About 100 people marched through downtown Spokane Thursday with yellow and blue balloons, chanting “Shine your light, join the fight.”
The group was out in support of the newly formed Spokane chapter of Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, a nonprofit that aims to end human trafficking worldwide.
Erin Tingey, team coordinator for the chapter, led the march. The group met for World Against Trafficking in Persons Day, joining in marches led by OUR chapters across the country.
The larger nonprofit has rescued 3,800 victims and assisted in the arrests of more than 2,100 traffickers around the world in the past six years of its existence, according to the OUR website.
Tingey said the local chapter’s initial goals are to raise awareness in the area and raise money to support people who have just been rescued from trafficking, so they can afford school supplies and clothes.
Groups like OUR are desperately needed in Spokane, where hundreds of minors are being trafficked right under the city’s nose, she said.
“It’s real and it’s here and it could be your neighbor,” Tingey said.
Tracy Martin, who said she wasn’t part of OUR but would be by the end of the day, housed a girl who had been trafficked in Spokane. She got the opportunity to help the girl through her church, The Gathering House.
Martin said it seems mainstream media misses reports of sex trafficking, even though it’s a prevalent crime.
Janea Christensen, a volunteer for the chapter, said she worked the booth at the clocktower in Riverfront Park because trafficking seems to be a “silent epidemic.” She said she was horrified when she learned from a police officer how frequently sex trafficking happens in Spokane. The booth she worked offered flyers and posters that read, “I’m an abolitionist because …” and was designed for people to fill out and post on social media.
The phrases “abolitionist” and “underground railroad” recall slavery because prostitution is almost always a form of slavery, Tingsey said.
She recalled friends saying things like, “It’s sad, but if you’re going to prostitute yourself that’s your fault.”
But Tingsey said that’s not the case.
She said only about 2% of trafficked women “prostitute themselves,” while the majority are being trafficked by pimps and have no control over their lives. She said the average person being trafficked in Spokane is between 12 and 14.
Tingsey said she’s wanted to help bring OUR’s fight to Spokane for over five years, but the details of trafficking were too horrible for her to face at that time.
“I couldn’t sleep, I had a baby. I just thought, ‘Someone else needs to do this,’ ” Tingsey said. “But now it’s like, no one else is doing it. So yeah, it’s hard to hear about, but it’s harder to live through.”