Under the neon daiquiri-shop lights and to the cheers of barkers in bad suits, hundreds
of gentlemen's club workers and allies converged for a march that filled Bourbon Street.
The Feb. 1 event was the second in as many days organized by workers to protest investigations and raids of eight gentlemen's clubs in January, which resulted in suspended liquor and tobacco licenses. Without the ability to sell alcohol, several clubs temporarily shuttered, leaving dancers, managers, bartenders, hosts and cleaning staff out of work.
Holding glittery signs, an American flag and in one case, a platform shoe, the demonstrators chanted "I am not a victim," "Let us work," "Bourbon Street, not Sesame Street" and "Stripper's rights are human rights." They progressed from Mango Mango Daiquiris on the 400 block of Bourbon Street to the intersection of Bourbon and Canal, where the march briefly became an impromptu dance party to Shawn Mendes' "There's Nothing Holding Me Back."
The demonstration filled several blocks and was so large that tourists and onlookers were pressed to the sidewalks, where many of them began filming the event with their phones.
As she held a sign that said "Your political agenda shouldn't cost me my future," one dancer who gave her name as Jessie criticized the raids, saying they were a misguided effort that failed to uncover the human trafficking they were designed to unearth.
"The only thing that happened is you're costing us our livelihood," she said. "They always have to vilify something."
At a press conference Monday, New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) officials stood firm behind the idea that the investigations and subsequent raids were linked to anti-human-trafficking efforts in the city.
But Bourbon Street workers affected by the raids point to the lack of arrests related to human trafficking as a result of recent investigations. No human trafficking arrests have been made as a result of this operation at this time, and Alcohol and Tobacco Control's (ATC's) eventual release of the violations found at clubs was met with skepticism by club workers attending this week's demonstrations, especially "lewd acts" charges which can include dancers touching their own bodies.
"I want my club to open back up. ... I haven't worked in a week, I don't have any money, I'm digging in the savings," another dancer, who uses the name Ash, told Gambit
. "It sucks that they closed us and suspended us for essentially what you would consider as touching your own boob."
The march proceeded back down Bourbon to Dumaine Street to Chartres Street to a short rally point in Jackson Square, then progressed back up St. Peter Street, returned to Bourbon and headed down Bienville Street to rally at the pocket park at Decatur and Conti Streets. There, workers took turns sharing their accounts of how working in gentlemen's clubs has changed their lives.
One woman described her painful endometriosis, and how working in clubs has allowed her to arrange her schedule around her health. A server described how working in clubs helps her make enough money to support her son.
New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee organizer Ashlee Pintos took the mic to call on other hospitality workers and supporters to "stand in solidarity with these dancers." Members of other groups which advocate for workers' rights, including New Orleans Workers Group and Democratic Socialists of America, also were visible in the crowd.
Despite recent word that some clubs soon would reopen, workers face ongoing uncertainty regarding the future of their jobs. On Jan. 31 ATC announced settlements with six clubs that would end the suspension of liquor licenses at some properties. But with one club, Lipstixx, voluntarily surrendering its license and another permanently closed due to a tenancy issue, dancers who attended this week's demonstrations say it's part of a campaign of "attrition" on the part of the city, in which an ever-dwindling number of gentlemen's clubs on Bourbon Street forces workers to seek less lucrative employment elsewhere or move on to other cities.
Near the end of the march, Sable Mongold, an entertainer and representative for Bourbon Alliance for Responsible Entertainers (BARE), urged participants to turn up at the Feb. 6 City Planning Commission meeting set that could include a vote that could limit the number of clubs per blockface in the French Quarter — further limiting the number of jobs available to dancers.
"Can we show up, and be professional, and play on their turf?" she asked. "They're playing dirty, and we gotta play the game."
Lyn Archer, BARE's development director, also encouraged people to keep showing up to advocate for themselves as a constituency.
"I preferred Bourbon Street when there was that big gaping chasm in the middle of it, because it kinda seems like they're trying to pave us over," said Lyn Archer, development director for Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE). "Something that's happening that's different right now, and it's that we're pushing back."