The NJ Red Umbrella Alliance is an alliance of activists dedicated to promoting the human rights of sex workers in New Jersey. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Derek Demeri, co-founder of The NJ Red Umbrella Alliance, and learn more about himself and the organization.
C.J. Asher – Tell me a bit about Red Umbrella Alliance. How was it founded and what are your objectives/goals?
Derek Demeri – NJRUA started as an idea in December 2013. After meeting at the U.S. Human Rights Network 5th annual national conference, our three co-founders decided to support each other’s efforts to promote the human rights of sex workers in New Jersey – where we all currently reside. As an alliance to advocate for and defend the human rights of sex workers, we seek to accomplish this by raising public awareness of human rights violations against our community, working on community organizing and building community consciousness.
C.J. Asher – What made you decide to start advocating for the rights of sex workers? Are there any personal stories that influenced your decision to be a part of this group?
Derek Demeri – I come at sex worker advocacy from a few different angles. I started as an activist in high school seven years ago working on LGBTQ issues. As someone who believes in the sexual liberation that was fought for at Stonewall over forty years ago, allowing consenting people to engage in sex according to how they want is a basic principle I think society should uphold. Regardless of whether sex is for economic purposes or not, I believe the state should not have any role in regulating people’s sexuality as they do with laws that criminalize sex work. Abiding by this principle, I worked two years ago on a policy paper on how New Jersey’s laws perpetuate HIV in marginalized communities. I noticed that out of all the communities impacted by these laws, sex workers had the least access to justice and health information. Their issues were consistently left out of public discussions and HIV programming from non-profits and government agencies. After realizing this I made a personal decision to do get more involved in the struggle.
C.J. Asher – What is your role with the NJ Red Umbrella Alliance?
Derek Demeri – As it exists now, NJRUA is a community based, volunteer lead organization. I am a co-founder and act in any capacity we need.
C.J. Asher – Who are your “alliances” with for sex worker advocacy?
Derek Demeri – It is still early in our advocacy to know who is an ally and who is not in New Jersey. Sex workers themselves should be and will be the leading voices that decide the exact direction our advocacy goes. Having said that, we have received encouragement from national sex worker rights groups like the Best Practices Policy Project, SWOP-USA and social justice organizations such as the Center for the Study of Genocide & Human Rights.
C.J. Asher – Why do you feel that politicians don’t want to legalize and subsequently regulate the prostitution industry?
Derek Demeri – I’m glad you asked this question because it allows me to explain a bit more about our perspective on these issues which are much broader than the idea of “legalizing and regulating” as solutions. At the end of the day, NJRUA believes that the criminalization of sex work is tied into the oppression affecting groups like people of color and low-income people. Although decriminalization is a piece to securing our rights, it is not the end-all to our rights. We know that the oppression affecting sex workers of color, trans sex workers and other marginalized workers will not disappear once the sex trade is decriminalized.
With that said, there are multiple factors that prevent politicians from supporting the rights of sex workers. Ideas of morality would prevent many public figures from vocalizing support for our work. It is undeniable that there are a lot of negative stereotypes and religious convictions working against sex workers, and most politicians are too afraid to push against this hysteria. What makes this difficult is knowing the countless number of civil servants that purchase the services of sex workers in private, but then demonize us publicly. Politicians push this idea that sex workers need to be “saved” and encourage police to round up sex workers in these ill-conceived anti-trafficking crackdowns (take a look at this piece written earlier in NJRUAs founding: http://www.bestpracticespolicy.org/2014/01/28/using-human-rights-not-super-bowl-sex-trafficking-hype-to-understand-the-issues-in-new-jersey/). NJRUA wants to move this hysterical and moralistic dialogue towards a more rights based anti-oppression approach.
C.J. Asher – What do you think is the greatest threat to sex workers today?
Derek Demeri – Pushing back against police brutality and ensuring that our voices are heard is our biggest challenge. Some people NJRUA works with have been by tormented by law enforcement with repeated beatings, harassment and even rape (one worker’s experiences are documented in a shadow report to the UN under “anonymous, New Jersey”). Additionally, so many people talk on our behalf without any knowledge of the work or what the needs of sex workers actually are. If there are discussions about health or labor conditions, then we need to make sure our voices are heard. With that, we also have to recognize that sex workers are as diverse as society is and no one person or group is capable of speaking on behalf of all workers.
C.J. Asher – What are the positive benefits of legalization of currently illegal sex work such as prostitution?
Derek Demeri – Decriminalizing the illegal sectors of the sex industry allow for the opportunity for sex workers to begin to claim their rights. Like I mentioned earlier however, the criminalization and stigmatization of people in the sex trades is apart of a greater problem of oppression that affects immigrants, queer people and all marginalized people. Addressing all forms of oppression will allow for protection of all sex workers in cases of rape or other acts of violence against workers; it will allow for much better health outreach on how to prevent and live with HIV and other STIs; most importantly, it will allow us to successfully demand justice when our rights are violated.
C.J. Asher – What will it take to make sex work more acceptable and respected by society?
Derek Demeri – Until we break the stereotypes that exist against sex workers, society will continue to dehumanize us. We need to push against the idea that sex workers are “helpless victims” to be “saved” through arrest and incarceration. We need to deconstruct the idea that sex workers are irreparably damaged simply for doing what they need to do to earn an income. When community members need assistance, we need harm reduction and comprehensive rights based services that address our concerns without shame and stigma. Society needs to see that we’re real people with real problems that deserve just as much attention as anyone else.
C.J. Asher – What upcoming events will the NJ Red Umbrella Alliance be organizing/sponsoring?
Derek Demeri – NJRUA holds monthly meetings for our activists to gather and discuss upcoming projects. We will also be hosting an event for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17) in New Brunswick, NJ. There will be a candlelight vigil for community members we have lost in the last year, followed by human rights workshops discussing how criminalization perpetuates violence & how violence impacts workers differently based on race and gender.
C.J. Asher – What resources (besides contacting law enforcement, of course) are available to sex workers who are being victimized by their employers, pimps, or other individuals who are causing them harm?
Derek Demeri – As much as I wish I could answer this is not a question I will be able to. There are no resources that exist for workers and law enforcement is not attentive to the concerns of people in the sex trade. Future projects for NJRUA include getting a listing of lawyers willing to help workers with rights violations. We are also committed to being part of a wide network of groups challenging rights abuses locally, nationally, and internationally.
C.J. Asher – How can people donate time, money and resources to the NJ Red Umbrella Alliance?
Derek Demeri – If people would like to get involved with NJRUA, the best approach is to send an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a little bit about themselves and ways they think they can and would like to help with activism. If someone is interested in giving funds, they can donate via our page here.
C.J. Asher – Do you plan on opening up Red Umbrella Alliance chapters in other states?
Derek Demeri – Since this is a New Jersey initiative, there are no plans to open up chapters in other states. As our organization grows we will be happy to share what we have learned to others who want to get started as well. We started this organization because we know there are so many workers outside of the traditional areas where sex worker advocacy is going on (i.e., Philly or New York). Hopefully our founding will inspire more grassroots advocacy in other nontraditional areas of the country as well.