By Elizabeth Joy
He thrust his knife toward her arm, leg and torso, convincing her he was going to stab her with it. He said repeatedly that he might as well kill her. It would be his third strike anyway, so if he got caught he would take her out with him.
Her pimp thought Brianna Williams, 18 at the time, had talked to another sex trafficker and became violent. High on crack, he pretended to stab at her with a knife, over and over again, torturing and beating her.
These 24 hours of torture, as Williams refers to it now, made her realize she had to escape. It was her only way to stay alive.
When Williams was 15 years old, she unknowingly connected with this man in an online chat room. After months of being manipulated by him showering her with attention and compliments, she finally ran away from home to be with him.
Williams’ story is a perfect example of what is referred to as “Romeo Pimping,” a growing manipulation tactic used by exploiters to lure young girls into human trafficking, also referred to as the sex industry.
Now that she has escaped the life, Williams, now 23 years old, is transforming her life. She connected to Love Never Fails, an outreach in the East Bay that rescues and cares for victims of human trafficking, shortly after escaping her perpetrator at 18 years old.
Williams was introduced to Vanessa Russell, founder of Love Never Fails, who loved and encouraged her throughout her healing journey. She has been advocating ending human trafficking ever since.
Williams has been passionate about publicly sharing her story with others at events, and college campuses, so that she can bring awareness. Her story inspires her peers, who have a heart for social justice and want to bring an end to this social disease that has infiltrated the Bay Area.
Williams’ hope is to prevent younger, vulnerable youth from experiencing her same plight. She knows all too well how easily one can be caught up in the traps that are laid by predators, preying on America’s children and youth.
Romeo Pimps typically exploit young girls, showering them with attention and affection before forcing them into sexual slavery. This is a commonly used tactic by pimps to lure children and young women into the sex trade industry in the Bay Area, where human trafficking has become rampant.
Once in their grasp, these Romeos turn into villains, using manipulation, threats and brutality to control their victims and force them to have sex with other men to make money. They control through secrecy as well. When a victim is isolated and kept silent, they are easier to manipulate.
In Dixie Jordan’s article, “So Young: Oakland’s Romeo Pimps Lure Teen Girls,” she explains how Romeo Pimping has become a dangerous vehicle that traffickers use.
In the article, Barbara Loza-Muriera, a facilitator of the Alameda County’s Sexually Exploited Minors Network, says that “guerilla pimps,” who kidnap girls, holding them against their will by force are a problem, but Romeo Pimps have become increasingly more threatening to our society.
“Romeo Pimps go through a calculated process that fosters an entrenched combination of fear and trauma bonding,” Muriera said.
She goes on to explain the five steps that Romeo Pimps take to manipulate the girls: recruitment, seduction, isolation, coercion and violence.
“They go after girls who aren’t just running from something but who are looking for it, and they capitalize on the adage that negative attention is still attention,” Murera said.
Holly Joshi, a former Oakland Police Officer who once served on the human trafficking task force, is now currently the executive director of MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Exploited Youth) an organization who helps human trafficking victims in the East Bay.
Joshi said, “One recruitment tactic is to go to a mall and compliment girls who walk by.”
The ones who are dismissive — or just say “thank you” and go on their way — are not the ones the pimps want. The girls who light up at the compliment or stop to chat are the ones the pimp will offer to buy a meal for or otherwise try to get to know, she said.
“Eventually the girls are both terrified of and attached to their pimps,” Joshi said. “They think they’re in real, romantic relationships with them, even though they know the pimps have the same relationship with many other girls.”
“They’re the most manipulative criminals I’ve ever come in contact with,” said Joshi, whose police work has involved serving on Drug Enforcement Agency task forces dealing with Latino drug-dealing gangs. “They’re the most hardcore, manipulative, callous criminals.”
The breakdown in Williams’ life started early on when she was three years old being sexually abused by men around her, beginning a cycle of sexual abuse in her life.
After running away from her home in Sacramento when she was 13 years old, she was captured by three older boys, aged 16 to 21. She was gang-raped and beaten for three days before finally being released.
In Williams’ case, she had a loving, supportive mother, yet the multiple traumas caused complex behavior problems for Williams, and she continued to run away.
At age 15 Williams connected to the older man who would become her exploiter in the online chat room. After talking on the phone for months, emotionally coercing her through flattery and attention, they met up.
Williams was eventually arrested again for running away. Once released, she was out on house arrest with an ankle monitor. She wanted to stay home, but the man she saw as her boyfriend demanded she reconnect with him a few days after her release.
Driving to her house, Williams got in his car. He cut off the ankle monitor and took her from Sacramento, where she lived, to San Francisco and Oakland when she was 16 years-old.
Once in the Bay Area, after the honeymoon stage, her “boyfriend” informed Williams she needed to pitch in and demanded she sell her body.
Using threats that he would kill her as well as actual beatings, he controlled her and made her his bottom girl or “main.” In Williams’s case drug addiction never entered the scenario, as fear was enough of a motivator to control her. He sold her online and made her walk the streets to sell herself.
Williams escaped when her trafficker was arrested for an unrelated charge. “I finally built up enough courage to leave the house I was being kept in while he was incarcerated. I knew that it was now or never, that this might be my only chance,” Williams said.
Williams was still vulnerable to the sex industry, including the manipulation and coercion of traffickers, even though she had a support system. Being fatherless, Williams had a deep need for male attention as she grew up. As a result, she was victimized from a very young age, which groomed her to be overly sexually curious during the years that followed.
There are no proven safeguards against these crimes. Need for healthy male attention was the main contributing factor of her vulnerability to be victimized. Fortunately, because of her mother’s love, Williams had a strong desire to live and was determined that she would escape or die trying.
Williams believes that it’s important to bring awareness about this issue and that doing so will bring help for those trapped on the inside of this industry. More often than not, victims of trafficking are not able to seek out help or feel they cannot because of fear.
Williams is also currently the entrepreneur her mother taught her she could be. She has started a company called Catrina’s Popcorn, a gourmet popcorn business, and will soon launch a company that sells business start-up kits.
Williams also drives for Uber part-time, often returning to the Bay Area and driving in San Francisco and Oakland, where her sex trafficking journey began. Last winter she happened to get a call and wound up saving two young women, who had come to “The City” to party, from being kidnapped and forced into the industry she fought to escape. After talking with them for hours, they returned safely to their parents. As a result, Williams will soon be speaking at the college the women attend in the Bay Area.
Escaping from a trafficker, like Williams did, is rare. That’s why doing street outreach programs like Russell’s Love Never Fails does, is so important. Love never fails is dedicated to the restoration, education and protection of those involved in or at risk of becoming involved in domestic sex trafficking.
Last semester, fall of 2017, Las Positas College and Christ in Action Club hosted a speaking event with Freedom House, an anti-human trafficking center in San Francisco, which cares for those victimized by sexual exploitation.
The hope filled response from the students who attended ignited the idea to continue to bring more awareness, working towards ending human trafficking in the Bay Area just to start, by taking this to other community colleges in the area around the Bay Area starting with LPC.
Williams will be representing Love Never Fails, advocating for change at Chabot College May 21, 2018, hosted by For the Cross Club. The event will start at 6 p.m. with free pizza and discussions with the speakers, followed by the speaking event 7 to 8:30 p.m.
President of the club, For the Cross, Luke Williams, wants this to be a campus-wide event and hopes students make change to end this social injustice.
LPC is currently planning on having Williams and Love Never Fails here next semester with the Black Student Union Club hosting. An expert panel with speakers made up of advocates and representatives from other anti-human trafficking organizations in the Bay Area will be there to answer questions from student attendees at both events.
The overall purpose of the upcoming speaking events is to motivate thought, stir up action, and bring unity between the community college campuses on social reforms.