My mother has a platitude for every occasion. One favorite is “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
I thought about that saying as I read this piece on prostitution arrests in Honolulu. I have no doubt that some of the people pressuring the Honolulu PD to make prostitution a priority think they are doing a good thing. And I understand how someone hears about really awful trafficking stories and wants to do something about it. But the end result of their pressure is that a bunch of women are getting arrested, sometimes on multiple occasions. They even published some of their names in the paper. How the hell is that supposed to help the women that they are supposedly so concerned about?
The paper notes that, in nine months, the police have arrested only one pimp. An associate dean at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explains why:
A prostitution arrest is very easy. You can do that quickly. You can go out on the street or go on Craigslist and get the individuals involved. But to get the pimp, it is harder to make that case.
Let’s set aside the fact that a whole lot of prostitutes don’t have pimps. It is an absolute truism that the law goes after the easiest pickings. If a six month investigation will result in one arrest of someone with a good attorney (who will probably get them off), but one afternoon on the corner can result in multiple arrests of people who can’t afford an attorney, who do you think most police departments pursue?
Back in 2004, a report was prepared for the Racial Disparity Project in Seattle. Like in the rest of the country, blacks and Latinos in Seattle were being incarcerated at higher rates than whites. The researchers set out to determine why. They found that the Seattle PD focused on downtown areas where crack was sold, ignoring areas where white people were selling heroin. The researchers found no “racially neutral” explanation for the disparities. In other words, the police were targeting the black community. It is always going to be the people with the least status who are targeted by the laws. Always.
I know I have written about this before when I talked about Over Reliance on the Law and Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You, but I just keep coming up on the same mental block. People see something horrible and they feel like they would be a bad person if they did nothing. And the only thing they can think to do is pass a law or call an authority or violate a person’s rights in some way. If to save one person, you hurt ten (or ten thousand), what the hell good does that do?
I was recently contacted by one of my friends, we’ll call her Carrie. Carrie is worried about one of our mutual friends who is going through a really rough time right now. Bad stuff. Deaths and illnesses and breakups and generally more than anyone can really handle. Our friend, we’ll call her Sandy, is not necessarily utilizing the most healthy coping mechanisms. (Neither would I be, but that’s another tale.) Carrie wants to do something to save Sandy from herself. I get it. I love Sandy. She is family to me.
But trying to save people from themselves almost always goes horribly wrong. It is how you get prostitutes being jailed in the name of saving people from sex work. It is how you get minority drug addicts being jailed in the name of saving people from drug addiction. And it is how you get women being institutionalized against their will in the name of “helping” them.
I’m not suggesting that we all just think about ourselves and do nothing about suffering. If someone asks me for help, and I can give it, I will. If someone says that something I do hurts them, and I can stop it, I do. If I see injustice and I have the ability to call it out, I will. If I can be there for a friend, not judging them or telling them how to live their life, I’m there.
I realize that means that I will sometimes have to watch people that I love hurt themselves. And that sucks. But we can’t save anyone but ourselves. We can’t prevent one another from experiencing pain. We can be there to lean on. We can be kind to people. We can make people laugh. We can remind people about the parts of life that don’t suck. We can forgive people their imperfections.
We can respect that the road that they are on may be the one that they need to travel, even if it is long and ugly and dangerous. Because really, in the end, all those roads end in the same place.