I got interested in modern slavery soon after coming to Augustana College because I was disappointed with a student in my U.S. history survey course who kept whining about how she couldn’t believe that quote unquote WE stole the land of Native Americans and that SHE would have stopped the exploitation of Indians. When I pointed out that she was doing nothing to help Native Americans today and that they were still very much exploited, she shifted to abolitionism and complaining about what quote unquote WE did to Africans. Two minutes on Google allowed me to bash her over the head, metaphorically speaking of course, on that one too.
Only later did I realize that I should have thanked that student for awakening me to the notion that the study of history can do more than make us feel good or bad about the past, it can help us to change the future. Now I am the Academic Director of Historians Against Slavery and editor of “Slavery Since Emancipation,” a new book series being published by Cambridge University Press that publishes books that show that knowing something about the history of slavery and abolition can help activists today to reduce slavery worldwide.
The idea that slavery still exists in the world today may sound preposterous at first, but that initial incredulity evaporates when we reflect on North Korea or other totalitarian states that clearly condone political or Lockean slavery, i.e., the subjugation of people to the arbitrary will of some leader or his agents.
The notion that economic slavery persists to this day might seem strange at first, too, until one becomes aware of labor conditions in many Less Developed Countries, the politically correct term for what we used to call undeveloped or Third World nations.
Please note that I refer here not to sweatshops, which may or may not be staffed by persons working against their will, but to conditions like those depicted in the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leo DiCaprio, where workers are essentially abducted and forced to labor for others. That is very different from someone choosing to work in a factory for a pittance over selling fruit for half a pittance or not working at all.
What separates the slave from the non-slave is personal agency, or the ability, in other words, to choose a course for oneself, even if the alternatives do not appear very savory to the individual worker much less to rich world observers. To be a non-slave is not to have the God-like power to arrange the universe to one’s liking but to take the world as it comes and change between existing paths as one sees fit, not as directed by another. For example, I do not count myself a slave because I was too fat, slow, and weak-armed to play Major League Baseball. I am a non-slave because when confronted with the reality of my inability to consistently hit 90 mile per hour sliders I chose where to go next with my life. Some might even call that freedom but it certainly is not slavery.
That economic slavery exists in the United States, and even right here in Sioux Falls, surely must be false, right? How could anyone be forced to labor for another in the U.S. today? There are no cotton plantations in So. Dak., no slave coffles are observed on Louise Avenue, or even Minnesota Avenue, and no runaway slave notices appear in the Argus Leader. That is all true because chattel slavery was abolished throughout the United States, and indeed the entire world, by the end of the second half of the nineteenth century.
But as anyone who has ever scored some alcohol before age 21, or a little weed outside of certain states, or maybe smoked some crack with Toronto mayor Rob Ford knows, making something illegal does not eliminate it but merely forces it into new forms. Slavery never went away but transformed into debt peonage, convict labor, and sex trafficking. It is not as important economically as it once was but that does not make it right or reduce our moral obligation to free those currently ensnared.
Today, slavers keep their slaves hidden from open public view through a variety of techniques ranging from actual physical restraints to threats against family members to subtle psychological manipulation. Even in antebellum American slavery, most of the barriers to slave freedom were invisible, psychological rather than physical. Most slaves did not slay their masters or run for the North because slavers taught them that they were inferior and worked hard to deny them access to information that would aid rebellion or escape. Slavers do the same today.
Right here in Sioux Falls, in June of this very year, 37-year-old Carl Campbell of Sioux Falls received three life sentences plus 40 years after being convicted of luring minors and young adults into his power and forcing them to engage in commercial sex acts in the Sioux Falls area and elsewhere. That was one of three local cases cracked this year alone. How many are as yet undetected? Certainly more than zero because South Dakota’s sex trafficking laws have been ranked as the weakest in the nation and not all criminals are morons and hence will gravitate to where the likelihood and costs of getting caught are lowest.
Many of the prostitutes that service the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and some pheasant hunting lodges are trafficked. In other words, they are tricked, cajoled, bullied, and intimidated into selling sex and are not doing it of their own accord. Some are shipped in from other states or countries for those and other events while others are Native, with a capital N. For more details, see Be Free 58’s website, befree58 dot org.
Modern slavery entails more than sex trafficking. Slavers force people to do other sorts of work as well, usually low-skilled work. In 2007, for example, Robert and Angelita Farrell were convicted of forcing Filipinos to labor at their Comfort Inn and Suites hotel in Oacoma, which is just across the Big Mo from Chamberlain in case I pronounced it wrong. The enslaved Filipinos said that the Farrells controlled every aspect of their lives, including what they ate and where they lived as well as their working hours and tasks. The Farrells issued paychecks but then forced their slaves, under threat of turning them into federal immigration authorities, to endorse them back to the Farrells.
It doesn’t bother me when people work long, hard hours for what seems to be little pay so long as compensation is set fairly, which is to say by the market forces of supply and demand. But when employers steal from their workers by forcing them to accept below market wages they need to be stopped, fined, and imprisoned. And the victims, the enslaved individuals, need to be helped. That is where students like you can help the most, by providing resources to NGOs that interdict slavers and help victims to recover from their ordeals and to reduce their vulnerability to re-enslavement. Forming an Augie chapter of The Free Project, which is now part of Historians Against Slavery, is one way to do so. It is easy to do and the chapter itself gets to direct where every dollar it raises goes. Check it out at thefreeproject, all one word, dot org.Thanks! I can take a few questions.