In East Oakland, the street economy ranges from selling CDs out of your car to braiding hair at bus stops. But the underground marketplace can be a slippery slope to illegal activity, like selling guns, drugs, and sex.
Decades ago, several motels opened up shop in the East Oakland neighborhood of San Antonio. And the motels’ steady stream of clientele included pimps. Sex trafficking is now a rampant problem in Oakland, as we found out last year in an investigative report produced by Youth Radio:
BRITTNEY: I wake up at five I'd be outside by like 5:30. And then I won't be able to come back inside until like 2 o'clock in the morning…
DARLENE: You honestly have to believe that they are more than a girl on the corner, you know, they are somebody's daughter, somebody's niece. They're being sold out there. Some people are standing on the corner selling fruit while other people are standing on the same corner selling a girl.
Since that story aired, parents and advocates in the neighborhood have continued their fight against pimps who target their young daughters. Youth Radio’s Denise Tejada brings us this follow-up report.
DENISE TEJADA Over the last year, parents and advocates in the San Antonio neighborhood became active when they realized pimps were targeting their middle school girls.
NHUANH LY: We are here at Roosevelt Middle School…
Nhuanh Ly is the program coordinator for Banteay Srei, a group that works with neighborhood girls to build self-esteem and to teach them how to avoid being recruited by pimps. School district officials say it's hard to prevent because the pimps just look like regular guys.
LY: It happens at the bus stops, it happens in front of homes, and it happens in front of schools. Not too long ago, one of the girls who attends our afterschool programs called me and she was really, really distraught. She was like, “Nhuanh! Nhuanh! I can’t believe this just happened! A pimp just tried to recruit me and he actually picked me up in his car.”
Ly says, the average age girls get recruited into trafficking in the U.S. is 12 years old. People often think girls end up being trafficked because they were kidnapped. But many times, it can start with a seduction or even a relationship. So Ly encourages families to have frank conversations early about dating and sex.
LY: Yeah it’s awkward talking to your parents about sex, right. A common response for parents is to try to shut their children away from seeing this. But the reality is that it's so visible and it's so prevalent that we can't do that.
It’s so prevalent that families can look outside their windows and see pimps.
REYNOLDO TERRAZAS: See that corner over there, see that corner over there? Pimps are coming down here…
Reynaldo and Jody Terrazas raised two girls in this neighborhood. They live a block from the National Lodge Motel that the community has been fighting for years, saying pimps run their business from it. From their living room, the Terrazas's also have a view of International Boulevard where girls, some barely teenagers, stand on the corners.
JODY TERRAZAS: Little girls, you bet. Very skinny. They probably weigh 100 pounds, maybe 115 pounds. Some of them look very confident and bold about what they are doing. And then there are times, they look like they are trying to get away, to hide. They don't want to be here.
When you walk up to the National Lodge Motel you have to be buzzed in. I’m greeted by a small women sitting behind a thick glass window, like a bank teller. She wouldn’t answer any of my questions, so I called the office later and talked to Rita Patel, who is part of the family that owns the motel. Her response to neighbors’ fears about sexual exploitation of minors?
RITA PATEL: No we don’t accept prostitutes here.
TEJADA: You don’t at all?
PATEL: No, we don’t.
ANDY NELSON: Since we started pushing, the city attorney filed a lawsuit against this motel...
Andy Nelson is the deputy director for organizing and public policy at East Bay Youth Center. He's pleased that the City of Oakland has officially joined the fight – and is suing to shut down the National Lodge Motel for allowing prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors.
NELSON: Since we started pushing, there were a couple more officers who were assigned here and there has been a lot more willingness to talk to us and to try to work collaboratively. The concern is: What would happen if we stopped pushing?
That pushing includes marches, rallies, and meetings with the mayor, the city council and the police. Andy Nelson's motivation to keep pushing? His 4-year-old daughter.
NELSON: As she gets older, it's going to be challenging. But every time I see a young girl out there you know … Every time I see a young girl out there, I see my daughter.
Until recently, Nelson says a lot of neighborhood parents felt there was nothing that could be done to stop sex trafficking. He says getting rid of the National Lodge Motel is not going to solve the problem, but it would be a big accomplishment. Nelson and others won’t give up the idea that Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood can be a good place to raise kids.
For Crosscurrents, I'm Denise Tejada.
This story was produced by Youth Radio as part of their Peabody Award winning series Trafficked. You can find the full investigation online at their website.
This story originally aired on October 5, 2011.