A joint effort between the State and the City of New Orleans has now shuttered five strip clubs in the French Quarter, including Rick’s Cabaret and Rick’s Sporting Saloon, both of which are owned by French Quarter Business Association President Robert Watters. For now, nobody knows exactly what the alleged violations were, and that information will not be released until hearings on the temporary suspensions are held on February 6th.
It’s not abnormal to have routine crackdowns on strip clubs in New Orleans, but having one this close to Mardi Gras is certainly an escalation. The Rick’s clubs, which lease their name from the corporate chain, have also never been closed for violations before.
State laws regulating strip clubs tend to be stricter than anything New Orleans usually enforces. One state law requires dancers to be three feet away from patrons, although New Orleans clubs normally allow lap dances. Another law provides that dancers may only perform on a raised stage, although New Orleans clubs routinely have “VIP rooms” that allow for private dances. It is unclear whether the state is beginning to enforce these restrictions.
Whatever the violations were, the crackdown is being broadly interpreted as a crackdown on the adult entertainment industry and the freewheeling culture of Bourbon Street and New Orleans in general. Also, as reported by the Advocate, the raids were not well-received by many, particularly staff and exotic dancers at the clubs:
The raids were condemned Saturday by Michelle Rutherford, a civil rights lawyer working with the Bourbon Association of Responsible Entertainers, a group formed to support employees at French Quarter strip clubs.
“It’s unfortunate that sensationalized claims of sex trafficking in the clubs have turned NOPD and the ATC into political pawns,” Rutherford said in an email. “As with prior raids, not a single trafficking victim was uncovered. This is not a good use of precious law enforcement resources. NOPD should be allowed to focus on real threats to public safety.”
A waitress at Rick’s who asked to remain anonymous said in a statement provided by Rutherford that during the raid, officers potentially put employees at risk by reading out their full names in front of customers as the workers provided their identification.
Also, the group of officers involved in the operation included only one woman, meaning male officers stood guard in the dressing room as the women changed, despite loud protests from the women, the waitress said.
If these reports are true, it would not seem that the raids were being carried out for the benefit of dancers.
The lack of concern for the women who work for these clubs is curious given the fact that the catalyst for the raids was a sudden interest in sex trafficking. Strip clubs were placed city’s crosshairs last fall when the Times-Picayune ran a three-part series on alleged sex-trafficking in New Orleans. Governor Edwards followed up by hosting nine summits around the state to address efforts to combat human trafficking. For a while, it seemed that politicians and the media were in a virtual tizzy about sex trafficking.
However, the Times-Picayune series that started the fracas was heavily sensationalized and failed to actually implicate strip clubs as being a part of the problem. As noted in a piece by Melissa Grant that appeared last November in Injustice Today, the Times-Picayune series included virtually nothing that connected sex trafficking to strip clubs. “[I]n a nearly 12,000 word series on trafficking, the third story — the only story that is actually about potential trafficking in a strip club — occupies only 244 words,” Grant wrote.
Alas, the faux crisis still spurred policymakers to action. Mayor Landrieu quickly hired Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee attorney who specializes in defending cities in connection with adult business regulations, to review city laws and “provide proposed modifications to the city code in the form of draft ordinances and related materials.” Bergthold, who has been dubbed an “anti-adult industry crusader,” is a strong social conservative and graduate of Pensacola Christian College and Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School. Needless to say, he is a very strange bedfellow for a doctrinaire liberal like Landrieu.
Now that Landrieu has followed up with raids on strip clubs, one begins to wonder what the ultimate goal is here. Harassing strippers and shuttering strip clubs has little connection to sex trafficking, but it surely promotes a more sanitized vision for New Orleans.
It’s an open secret that many mayors gaze jealously at cities like New York that have attracted wealthier residents and rehabilitated gritty but iconic spaces into clean, family-friendly attraction. Times Square, once an urban jungle rife with peep shows and strip clubs, was transformed under Giuliani and his successors into a giant, tightly-regulated pedestrian mall. I have little doubt that some people, including Landrieu, view something akin to that as the future of Bourbon Street.
I, for one, prefer to appreciate Bourbon Street for the adult playground it is. New Orleans is not New York, and will ultimately fail if it tries to regulate its way to some bland version of prosperity. At the very least, I would prefer for policymakers be honest about their agenda to stop pretending that they’re helping the very people they’re hurting. Most people are not fooled anyway.