Bourbon Street is the loose, neon-lit strip in New Orleans where bachelor parties on the prowl for oblivion roam with fistfuls of plastic beads. It’s the historic home of the city’s wildest bars, daiquiri shops, and, most notoriously, strip clubs. But that could change.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol Tobacco Control (ATC), the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), and the City Planning Commission (CPC) are pushing an effort to "clean up" the red light district. In January, city officials cited seven strip clubs for “prostitution, lewd acts, and drugs.” This resulted in the suspension of liquor licenses, closure for three of the affected clubs, and major losses for dancers and club staff.
The raids came with an initiative to stop alleged human trafficking in Bourbon Street clubs, in spite of the fact that no arrests were made to that effect. This most recent move comes after a similar push in 2015 in what officials termed “Operation Trick or Treat” followed by a proposed (and ultimately failed) effort to impose age restrictions on erotic dancers in 2016. So, too, did the raids arrive on the heels of a nine-month construction period that obstructed access to many Bourbon Street clubs.
Since the raids, New Orleans entertainers—dancers, employees, sex workers, and allies alike—have banded together. They took to the streets in an Unemployment March on February 1 to protest the club closures and the sudden loss of jobs during the month-long Carnival season. Their efforts have already helped force city regulators to opt against a plan to cap the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter to one per blockface. But they still have many hurdles and challenges ahead as they continue to fight to protect their livelihood from increased regulations.
We spoke to local entertainers during the Unemployment March to find out more about the issues and concerns they have with the push to "clean up" the French Quarter.
Nya is a dancer.
"This protest is to fight the local government. To fight corruption and greed. Fight against unconstitutional rules against tax-paying American citizens. I am marching for bodily autonomy. I am marching for the under-21: adult women who can fight in war and vote, but can't control what they do with their own breasts. It’s 2018 and the police are still policing women’s bodies. I am marching for the POC who will be displaced because there are only so many available jobs. Affirmative action only leaves a window so big."
Qween Amor is a street performer and sex worker.
"I believe when it comes to our rights, we have to stand for each other. Trans women need to show up for cis women, and cis women need to show up for trans women. We need to show up for each other. All of our grievances are intertwined, and it can’t be every man for himself. This is about women… all women. We need to be aware of the intersectional nature of oppression in our society. Without the awareness of privilege, it’s just a bunch of white women bitching about the loss of their job. But that’s an everyday occurrence for POC and trans communities. A movement that doesn’t recognize intersectionality isn’t a movement. I feel as if the raids on the strip clubs is just the beginning of our battle.
Even though I am not a stripper and none of those clubs would even begin to consider hiring a trans woman, I still recognize the importance of showing up. I [do] sex work. For those of us who are so marginalized that our mere presence is threatening, we have to resort to unconventional methods of generating income for ourselves."
Sarah is a dancer.
"All of the clubs are run with security everywhere. There’s managers on each floor, there are cameras everywhere. Security is everywhere. There’s no way you can get away with violating any woman. You feel very safe in the club. I’ve been dancing since I was 18. This is my livelihood. This is what pays the bills."
Aurora is a dancer.
"This is about a city disempowering hardworking women, largely women of color, under the guise of helping them. They opened doors to the very dangers they claim to be saving us from and offered no solutions to the problems they've created [like unemployment] by 'helping' us with problems that don't exist.
"This is also about a community coming together and fighting back to end the stigma, to save our jobs, and to educate the misinformed so that we may do our jobs and build our lives in the peace of mind that we deserve."
Penny Coco is a dancer.
"Everybody looks down on dancing. I’ve had a lot of people look at me different once they find out I’m a dancer, but I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not selling my body. I’m not selling my soul. I’m doing what I feel is right to take care of my kids. I’m doing what I have to do."
Nick, who is on the far right, is a bartender at clubs.
"When they raided our club, I thought I was going to jail. It’s scary as a young black male when a bunch of cops come around. I want to go home to my family after work, not sit in a cell. It’s sick seeing everybody from different clubs coming together for one cause, though. This march is tight."
Elle Camino is a dancer.
"The proposed motion to limit the number of clubs per block on Bourbon will not ensure the safety of any of the industrious workers currently employed. However, it is evident it will revoke the opportunity for hundreds of locals to ensure their livelihood, myself included. Furthermore, this measure, unprecedented and unprovoked, will further liminalize an already marginalized work force and disregard all those who have endeavored not only to provide for ourselves, our families, and our communities, but also to actively contribute to the culture of New Orleans. If the city officials of this alluring city decide to expel the very people who have sculpted its heritage and embellished its lore, they may very well find themselves grasping for a quarter and only dredging up a dime."
Marie Francois is a street performer.
"God loves us all. I don't work in the clubs. I work on Bourbon Street as a street performer. But I support everybody. We’re like family out here, and when family get fucked up, everybody get fucked up. Excuse my language."
Lyn is a dancer and the development director of the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers.
"We needed to form an advocacy group [Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers] because people are going to continue to write things about us and enact policy about us without ever asking us.
"[The march for unemployment and job loss] was organized by a manager from one of the clubs and a lot of people came out in support of it. At the march we saw that everybody was starting to realize that we have to stand together because we’re all in a lot of trouble right now. Pointing your finger at somebody who seems like they’re slightly worse off than you to clean yourself off is not how we want to be operating. What happens to nightlife workers happens to sex workers, it happens to strippers, it happens to people in entertainment here."
Tony is a French Quarter service industry worker
"I recognize that a gendered attack on workers is an attempt to divide the workers in a city. I’d like [the city] to stop using fake moral reasoning to attack peoples’ work."
Elizabeth is a dancer.
"As soon as I was 18, I started working in the Quarter. The first time I ever felt violated was when [the police] came into our club. They were taking pictures of us in our lingerie, forcefully. When I told them my rights, asked them to delete the photo, and asked to see the warrant, they put me in handcuffs and threatened me with arrest.
"It’s not about human trafficking—we haven’t had one arrest for human trafficking. So it's not about that. What’s it really about? Nobody knows.
"We bring in a lot of money and tourism. What’s Bourbon Street going to be if they shut down the strip clubs? I have no idea. They want to make it like Disney World? This is kind of like Disney World for adults. Kids already have two Disney Worlds."
Dea is a VIP hostess.
"I’m here because I’m unemployed. I lost two jobs in two weeks; they closed our clubs down completely. They didn’t just target strippers. They’re looking for [victims of sex trafficking], but they didn’t find any. They put managers out of work—they put bar backs, security, bartenders, waitresses, VIP hostesses, DJs, house moms, doormen, delivery workers for the alcohol, delivery workers for the food, and cab drivers out of work. Babysitters, too. It’s affecting so much more of the population than just a stripper. You will not find trafficked women in these strip clubs. They’re taking jobs at our time of business that we wait all year for—they took livelihoods from more than just strippers. It’s a witch hunt."
The last names of the people involved in this story have been left out to protect their identities.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
See more of Avery L. White's work on her Instagram.
See more of Brooke Sauvage's work here.