Cleveland Braced for Rise in Sex Trafficking During Republican National Convention

City spent six months preparing for an increase in trafficking during Republican gathering, but true scale will only be known in weeks and months ahead.

Confetti and signs fill the floor after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 21, 2016.
John Locher/AP

CLEVELAND – As with any significant influx of visitors to a city, the Republican National Convention in Cleveland – which drew 5,000 visitors to the Ohio city this week – created a market for sexual services, and local aid groups were prepared for an increase in trafficking during the convention.

Specialists feared that women would be brought to Cleveland from all over the United States, and that disadvantaged local women could also fall into the hands of traffickers. Their fears were compounded by Cleveland’s history of high crime, unemployment, poverty and drugs, which created fertile ground for exploitation and trafficking of women and girls.

Since January, a multidisciplinary group of agencies working under the umbrella name Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking – comprising almost 30 social organizations, support centers for rape victims, and centers fighting human trafficking – had been preparing (in coordination with the police) to deal with the expected rise in trafficking during the convention, provide aid to victims in hospitals or housing if needed.

“Human trafficking happens in Cleveland every day. But with many people [visiting] the city, [this] means demand will rise and traffickers in women will increase the supply to meet the demand. We fear women will be brought to Cleveland from other cities and other states,” Sondra Miller, the president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, told Haaretz earlier this week.

The Crazy Horse Cabaret is only a short walk from the Quicken Loans Arena where the Republican convention took place. The club hoped to make a lot of money during the gathering. “It’s all hands on deck – we’ve canceled all vacations, ordered in extra stock of alcohol, food, everything,” the club’s general manager, Jeff Kallam, told The Daily Beast last week. “Republicans love strippers, so we’re just hoping to make some money,” he added.

Other clubs in the area made their own preparations – some promising strippers in special costumes with Republican party themes. Others offered privacy, which might have proved even more tempting to convention delegates. “We are fully staffed the whole week. We are an upscale gentleman’s club and will remain that way throughout the convention,” Hustler Club Cleveland – one of the most popular strip clubs in the city – told Haaretz. “The best part of this business is discretion. It’s like [Las] Vegas here. What happens here, stays here,” he added.

Scandals in which politicians hire prostitutes make the headlines occasionally, but it’s hard to guess whether the names of those who were looking for sexual services this week will be exposed. It’s extremely difficult for sex workers or victims of sexual trafficking to look for help, says Miller – especially when the clients involved are rich or influential, and whose exposure could cost them their political careers.

“All of our hotlines are completely anonymous, because it can be extremely difficult to report what is happening when a high-profile person is involved,” said Miller. “We can provide a safe space, and even if they choose not to report [it] to the police, we can still provide assistance and a safe way to receive resources.”

To fight trafficking during the convention, local organizations launched an educational and public relations campaign in the hotels where the delegates were staying, advising the public of telltale signs that women are being forced to work in prostitution against their will or because of pimps.

“If you see a young woman with a much older boyfriend, or people don’t seem to have a lot of control over where they go, when they go, who they are talking to, and another person in their presence is really the one controlling the situations, it could be a sign of human trafficking,” are some of the instructions given to hotel employees and the general public.

The final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 21, 2016.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

“We also advise people to look for branding tattoos, a tattoo that may not make sense – for example, have a combination of letters and numbers, or a reference to ‘Daddy’ that may suggest the person belongs to someone else,” it added.

“Our efforts are not just focused on the city of Cleveland,” added Miller. “We know that, even two hours from the city, hotels are booked with people attending the convention, and we believe that in the entire geographic area there is a potential for human trafficking to happen. We are particularly interested in hotels and motels located around the interstate area, which is a convenient place for traffickers to meet.”

But it may take a while to assess the scale of trafficking that occurred in Cleveland, with the rape crisis center bracing to receive calls in the weeks ahead: Victims, or those who witnessed crimes, may seek help now the convention has left town.

“We are expecting a lot of reports to come in in the weeks or even the months after the convention,” said Miller, adding, “With these types of crimes, most of the reports only come after the fact.”