6. 1. 2022

DIY Defunding the Police

Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition

Easy Steps to Defunding the Police!

  1. Realize and tell all your friends that policing makes our streets less safe, and that this disproportionally hurts members of our communities who are already bearing the brunt of unjust systems.
  2. Research where your local police service gets its funding. Look at their annual budget and reporting (they have to report it).
  3. Think of ways to encourage the general public to avoid giving their monies to the local police services.
  4. Reach out to local groups working against police brutality, for abolition, and against white supremacy to see what they’re up to. You are not alone in this.
  5. Set the date, time, and place. Make the direct-action magic happen! Create a witty press release and let everyone on social media know!
  6. Celebrate every victory!

The Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC), a volunteer collective made up of sex workers, activists, and other allies, advocates for the decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work and for improvement in the lives and working conditions of sex workers. SWWAC first came together in opposition to Bill C-36 (Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) in 2014, and has been active ever since. More recently, we joined our voices to those calling for the defunding of the police and held an action during the summer of 2020 to take some funds back from law enforcement.


Sex Workers Want to Defund the Police Too!

If you’re new to the issue, you might be thinking, “Why do sex workers care about defunding the police so much?” Let us tell you why!

Sex workers care about safer streets. We oppose all forms of exploitation and believe that individuals should feel empowered to set the terms under which they will part with or receive money in exchange for services. We were therefore distressed to learn how callously the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) exploits Winnipeg drivers!

Would we go so far as to call WPS “predators” or “victimizers” who lurk in the bushes with their moose-sized radar machines, waiting to extract a disproportionate fee from drivers in radar traps? We would. We are. This must stop.

As Winnipeggers, we are all in this together. The city’s cowardice in failing to control the expansion of WPS means that we citizens all suffer. Every day, some drivers pay with their wallets. Sex workers in Winnipeg, and beyond, are victimized by the police in so many other ways.

Policing puts sex workers at real and serious risk. Criminalizing sex workers’ clients directly endangers us, increasing the likelihood of unwanted sexual contact and even sexual or physical assault. The dangers caused by the policing of sex work are compounded for sex workers of colour, and we join with our allies who decry the long history of racist and biased policing, and who advocate for the significant and immediate redirection of funds away from policing in favour of community-led safety initiatives.

As we have publicly expressed in the past, SWWAC does not partner with the Winnipeg Police Service and is not included in the WPS Counter Exploitation Unit’s claims that they partner with “sex trade workers themselves” to fight street prostitution. SWWAC’s goal is to make things safer for all sex workers. Criminalizing and arresting those who buy sex, as Winnipeg police currently do, puts sex workers at risk. Any legal framework that criminalizes either the selling or buying of sex puts those who sell sex at risk, especially if they really need the money.

For example, criminalizing sex workers’ clients endangers sex workers by pushing both indoor and outdoor workers to negotiate client services in very generalized or coded language to avoid catching police attention. Without clear communication about services being negotiated, serious misunderstandings can happen. At best, this puts sex workers at heightened risk of unwanted sexual contact for all people involved and/or unsatisfied clients who won’t or don’t pay. At worst, such miscommunications can result in sex workers being sexually or physically assaulted. In contexts where police are tracking potential clients – by patrolling streets, for example, and watching or following cars – street-based sex workers experience pressure to quickly get into clients’ cars, or to quickly move to more secluded and poorly lit areas to negotiate transactional terms – practices that can be life-threatening. As we have argued on our website:

Fewer clients for sex workers – whether because clients are scared away or arrested by police – leaves sex workers with fewer options in terms of who they do or don’t see. It’s not like sex workers’ bills and other expenses go away just because some clients have gone, or been arrested and taken away. This means that those who really need the money are more likely to take on clients they wouldn’t normally see, or agree to services they wouldn’t normally offer. This very much increases risks of violence and poor mental health for sex workers.

Sex workers are experts in street safety, and we know just what to do: Just Slow Down, Winnipeg. And then, defund the police.


The “Just Slow Down” Action

In the midst of a pandemic and a wave of outrage at the ongoing police violence disproportionally affecting BIPOC and other historically oppressed communities, one SWWAC member decided that it was time to take things into our own hands and keep the money in communities and away from police services. After all, sex workers from those communities are also disproportionally affected by policing and police surveillance.

It came to our members’ attention that a surprisingly large amount of the WPS’s revenue – $13 million in 2019 – comes from photo enforcement of speed limits. A June 2020 CBC article highlights that “out of more than 900 locations legally eligible for enforcement, 15 locations repeatedly account for about 70 percent of tickets” and that some of these locations are not necessarily related to the stated goal of promotion of pedestrian safety around schools, playgrounds, and construction sites. That same article points out that, while Manitoba Public Insurance reported 1500 pedestrian collisions between 2015 and 2019, the city’s most enforced location had only seven reported pedestrian injuries in that time period. Additionally, profits from the photo speed limit enforcement program flow directly into WPS revenues. Therefore, any reduction to the revenues coming from the program would directly reduce WPS funding.

With this in mind, we decided to organize a direct action to mitigate the risks for fellow Winnipeg drivers. We reached out to other local groups who share our views around the harms of policing in our city, researched which cameras bring in the biggest payday for the police, created some colourful signs, and made the action happen!

Nobody wants to get a ticket and have to contribute to the bottomless pit of police expansion. For our action we decided on a “picket line” of signs and people just before the camera, drawing attention to the active camera ahead. We were careful to choose a location that brings in a lot of funds to the WPS and that isn’t associated with a significant number of pedestrian collisions.

This action was important to SWWAC because it was a way to reframe how sex workers interact with the media and the public. Mainstream and social media coverage tends to focus on violence against sex workers, conflation of sex work and human trafficking, and other tired narratives that generally place sex workers and sex work organizations in the position of having to react to these stories.

Sex workers are often considered by society to be one of the causes of unsafe streets and communities. This action had us framing our own narrative: who gets to claim to make streets safer, who gets to march the narrative forward and interact with social media and mainstream media first, and who gets to flip the script on taglines and slogans usually reserved for “law and order” types of campaigns. Posters displaying the words “Sex Workers for Safer Streets,” “Slow Down for the Sake of the Children,” and “Sex Workers for Public Safety” caused many honking horns and double takes from passing cars and got encouragement from residents!

This action also painted sex workers in a much different light compared to the usual stock image of a thin woman, wearing high boots and a short skirt, leaning into a vehicle. (We hope this model signed a per-use agreement with the image agency!) Sex workers are viewed not as contributing to the community but as making communities unsafe. This action flipped that narrative by having sex workers and allies on the streets at midday, wearing everyday clothes and concerned with everyday activities, like driving safely and avoiding a traffic ticket during a pandemic.

The Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition is made up of very careful and responsible drivers. 

The goal of the Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC) is to make things safer for sex workers. They are a cat-loving, awesome bunch who first came together to fight against Bill C-36 in 2014. From 2014 to early 2017, they were known as the Winnipeg Working Group for Sex Workers’ Rights.

“DIY Defunding the Police” first appeared in the anthology Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada (Between the Lines Books). It has been lightly edited for republication.