Last Thursday, about three dozen people, most of them women, gathered at the edge of Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin. Many held handmade placards announcing various Bay Area cities — Oakland, Cupertino, Half Moon Bay — while four others posed in front of the green JCDecaux toilet on the corner of Eddy and Jones streets, brandishing signs with the sleek designs and synchronized messages of a professional ad campaign. "What color complements exploitation? Ask your manicurist," read one sign, on which appeared a bottle of fuchsia nail polish. "Could these be shackles? Ask your janitor," read another, next to an image of rubber custodial gloves.
The signs were the centerpiece of No Traffick Ahead, an anti-human trafficking awareness campaign launched by more than 50 organizations across eight Bay Area counties. The Tenderloin event was the campaign's public debut — an auspicious kickoff given the neighborhood's bawling sirens and roving side-eye.
With hundreds of ads in and on Muni buses, billboards, and bus shelters, No Traffick Ahead aims to educate average city dwellers, and the hordes of Super Bowl fans expected here over the next few weeks, about human trafficking, although the campaign's architects want to make something clear: It's not about the Super Bowl.
That message ping-ponged through press conferences and interviews during the last two weeks. Media briefs screamed into inboxes, blaring in all caps that the Super Bowl is NOT the largest human trafficking event in the world. But by a kind of reverse logic, the repetition worked its own alchemy until the campaign became only about the Super Bowl.
Even as officials from the D.A.'s office and City Hall took the mic at Boeddeker Park to declare human trafficking an invisible scourge that haunts us 365 days a year, an enormous Super Bowl banner hugged the sheer 46-story face of the Hilton Union Square hotel. Looming over the Tenderloin, it was an unavoidable reminder that this campaign, like much else in San Francisco these days, is absolutely about the Super Bowl.
From a law enforcement perspective, human trafficking is as much a Super Bowl tradition as tailgate parties. It's hard to say how what began as an urban legend became the animus for ad campaigns and undercover stings involving everyone from local police departments to the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security, but as with much hyperbole in America, a politician is to blame — specifically, former Texas Attorney General (and current governor) Greg Abbott.
In 2011, Abbott told USA Today that the Super Bowl is "the single largest trafficking incident in the U.S." Alarmist headlines make good copy, and editors recycled the story until it became true by virtue of SEO rankings. In 2012, Forbes, quoting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reported that 10,000 prostitutes were trucked into Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl — a staggering allegation that became internet gospel.
Kate Mogulescu, an attorney with the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, took to The New York Times in 2014 to summarize the aftermath of these exaggerated reports: "Each Super Bowl host state forms a trafficking task force to 'respond' to the issue; the task force issues a foreboding statement; the National Football League pledges to work with local law enforcement to address trafficking; and news conference after news conference is held. The actual number of traffickers investigated or prosecuted hovers around zero."
(The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women reported that in 2008, 2009, and 2011, local law enforcement observed "no increases in sex work-related arrests" during the Super Bowl. Last year, FBI in Arizona arrested 360 suspected johns and 68 alleged traffickers.)
While it's too early to know how the police work will shake out in the Bay Area, it's clear that the chest-thumping Mogulescu described is already in full swing. Mayor Ed Lee launched an anti-human trafficking task force in 2013 — two months before the NFL chose Levi's Stadium to host Super Bowl 50 — and in July 2015, the city adopted a resolution to train local law enforcement, the district attorney, and the public defender, among others, how to recognize and respond to human trafficking. (As SF Weekly reported recently, the city provided similar training to hotel and restaurant workers in advance of the Super Bowl's promised tourism boom.)
Meanwhile, the FBI is also rolling out a new anti-trafficking strategy in the Bay Area. The agency will rely on local nonprofits to refer trafficked victims to the FBI, which will then reportedly route them to social service agencies and victims' advocates, according to The Associated Press. It's touted as a "softer, victim-centric" approach, although Doug Hunt, the agent in charge, "acknowledged that finding and gaining the cooperation of exploited women and girls would be difficult." He declined to explain how the FBI plans to do that.
Last year, the city's Department on the Status of Women met with the Super Bowl Host Committee, which agreed to train 5,000 volunteers — drawn from local communities, churches, and nonprofits — how to identify human trafficking. Independent consultants, such as Nita Belles, an Oregon woman who wrote In Our Backyard: A Christian Perspective on Human Trafficking, are also in the region to work with law enforcement and give presentations at area churches. Belles wouldn't specify how she helps law enforcement but did say she and a few hundred Christian volunteers will post anti-trafficking hotline ads — dubbed "Freedom Stickers" — in the bathrooms of Bay Area convenience stores.
It's a sweeping, choreographed effort, but according to Supervisor Katy Tang, who's written several laws to restrict prostitution in the city's massage parlors, the Super Bowl is a rare opportunity to flush out human traffickers.
"It occurs every day, everywhere," she says, although judging by statistics, San Francisco is a hub of the global trade in humans. The city has the 13th-highest number of child sex trafficking cases in the country, per the FBI, while the National Human Trafficking Hotline receives more calls from California than from any other state.
Of course, accurate data about trafficking is nonexistent. Many victims are shuttled through brothels, massage parlors, and other underground channels, while some are never counted at all. The city's own data suggests a discrepancy between official tallies: Last year, for example, the mayor's task force reported it had identified 291 known or suspected trafficking survivors in the last six months of 2014 (although that number could contain duplicates). Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department, which counts any person engaged in sex work as "trafficked," reported 72 trafficked sex victims in 2014.
Still, just because it can't be quantified doesn't mean it isn't there, believers argue.
"You can't count cars and say that's how many buyers there are," says Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State. "There's little access to data, but what we know is that there is some relationship between the Super Bowl and sex trafficking. It's not make-believe."
When she studied the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., Roe-Sepowitz found that most victims were trafficked by car from hub city to hub city: Houston to Dallas to San Antonio to Albuquerque to Phoenix. It was a journey she and her team tracked via ads on Backpage.com, a mainstay for pimps who solicit customers online via ads for their victims. Last year, Backpage charged $14 to post an ad; this year, it's free. Even if this changes the volume of online ads, Roe-Sepowitz says, it doesn't necessarily mean that more women are trafficked.
But the city, along with a coalition of nonprofits, is prepared for action.
"We've been working on the Super Bowl for the past year and a half," says Leah Chen Price, an attorney who specializes in trafficking and immigration at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. "There's a lot of sensationalization around it. No one knows if an uptick in trafficking exists, but we'll take the extra attention. It means extra resources and energy."
Price adds that law enforcement has already rehearsed practice raids at a South Bay hotel — apparently a standard pregame procedure.
For critics of the Super Bowl-trafficking connection, however, all of the "attention" — the mayor's task force, the FBI's more aggressive involvement, and the No Traffick Ahead campaign — is more like political theater than constructive policy.
Carol Leigh, director of the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, sees the media frenzy around the Super Bowl as "the perfect meeting ground" for law enforcement, nonprofits, and politicians craving photo-ops.
The problem, she says, is that slick ad campaigns and victim-centered outreach "whitewash the history of anti-trafficking policy" without providing "real analysis of the economic injustice at the basis of trafficking."
(Economics can be subjective. Roe-Sepowitz notes that she's talked with more than 3,000 sex workers during her career. "Not one of them ever said they felt sex work was the best option for them, but that it was the only option. If they weren't trafficked by pimps, they were trafficked by drugs or poverty.")
Leigh adds that since human trafficking is now a staple of the media's Super Bowl coverage, it's baffling that officials would frame the issue as an "invisible" crisis, as Tang and the FBI did at a Jan. 12 press conference.
"It's like they're under some kind of hypnosis," Leigh says. "Trafficking is discussed in many ways, most of which are misleading and confusing. What we really need to raise awareness about is how anti-trafficking policies adversely affect migrants, sex workers, and young people."
For now, the city is on high alert, but once the game is over, the Super Bowl fan village dismantled and the partiers gone home, what will become of San Francisco's tentacular anti-trafficking crackdown?
"Sustainability is an issue," admits Emily Murase, executive director of the Department on the Status of Women.
Lack of funding is a major hurdle, she says, counting last year's closure of the Standing Against Global Exploitation Project (SAGE) as a "real tragedy." She'd also like to see the city open a shelter dedicated to trafficking victims, a cause that Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein support but that would "almost take an act of Congress to make happen," according to Murase.
No matter what the final count of trafficking arrests and convictions is, Murase and her staff say that one "unexpected outcome" of the Super Bowl is that it brought Bay Area agencies together to share information.
"Twelve years ago trafficking wasn't on the city's radar," she says. And 12 years hence, it may not be either — unless, of course, the Super Bowl comes back to town.