Alloura's photo is displayed at her memorial service in November 2017. Photos courtesy of Maggie's Toronto.

When sex workers go missing, who responds?

The following is an excerpt from Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada, edited by Shiri Pasternak, Kevin Walby and Abby Stadnyk, which will be released in April 2022 by Between The Lines.

In July 2017, a valued friend and community member disappeared. Alloura Wells, a young Black and Indigenous trans woman, had been an active member of our community at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project – one of Canada’s oldest sex-worker-led organizations – participating in our weekly drop-in programming. When Alloura stopped attending drop-in sessions and our street outreach teams weren’t able to connect with her, her absence was felt. The importance of community spaces for sex workers became clear as our space at Maggie’s became a place for friends and family to connect over Alloura’s disappearance and co-ordinate next steps. Maggie’s staff and long-time trans rights activist Monica Forrester began connecting with local shelters, hospitals, jails, and police to express concerns over Alloura’s disappearance. Monica had known Alloura since she was 17 years old, and was aware that Alloura was facing increasing challenges in finding affordable housing and employment – barriers that are all too common for Black and Indigenous trans communities due to rampant anti-Black racism and transphobia.

It was in this moment that our community at Maggie’s decided to take action and find Alloura.

At the time of Alloura’s disappearance, she was living between friends’ places and encampments along the Rosedale Valley and the Don River Valley. When Alloura’s father contacted Toronto police to report her missing, he was told the case wasn’t high priority. Specifically, Toronto police told him that people like Alloura are “transient ... they disappear and reappear all the time.” Police did not follow up and actively refused to file a missing persons report in July when she was initially reported missing. It was in this moment that our community at Maggie’s decided to take action and find Alloura.

The search for Alloura Wells

Between July and November of 2017, Monica and our community at Maggie’s launched a series of search parties, vigils, and demonstrations in her name. We took it upon ourselves to do this work because local police were so quick to mock and dismiss Alloura’s case. They cited her homelessness and her background in sex work, and discussed her “lifestyle” choices in thinly veiled, dismissive remarks that are all too familiar to sex workers looking to be taken seriously by law enforcement, political leaders, and other social service sectors.

When the federal response to sex work frames us as both exploited victims and active threats to the moral fabric of our communities, we find ourselves in a frustrating position where police are quick to mobilize around our presence – clearing us out of local strolls, ticketing and fining us at massage parlours and strip clubs, even booking and arresting us after physically and sexually assaulting us – but refuse to respond when we go missing or report violence.

What they didn’t count on was our collective power.

They didn’t anticipate how persistent we were, how sex workers were quick to call out their degrading remarks and mobilize on our own. They didn’t anticipate that sex workers would be able to shape public opinion and make direct appeals to the public for support. We descended on the downtown east, leaving flyers at local shops, bars, restaurants in the Church/Wellesley village, posting notices around Allan Gardens, Riverdale Park, and throughout the Rosedale Valley. We organized public search parties, calling on more privileged sex workers, our allies, and media to help us find Alloura and see for themselves how Toronto police were so quick to dismiss the disappearance of a friend and valued community member. We appealed to anyone with information to come forward directly to community advocates. Alloura’s family and friends came together to demand the Toronto police take the case seriously and invest time and resources into finding her – at the very least, open a missing persons investigation. But we also sent a clear message that in the absence of this time and attention from law enforcement and local political leaders, we’d do it ourselves.

But we also sent a clear message that in the absence of this time and attention from law enforcement and local political leaders, we’d do it ourselves.

Our weekly search parties grew quickly. In the first week, three of us from Maggie’s did a walk-through of Alloura’s last known location. In the weeks following, dozens came out to support the search, including local media outlets wondering why community members had to organize search parties over the well-resourced Toronto police. Search parties brought together friends, family, and broader communities – from other sex workers and activists to members of the public shocked by the lack of response from local police and political leaders. While we shared a collective sense of solidarity and commitment to demanding justice for Alloura, the mood at search parties was one of overwhelming frustration, sadness, and grief. The days were long, often running more than eight hours, and required a lot of climbing, crawling, sifting through trash, and trips through the Rosedale Valley and the Don River Valley. With every discovery – from boots to clothing to friends who saw her before her disappearance – we spent a great deal of energy holding out hope. Our search parties often began and ended in tears.

Toronto-based artist Donelle Fraser, who created art for the #JusticeForAlloura campaign, sold these prints to help raise funds for the search, memorial service, and burial.

On November 6, five months after her initial disappearance, Toronto police caved to public pressure and issued a missing persons report. A short while later a community member, Rebecca, contacted Maggie’s with news that she’d discovered a body in the Rosedale Valley and contacted police. The police did not issue a news release when the body was reported and did not release details to the public, as they normally would. Their spokesperson at the time maintained that they did this to gather evidence so that they could appeal to the public for assistance. Rebecca followed up multiple times with Toronto police to learn about developments, even reaching out to The 519 community centre on Church Street, who promised to have staff investigate. The 519 did not follow up with Rebecca or our community.

After seeing media coverage about search parties for Alloura, Rebecca reached out to us at Maggie’s directly. Despite Alloura’s father’s attempts to issue a missing persons report much earlier on, heavy news coverage of Alloura’s disappearance, and a community member notifying The 519, we had not been informed about this key development by police in the months of back and forth. Only after following up with police about Rebecca’s discovery did they agree to retest DNA and, on November 23, identified Alloura’s body. Police maintain that the cause of death can’t be determined, but estimate she died sometime in July.

We find ourselves in a frustrating position where police are quick to mobilize around our presence but refuse to respond when we go missing or report violence.

Alloura was 27 years old, and to this day we remember and honour her as someone with a big heart who cared deeply for the people around her and fought to live her life.

Maggie’s and Trans Pride Toronto organized a vigil for Alloura’s family and friends, and later a public memorial. The service took place at Sanctuary, a community drop-in space in the heart of the city. Around 30 people gathered in a circle around the memorial, as Alloura’s father spoke alongside Monica and Alloura’s old classmates, friends, and co-workers. It was a space to mourn her passing and to remember the joy she brought into the lives of so many. We did this because Alloura deserved to be remembered as the light that she was for our community. She deserved a memorial that allowed friends and family to truly honour her life, mourn her passing, and say goodbye in peace.

Sex workers resisting police violence: a question of life and death

When we talk about the impact of the criminal justice system, and the impact of experiencing police violence and being dismissed or disappeared by these systems, sex worker movements often find a lot of affected friends, family, and community organizing for justice while grieving the loss of loved ones. Too often we are forced to step in to demand justice for ourselves and our networks because no one else will – not police or lawmakers, not politicians and local councillors, and certainly not social service organizations caught up in bureaucracy or grand visions of “saving” us. Closure for people who knew Alloura Wells was something we were adamant about because her life mattered to us. In the midst of a legal system that criminalizes, violates, and discards sex workers, every move to interrupt and disrupt that process is an act of rebellion. Refusing to rest until we got answers on Alloura’s disappearance was an act of resistance and survival.

How police responded to Alloura’s disappearance clearly demonstrates whose life matters to the state and who police are out here to protect.

Following the memorial service, our work of demanding justice and a thorough review of the gross mishandling of the case by Toronto police was far from over. Alloura’s case was just one in a string of missing persons cases in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley area that police mismanaged. Other cases included the disappearance of community members Tess Richey, Andrew Kinsman, and Selim Esan. Maggie’s and the wider community’s demands for police accountability resulted in the launch of an independent external review of how local police handle missing persons cases. How police responded to Alloura’s disappearance clearly demonstrates whose life matters to the state and who police are out here to protect.

Maggie’s joined the working group to help represent the struggles of the trans and sex working community in their interactions with and efforts to gain assistance from law enforcement. Opportunities for our community to weigh in on police protocols are rare, and all too often tokenizing and exhausting for those who have already been traumatized by the system they are now being asked to help. The carceral system was built with the objective of disappearing oppressed groups and expanding colonial rule; it cannot be improved or reformed to support our communities. Queer and trans, Black and Indigenous communities of colour, poor and working-class populations, sex workers and drug users – we will always be targeted by a police force established to protect the rich and their property. The way forward isn’t a better police service with additional funding, more officers, or anti-racism training – it’s no police service. The way forward looks like total divestment from a billion-dollar police force and meaningful investments in community services and social safety nets.

Little has changed since 2017 in how local law enforcement treat queer and trans, Black and Indigenous communities of colour (QT/BICOC) sex workers. Our community’s well-being continues to be massively jeopardized by our criminal justice system. Overpolicing, racial and social profiling, police brutality, assault, and arbitrary arrests and detentions disappear sex workers each day. In our city, Black people are 20 times more likely than white people to be killed by police.

Monica Forrester of Maggie's Toronto talks to the press at the 2018 Trans March. Maggie's led the march as part of the Pride Toronto festivities in memory of Alloura Wells.

Sex workers are central to abolitionist movements

We believe in police abolition because we recognize that the institution of policing was conceptualized and operates with an intention to protect the wealthy, developers, and communities that thrive on the elimination of ours. Attempts to sanitize this call by asking to “defund” or “detask” police do not replace abolitionist politics or support sex worker justice movements in a meaningful way.

From the targeted harassment of street-active sex workers in Toronto’s downtown east, to Toronto police running undercover operations in strip clubs and massage parlours to coerce and entrap sex workers, police violence and the criminalization of our work is a major source of fear for many sex workers. The realities of this violence are disproportionately felt by Black and Indigenous sex workers, queer and trans sex workers – particularly trans women of colour, migrant sex workers, homeless sex workers, and street active sex workers. The power dynamic is something officers make clear to sex workers while patrolling local strolls, strip clubs, and massage parlours. Our experiences of physical and sexual violence from police officers are a terrifying reality – coercion, rape, and sexual violence to avoid tickets, fines, physical violence, and abuse.

The way forward isn’t a better police service with additional funding, more officers, or anti-racism training – it’s no police service.

Sex workers have been challenging police brutality and demanding abolition for decades. From the Stonewall riots, to feminist organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement, our communities, specifically QT/BICOC sex workers, have been deeply invested in creating, building, and growing modern struggles against the carceral state. More often than not, we build these struggles locally off of our own time, energy, and resources. We take on the billion-dollar force that is the Toronto Police Service as well as multi-million-dollar “rescue” industries, using our personal resources to ensure that no one gets left behind. At Maggie’s, we began street outreach in the early 1980s, using dollars from sex work to fund safe sex and drug use supplies for communities in Toronto’s downtown east. That program continues nearly 40 years later, providing sex workers with harm reduction supplies in a moment where crises around housing, homelessness, and overdose deaths converge. We refuse to let our communities be disappeared through police violence and the criminal justice system, just as we refuse to let our communities be disappeared through the violence of poverty, capitalism, gentrification, and displacement. We disrupt those processes through our outreach and harm reduction work, through extensive mutual aid networks, campaigns for decriminalization, and individual advocacy for sex workers in our communities.

When we call for the abolition of police, we call for the abolition of all carceral frameworks – a criminal justice system targeting our communities based on morally charged views of sex and sexuality; a prison industrial complex that disappears our communities and inflicts lasting, intergenerational trauma; a social service sector built on the politics of “rescuing” sex workers over listening to our communities. All of these industries work in tandem and further extend colonial, white supremacist politics. As movements for abolition and Black liberation enter mainstream discourses, we must recognize these struggles as a direct response to deeply traumatic histories of violence and genocide that have systematically terrorized Black and Indigenous communities.

Abolition is the only way forward because police are killing us, prisons are disappearing us, and our city is increasingly displacing and disposing of poor and working-class communities. For our people, this is a question of life and death. We call for the total abolition of carceral frameworks and investment in, by, and for projects that empower us to live on our terms.

This article was written on behalf of Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project.

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