Detroit Proper: Stopping Traffic in the Streets

Desiree Cooper reminds that human trafficking is not only an 'overseas issue' but that modern-day slaves walk our local streets.

When we think of human trafficking, we think of Eastern European mobs kidnapping white women and prostituting them globally as sex slaves. Or maybe we think of children stolen off the streets of Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro and forced into a lifetime of sexual exploitation. But increasingly, authorities are drawing little distinction between the global crime of human trafficking and the local crime of the everyday pimp. They're both about trapping another human being into a life of sexual servitude.

I'm still trying to figure out how the "hustle and flow" of pimp life became mainstream, from the MTV show Pimp My Ride, to popular music's love affair with pimps, to pimp-and-ho parties on college campuses, to pimp costumes for Halloween. Just last month, a "legal" pimp won a GOP primary in Nevada. No joke. "Trafficking is happening under our noses," says Sandra Ramocan, director of outreach and education for Detroit's Alternatives for Girls, an organization that helps trafficked women transform their lives. "And as long as we stay silent, the trafficking problem, even at the neighborhood level, will continue to grow."

How do traffickers get control of their victims? Ramocan says they use force, threat and even drugs to ensnare victims – and shame to keep them trapped. "Traffickers know how to make a victim think it's their own fault, so that the victim takes on the shame," says Ramocan. "Traffickers will do things like take photos of the victim using drugs or of them in a sexually compromised situation and threaten to send the photo to family or friends, or even publish it over the internet. It's all about using shame to control them."


April Doss, 49, knows all about the destructive power of shame. She was raised in a middle-class family in Detroit, but her life went off the rails as a teen. "I was trafficked twice in my life by older men that I knew," says Doss. "One even locked me in the house and broke my ankle in three places. It took me two years to learn how to walk again." She's slept in abandoned cars, in crack houses and on the streets. At one point, the violence was so bad, she had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself. Here in her story I asked her the perennial question: "Why didn't you just leave?" Doss says that it's not that easy. "In my case, I didn't leave because I was shamefaced," she says. "I couldn't go back and tell my family what had happened. My drug addiction played a big part of it."

It wasn't until Doss' grandfather was on his deathbed that she found the strength to break free. "He raised me and loved me unconditionally," she says. "He begged me not to die on drugs because he'd never rest in heaven." She met an outreach worker from Alternatives for Girls and has been with them consistently for the past three years. Today, she is in the organization's peer leadership program and is drug free. "I want to tell my story so that others out there like me know that someone believes in them," she says. "I know that feeling of loneliness. Shame kept me locked in that lifestyle years longer than necessary."

Ramocan takes Doss to meetings from board rooms to schools and community centers, talking about the quiet, desperate violence of human trafficking. Doss is determined to be silent no more. It can be hard to quantify the scope of the problem. But researchers place Michigan well within the top 10 states where the crime is most prevalent. "We think that has something to do with the access to highways and waterways, and the proximity to the Canadian border," says Ramocan. Trafficking also flourishes around large, international events like Detroit's North American International Auto Show. That's why in January, Detroit Police Chief James Craig announced the formation of a human trafficking commission and dedicated 15 officers to enforce Michigan's human trafficking laws.

"Whether it's international trafficking or neighborhood pimping, it's modern-day slavery," says Ramocan. It's about time to end the silence and shame around human trafficking and focus on who it's really hard out there for. Take it from Doss – it's not the pimp