Several weeks ago, the Asheville-Buncombe Drug Commission barraged my neighborhood with a series of peculiar posters. Full color, they clung to every other tree and pole leading up Hanover Street and into the concrete horizon of the Pisgah View Apartments.
The commission apparently intended the trail of posters as a public-service announcement for female pedestrians in the area, which is to say primarily black and/or underprivileged women. And the posters are certainly eye-catching, with a blaring red background and a picture of a conventionally attractive woman in a tight, white minidress positioned at its center. A man in a sporty car with a European plate leans over the passenger seat, poised to make his proposition. Wearing spiky black heels, the woman bends toward the car, back arched like a cat. Her hair hangs loose, covering her face. In letters that perfectly match the woman’s dress, the posters proclaim, “It’s Scary What You Will End Up Selling For Your Hard Drugs.” And beneath the photograph: “Stop. Find a better way.” And in even smaller letters: “Asheville cares about the harm of hard drugs. We’re fighting back, together.”
Upon viewing the posters, perhaps one sex worker, one drug-addicted individual, will kick off her 4-inch stilettos and run to the Drug Commission’s doors. But wait: There are no doors to open. The poster gives no physical address, nor phone number, for the group of folks who meet for one hour once a month to discuss how to reduce crime in city neighborhoods.
Beyond the commission’s cliched messages, why did the group choose such a glamorized depiction of prostitution, which humiliates rather than educates their target audience — and, in the process, has alienated nearly every woman in the neighborhood. There are all too few resources for women and girls at risk. A commission formed to reduce hard-drug use should at least use its poster campaign to provide a list of what resources there are (preferably with toll-free numbers), rather than assaulting us with offensive propaganda.
We have to assume that the commission members are well-meaning folks who ultimately care about the future of Asheville’s underprivileged residents. But the group’s approach to “fighting back” ignores the true problems that lead people into drug abuse or sex work. The poster’s message lumps together these often-separate issues. And it’s a disgraceful way to treat people who may well be survivors of childhood abuse, poverty, institutional racism and sexism, and/or a lack of access to jobs that pay a living wage.
According to the Our Voice Web site, at least 75 percent of people who turn to prostitution were sexually and physically abused as children. Clearly, there are deeper issues here. Yet the Drug Commission’s symptomatic tactics fall short of addressing the crises that steer women and men down the path of sex work and/or drug addiction. Of course people who live in impoverished communities historically and strategically cut off from the rest of the city will survive by whatever means possible. But is anyone offering a better option than a glossy, 11-by-17 poster?
A few years ago, I tutored a group of 11- to 12-year-old kids in an after-school program. Many of them lived in public housing, and I watched them wrestle not only with hormones and puberty, but with their ultimate struggle to define themselves beyond the limited identity imposed upon them by our culture’s social hierarchy. Now, I imagine one of those girls waiting at the school-bus stop and the forced confrontation with the Drug Commission’s mixed and irresponsible message. Will the girl become aware of her own vulnerability to some grown man’s propositions? Does she wonder whether, standing alone at the corner, she appears to be for sale? Does the Drug Commission wish to assume responsibility for steering her toward adulthood? And how do I explain the poster’s meaning to my own 9-year-old daughter?
If the Drug Commission wants to experiment with ways to enhance the quality of life for the Pisgah View neighborhood, perhaps they would consider a different strategy. And if they wish to don the heroic cape, put the bad guys behind bars, and rescue the ladies in distress, we can open the can of applause and pat them each on the back.
But pathological social issues will not be addressed by a lady in a sexy white dress or a man in a shiny car. And so I ask the Asheville-Buncombe Drug Commission whether “fighting back” is meant to shame the drug addict and the sex worker? To condemn them without offering a single positive resource?
The posters at the top of Hanover have since disappeared (coincidentally, there are lots of properties for sale on this portion of the street). But they’re still visible from the foot of the Pisgah View Apartments onward. Hanging these offensive posters in poor black communities is distressing to young and old alike. Please think again: How do we “stop”? And what is the “better way”?
[Tamiko Murray — a freelance writer, community activist and mother — is working to complete her first collection of short stories.]