they felt needed to be explored in greater detail. The interview aired as part of the Birthday celebrations of Radio Ava. The entire interview is available here.
Radio AvA is for and by sex workers and allies. Radio Ava is a cultural community space broadcasting sex workers voices. Radio AvA is here for sex workers to be heard. To debunk myths. To give non Sex Workers direct access to information and knowledge about sex worker realities, sex worker struggles, sex worker demands. It is a political tool to fight intersectional oppression and stigma.
Here is what Radio Ava wanted to know and what is explored in their radio show. One of the questions about statistics is currently being researched by intern Taylor Faires. We prioritized this question after being interviewed by Radio Ava and will include this detail in the discussion guide that is coming soon.
1. Why did PJ decide to make 'No human involved' and was was her main aim as a film maker and an activist?
2. Are any statistics about numbers of sex workers currently incarnated in the US, or even the state of Arizona?
3. Is there much collaboration between the prison abolition / prisoners support the sex worker rights movements in the US? If so, how do they work together?
4. Are migrant workers not a main target of police raids in the US?
5. Did you intentionally not raise the question of was was Marcia arrested at all directly till Peggy does it at the end? Both Ava's felt they wanted to know more about Marcia Powell. We wondered if there was an artistic, political, or practical reason why who she was, her life, before she was basically murdered, weren't explored much in the film.
Hear the show: www.mixcloud.com/avaradio/may_ava-part3-nohuman/