Early last month, approximately 150 people donned red outfits and took to the sidewalks in downtown Las Vegas to advocate for the complete decriminalization of sex work. They marched about half a mile. They celebrated afterward with speciality themed cocktails at a supportive downtown bar.
By all accounts, everything went smoothly — but the event almost didn’t happen.
Organizers feel city officials and local law enforcement misled them in an attempt to stop the event from taking place. They see the incident as representative of a type of discrimination regularly felt by sex workers, especially ones in Las Vegas. And they feel conditions for sex workers are getting worse by the day.
Since April, sex workers across the country have been struggling to adapt after new federal legislation effectively shut down classified ad websites like Backpage.com by holding them liable for any of the content they allow to be posted. Best known by its House bill name FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), the legislation was promoted as a crackdown on sex trafficking but has had immediate and wide-reaching consequences for independent sex workers, who used such websites to advertise and screen clients. Sex workers have long argued the internet has made conditions safer for them. They now argue that shuttering the industry’s largest platform has put willing participants of the sex industry in harm’s way while simultaneously failing to protect any actual victims of sex trafficking.
Meanwhile, efforts to ban prostitution in Nye and Lyon counties where approximately half of Nevada’s legal brothels are located have been gaining steam and media attention.
“(FOSTA) was the right kick in the ass to get everyone motivated,” said Rebel Rae Brown, a sex worker.
Brown and others decided to hold a local event for International Whores Day, also known as International Sex Workers Day, on June 2. The goal: Protest FOSTA and advocate for full decriminalization of sex work. They wanted a march, beginning at a rented-out parking lot on 10th Street, heading west on Fremont Street, turning south on Main Street and ending at Las Vegas City Hall. After meeting with the city, the route changed to going south on Las Vegas Boulevard and ending in front of the federal courthouse.
Brown says the city and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department misled organizers by verbally quoting an affordable price estimate and later coming back with a much higher price tag of almost $7,000. The city permit itself was only $200. Making up the bulk of the estimated cost were the physical barricades needed to block vehicular traffic on Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard. Metro said it would require six police officers and one sergeant.
Brown claims city officials insisted their group needed the expensive barricades, suggested they could be fined if they proceeded without a special-event permit, and never acknowledged the group’s First Amendment right to simply demonstrate on the sidewalk.
“It is very reminiscent of the pushback the gay movement got in the ‘70s in New York when they took to the streets to protest,” said Madeline Marlowe, another one of the organizers of the event.
Adds Brown, “We tried to do it the diplomatic way.”
Metro and the city say they treated the sex workers no differently than any other group.
Through its public affairs office, the city of Las Vegas declined the Current’s request for an interview “due to comments about a possible lawsuit from the organizer of this event.” A spokesperson for the city pointed to an email sent by a special events administrator to Brown a few days before the march and obtained by the Current through an open records request.
That email read: “The city isn’t determined to price you, or anyone else out. Your costs are directly related to your course and closing public right of way and metro to support your event to ensure the safety of those attending.” The city tweeted something similar to a third organizer of the event.
Lt. Kendall Bell of Metro echoed the city’s sentiment in an interview with the Current: “We don’t pay attention to who the promoters are, or the venue, or what their orientation is, their job, their race, any of that stuff. That does not come into play.”
Bell went on to say that the quote of six officers and a sergeant was actually low considering the traffic impact.
For permitted events, Metro currently charges $73 per hour per police officer, $92 per hour per sergeant, and $111 per hour per lieutenant. A sergeant is required if more than five police officers are assigned, and a lieutenant is required if more than three sergeants are. The required staffing level varies on a number of factors, including whether the event is expected to bring out counter protestors and become heated. Monitoring traffic is typically the major concern.
Brown remains unconvinced.
It isn’t unheard of for Metro to be difficult to work with, say other local organizers.
“Metro does discourage public assemblies,” says Laura Martin, associate director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. PLAN was not involved with the International Whores Day event, but the group been involved in many protests and rallies across the state. “We’ve had them come to our offices to try and talk us out of it. … I do think Metro either tries to pressure people out of assembling or people get priced out of it.”
Martin says that isn’t true in other parts of the state.
“We even joke about it,” she says. “We’ve done civil disobedience in Reno and Carson City, like, trying to get arrested. We’ve prepped people, gotten lawyers. They will not arrest. Down here they cannot wait to arrest you. It’s a much more aggressive attitude down here.”
The Culinary Union, another protesting powerhouse, has also had notable run-ins with public officials and police. Back in 2014, the Nevada Department of Transportation denied the union a permit to demonstrate against Station Casinos in Summerlin. When the union held their rally anyway, it led to physical confrontation and arrests.
For sex workers, a distrust of law enforcement is deep-seeded. For those living in Las Vegas, it can be especially stinging. The irony of having to pay Metro to protest Metro isn’t lost on organizers.
“We live in a city that makes all of its money from tourism,” says Brown. “They’ve always advertised on promiscuities, on our bodies and our work. They’re painting windows with ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ The whole time they’ve been arresting us and attacking us.”