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How We Rode the Storm

After Hurricane Katrina, law enforcement criminalized sex work and Black women like never before. We fought back—and won.

Authors’ note

It was a Thursday evening, late in May 2012. Women With A Vision (WWAV) was just coming off an unprecedented victory for sex work decriminalization and abolition feminism, and we were all taking a moment to rest and to celebrate before beginning the next steps in our organizing work. Mid-conversation, WWAV executive director Deon Haywood’s cell phone rang. Her wife, Shaquita Borden, paused when she heard the tone in Deon’s voice shift. “Women With A Vision is on fire. Women With A Vision is on fire!”

The arson attack on WWAV was never investigated. In the wake of it, with nearly all material traces of WWAV’s decades of work destroyed, research became a form of survival. We stitched the coordinates of WWAV’s histories together deliberately and without compromise. As one of the writers in the crew, author Laura McTighe’s role has most often been to commit the WWAV vision and practice to paper, working closely with Deon and the rest of the WWAV leadership to refine the message that is shared. The labor of writing is inseparable from the organizing and theorizing that we are writing about. Honoring Fire Dreams’ collective authorship (“with Women With A Vision” ) is our attempt to signal the breadth of WWAV’s multitudes as a living, breathing organization, founded and led by Black women in the South, which has also been dynamically shaped by the people doing the labor of turning its vision into practice. The story we tell in these pages is a story written with WWAV. And it is also a story shared with you, our readers.

As people began to slowly return to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, WWAV executive director Deon Haywood, along with her mother Catherine Haywood and her friend Danita Muse (both cofounders of WWAV), had taken to the streets to find the people for whom they had been the primary safety net for decades: Black cisgender and transgender women living and working in the city’s street-based economies. With the housing projects set for demolition, the schools dismantled, and the return rates still waning, their city was a shadow of its pre-Katrina self. Still, little could have prepared them for the first time they saw one of their people with her new photo identification card. In the bottom right corner, immediately below her picture, the words “sex offender” were stamped in block red letters. All she knew was that she had been charged with a “crime against nature.”

What was a “crime against nature”? Where did the statute come from? What was happening to women in their city? As one story became ten, and ten became twenty, Deon, Catherine, and Danita talked to some of the first people to be placed on the sex offender registry after Hurricane Katrina—and uncovered a criminalization crisis. For the simple act of trading sex for money to survive, hundreds of Louisiana cisgender and transgender women, 80 percent of them Black, had been convicted of a felony-level Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) and forced to register as sex offenders for a period of fifteen years following a first conviction and for life after the second. CANS convictions were often piled on top of prostitution convictions, and so were the debilitating penalties. As people convicted under the statute saw it, “There is no justice in Louisiana.” Their words became the organizing call.

In the following, we trace WWAV’s process of organizing against the CANS statute in post-Katrina New Orleans through our NO Justice Project. This story rests on the legacy that Danita and Catherine built in the first decade and a half of WWAV’s groundbreaking harm reduction work with drug user and sex worker communities. This is also the story of WWAV’s ability to continue to change with the times as the racial capitalism playbook was being reconfigured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina at record speed and we had to incorporate new tactics to fight the white supremacist dispossession of our people—our counter-playbook. Their history of being in community put Catherine, Danita, and Deon on the frontlines, bearing witness to the making of this criminalization crisis as people were being forcibly placed on the sex offender registry list and their communities destabilized. Catherine and Danita had just asked Deon to become executive director, and they were clear: “You gonna let it stand???? You gonna do something, right?” For Deon that meant, “We better do something.”

In 1805 Louisiana enacted its first criminal code, which included explicit prohibition of the “abominable and detestable Crime Against Nature, committed with mankind or beast.” Over the next century, the statute was revisited repeatedly, to add criminal penalties and to clarify that both anal and oral sex were prohibited. When the Louisiana criminal code was comprehensively revised in 1942, the solicitation of such acts was discussed for the first time. The legislature claimed that “the sexual pervert who frequents parks and other public places and solicits abnormal sexual practices” exhibited “a very reprehensible conduct,” and affirmed that this conduct “had given the police department in New Orleans and other large cities considerable trouble.” However, the legislature deemed that solicitation did not constitute a Crime Against Nature. Instead, it was added as a subarticle of the state’s misdemeanor obscenity statute, which included “the sale or display of any indecent material.”

Forty years later, in 1982, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) again advocated for a felony-level addendum to the state’s Crime Against Nature statute, claiming that they needed a tool to clamp down on a “growing problem in male prostitution.” Nationally, sex workers and gay men were being scapegoated and criminalized in response to the AIDS crisis. There were calls for quarantines, for mandatory testing, for contact tracing, and for public registration of all “prostitutes” and licensed brothels. In this climate, the NOPD argued that the solicitation of oral and anal sex had become a deviance that threatened social order.

Under the new felony-level Crime Against Nature by Solicitation statute, soliciting anal or oral sex was now punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to five years, with or without hard labor, and/or a fine of not more than $2,000. Additionally, once Louisiana launched its sex offender registration scheme in 1992, a single CANS conviction mandated fifteen years on the sex offender registry; two CANS convictions required lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Police had sole discretion over whether to charge someone with CANS or prostitution. They quickly began using the new CANS statute to not only address this so-called “male problem” but also to criminalize Black cisgender and transgender women working in street-based economies, which meant these women would also have to register as sex offenders. However, in the absence of an integrated electronic database to facilitate cross-reporting among the various branches of the New Orleans criminal justice system, the CANS sex offender registration requirement had often been, in practice, too tedious to enforce. In fact, many people in the WWAV network did not even know that they had to register. For them, CANS had become just another charge accumulated in the course of everyday survival.

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Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, however, with tens of thousands of people still displaced, the Department of Justice made more than $20 million available to New Orleans to rebuild the city’s criminal justice system, which included a mandate for targeting and apprehending “violent felony fugitives” such as registered sex offenders. Not long after, in 2006, the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA) made failure to register on the sex offender registration a felony offense. In the state of Louisiana at this time, those charged with CANS comprised nearly half of the people required to register as sex offenders and nearly all the people who had failed to do so. And so, in the wake of the storm, with the assistance of the US Marshals Service, CANS “fugitives” were tracked down, often saddled with increased penalties for having failed to register previously.

That was how WWAV suddenly found ourselves bearing witness to just how extensively the CANS statute had been used against Black cisgender and transgender women. By 2011 80 percent of people in the registry were Black; 97 percent of the women in the Orleans Parish sex offender registry had a CANS conviction. Using our own Black feminist analysis, WWAV worked to render visible how our communities had long been the invisible targets of CANS criminalization in the 1980s and 1990s, and then had become hypervisible after the storm through predatory policing and surveillance.

As more people in WWAV’s communities returned to New Orleans after the storm, the implications of the CANS licenses became clear. People shared stories of completely losing any sense of privacy, not being able to walk their kids to school or go to their children’s graduations, having people use the sex offender registry to track them down and harass them at home. Some were called “rapist” whenever they got carded while buying cigarettes; some were denied access to drug treatment programs because “We don’t serve your kind.” Others started carrying around envelopes stuffed with all their court paperwork when applying for jobs, so that they could prove that they had histories of drug addiction and sex work, not of child molestation.

Then there were the photos printed in the local paper, and the court-mandated postcards they had to buy and mail to neighbors alerting them that “This violent predator lives in your community.” One WWAV participant explained that when her probation officer told her she had to pay $500 for these postcards, she laughed in his face in disbelief: “Where am I supposed to get that kind of money when I just got out of jail? What are you telling me, I gotta go turn tricks?”

In 2009 WWAV hosted the first daylong strategy meeting to launch a citywide NO Justice coalition. At that meeting, we affirmed that any challenge of the CANS statute needed to unfold within a transformational project that refused the structural violence that Black cisgender and transgender women moved through daily in New Orleans. Striking down the law would not matter if WWAV could not also change the climate that made Black women’s criminalization thinkable. The police would just find another tool, another tactic. However, if WWAV could disrupt the totalizing surveillance of Black women, even in small ways, then we could begin to frame and actualize a vision for our community’s survival.

That goal changed the horizon of struggle for the NO Justice Project. This was no campaign in which the repeal of the CANS statue was lingering as a lofty goal on the horizon. Rather, the liberatory work of NO Justice was stitched in the everyday fabric and relationships of social life. People with CANS convictions needed immediate relief. So Deon and WWAV called on local service providers and advocates in health, housing, and legal aid fields to help them build an emergency response and referral network for people with CANS convictions, giving them a bit of breathing room.

What becomes possible when you can catch your breath? The people that WWAV stood with began to dream about more lasting transformation beyond their immediate survival. They talked about strategies for combating the drug testing of welfare recipients; about microfinance projects for expanding their employment possibilities; about health education courses for addressing disease disparities in their communities; about trauma healing circles for sustaining their community with one another; about going to their children’s graduations and being present in all the vibrancy of their lives. In so doing, they began to articulate and live into the contours of justice as the liberation of our communities, even while so much conspired to make this justice feel impossible in the present.

From this visioning space, WWAV began the hard work of building community consensus around CANS. It was important to have WWAV’s “ride-or-dies” in from the beginning—most especially the longtime Black harm reduction and HIV prevention workers in New Orleans. But the work could not move forward without bringing in new faces, like the legal fellow working at the public defender’s office who had defended women with CANS convictions, or the local reporter who had written a story drawing attention to the massive increase in the number of women on the state’s sex offender registry list. And then there were the trusted national allies who could be called on to sound the alarm when directed but would not push so hard as to shame the southern lawmakers and shut down the whole organizing project before it got up and running. In the state that was then the incarceration capital of the world, WWAV was actively crafting a messaging strategy that could mobilize broad-based community support for striking down the CANS statute and for realizing the liberation of their communities.

WWAV then began to explore the viability of bringing a constitutional challenge against the CANS statute. Black feminist abolitionist attorney Andrea J. Ritchie became the anchor for building our NO Justice legal team. When Andrea journeyed to New Orleans to meet with Deon and others in the WWAV family, she did so as a Black feminist abolitionist committed to using legislative and legal tactics in service of Black cisgender and transgender women’s own visions for liberation, not as ends in and of themselves. She also supported us in identifying other attorneys who were similarly aligned, including Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, who had just joined the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as legal director; Alexis Agathocleous and Sunita Patel, also from CCR; and professor Davida Finger from Loyola University.

As part of our strategy development, the NO Justice legal team worked closely with us and presented a range of possible legal, legislative, and policy strategies. Each of these had to be vetted by WWAV and agreed to by the communities with whom we stand before any work could move forward, a central step in all movement lawyering. The care that the legal team took in building strategy in partnership with us confirmed for all of us that using the tactics we agreed to would bolster, not detract from, the transformational work we were already doing to expose the violence of CANS criminalization and to posit the possibility of the world otherwise. Our community-building work also needed to be intensified and supported, even and especially while the NO Justice Project shifted into a more public, legalistic mode.

On February 15, 2011, with WWAV’s support, the NO Justice legal team filed a case in the Eastern District of Louisiana Court on behalf of 9 of the more than 800 people who had been forcibly placed on the sex offender registry because of a CANS conviction. Barely a month later, the team persuaded Rep. Charmaine Marchand-Stiaes to introduce HB 141, which would make CANS penalties equal to those for prostitution. On May 24, 2011, the Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice heard testimony on the bill—and unanimously approved it. One month later, the bill had passed the Louisiana House, Senate, and the governor’s desk. No one convicted of CANS would ever have to register as a sex offender again. However, the bill was not retroactive

The partial victory of the legislative change at the state level made a favorable ruling in the federal lawsuit seem obvious: If people would not have to register as sex offenders for new CANS convictions, why should those previously convicted remain on the registry? However, as the legal team advised, that was not an argument that could be made in court under the equal protection claim. WWAV knew that we needed to, once again, build community awareness and outrage about the Black cisgender and transgender women still on the sex offender registry. We had to organize a groundswell of community support demanding that the CANS statute itself be declared unconstitutional and every person on the registry be removed.

Five weeks after Mardi Gras Day, on March 28, 2012—before a courtroom filled with WWAV staff and participants, local community activists, New Orleans religious leaders, and legal allies from across the Deep South—U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman heard oral arguments on Louisiana’s reasoning for requiring people convicted of CANS to register as sex offenders when people convicted of prostitution were not—and whether that reasoning violates equal protection principles. The next day he concluded that Governor Bobby Jindal and his codefendants “fail[ed] to credibly serve up even one unique legitimating governmental interest that can rationally explain the registration requirement imposed on those convicted of Crime Against Nature by Solicitation. The court is left with no other conclusion but that the relationship between the classification is so shallow as to render the distinction wholly arbitrary.”

The next day, the energy at WWAV was electric. A “small but mighty” community of staff, participants, and volunteers piled into the front meeting room of our Mid-City office. Some were standing. Others gathered on couches and chairs by the front window or around the donut-shaped conference table in the center. On the slender overhanging porch out front, a few people lingered to wave others up the steps to the second story of the house that sat off North Norman C. Francis Parkway.  In the central hallway, several folding tables for street outreach had been lined up end-to-end to form a long banquet table. The whole expanse was draped in purple cloth and decorated with bright yellow flowers and small baskets of sweets. At the center, a sheet cake proclaimed: “We Won!!!!”

Most people had not believed that they would see their sex offender registration periods end so abruptly. Indeed, many had never been to court and had a judge side with them. Ms. Michelle expressed what so many people with CANS convictions experienced: “I can taste my freedom!” All at WWAV were also clear that this victory was but one step in realizing the transformative healing envisioned through the NO Justice Project. While the federal ruling on CANS was a moment to be celebrated, it was also a moment that only made sense in community—in a process of becoming—through which people began to heal, to rebuild, and to renew with one another. And so, Deon concluded, “Today we celebrate. And still we rise.”

Two months later, the very violence that we had refused and organized to transform was turned intimately against us. That was the night of the still-uninvestigated arson attack. In the wake of this attack, we continued to support our legal team as they expanded and brought a new lawsuit to extend the ruling in Doe v. Jindal beyond the nine original plaintiffs. On June 27, 2012, this new federal class action was filed. A year later, on June 10, 2013, that lawsuit was settled, and the state of Louisiana agreed to remove all of the more than 800 people still on the sex offender registry due to a CANS conviction.

WWAV was never supposed to win a victory on this scale. We knew it. Governor Jindal knew it. Even the federal government knew it. Those afforded first-class citizenship within the United States’ own borders were supposed to emerge as saviors after the storm. Black cisgender and transgender women were supposed to fade into the background, invisibilized and criminalized further as state capacity expanded. That, of course, is not what happened.

In the post-Katrina landscape, the new New Orleans was actively being built through the organized abandonment and expulsion of Black New Orleanians. But the end had not been written yet. In the wake of an arson attack that could have been fatal, at a time when 95,652 Black New Orleanians had not been able to return, the WWAV community rose with the unwavering support of our community to take place and have a space. On this contested land, these fire dreams were just beginning to rise from the ashes.

Excerpted from Fire Dreams: Making Black Feminist Liberation in the South by Laura McTighe with Women With a Vision. Copyright Duke University Press, 2024.

Image: Mitch Hodiono/Unsplash