Penny Matheson was alone in her office one day when a woman called, begging to be rescued. The caller said she'd been abducted into prostitution "and had finally gotten free of her captors," says Matheson, an administrative specialist at the Salvation Army's national headquarters near Washington, DC. Matheson and her colleague Lisa Thompson spearheaded the SA's Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking, a multidimensional program to raise awareness and, with the help of law enforcement, facilitate escapes. "I was smart enough to take a male coworker with me that day," Matheson says. "We drove over, picked the woman up, and brought her to safety." The most harrowing calls, she says, come from people whose partners have sold their own children: "I can't do anything about those except pray."
The United Nations estimates that some 700,000 people are trafficked over international borders every year, most of them women, most for sexual purposes. But it's a multibillion-dollar homegrown crime too. "Traffickers prey on teenage kids at the mall," Matheson says. "I don't want to leave my daughters or even my son out of my sight for one minute." Far from being just a thrift-shop operator, the Salvation Army is an actual church, founded in London's East End in 1865. "It has always been our mission to reach out and help 'the least of these,'" Matheson says, borrowing a phrase from the Book of Matthew. The SA's founders "used to go into brothels and rescue the women. These days, with organized crime, it's more dangerous. But that's why we exist, to help people in need — and I can't think of anybody more in need" than sex slaves. "I used to think the worst thing in the world would be to be homeless, but this is far worse."
The SA's third annual Weekend of Prayer and Fasting for Victims of Sexual Trafficking is set for September 26-28. "Let's lift our petitions to God to free the captives, end exploitation," reads the colorful flier, on which praying hands are superimposed over images of women posing outside a Hustler Club.
But beware of where and how you spend that weekend. A Kensington resident called the cops recently to report a "person reading Bible in front of home." Danger! Danger!
In June, a vandal or vandals repeatedly slashed the irrigation system in the Edible Garden at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Middle School — a project founded by Chez Panisse's Alice Waters and aimed at teaching kids to grow, harvest, prepare, serve, and eat organic produce. Never caught, the slashers are at it again, attacking the garden's hoses on August 25 and August 31. BPD has "no suspects," reports Officer Andrew Frankel. Possible motives remain puzzling. Does the perp hate MLK — or organic produce?
Poke 'em in the eyes, she says. Go for the throat. If they're high on drugs, assailants might not even feel pain, so rather than try hurting them, "take out their eyes, their larynxes, their knees," asserts Oakland attorney/private investigator/martial artist Lori Wallerstein, who teaches women to fight back via her Practical Self Defense Project, Inc. (The first class has a fee; refreshers are free.) Despite skyrocketing East Bay crime, women in denial "build a psychological wall around themselves. They don't want to think it might happen to them. But one out of every three women in America will be sexually assaulted before the age of 22. If you heard that statistic but didn't hear the word 'women,' you'd think we were at war here. You'd say, 'What? One out of every three people will be physically and mentally traumatized? That's outrageous.'" Predators, Wallerstein says, "aren't looking for fights. They're looking for victims. It's their full-time job." The first step toward safety? "Keep your iPod out of your ears," look, and listen: "Bad guys don't just drop out of the sky." Assessing possible prey, "predators will usually do what I call 'interviews' — asking, 'Excuse me, do you have the time?' or "Hi, how are you?'"
What happens next often happens very fast. "If he just wants your wallet, give him your wallet. If he wants more, if he starts to pistol-whip you" — protect your head and don't freeze. Wallerstein says she likes walking down the street looking at various men and wondering, "How would I dismantle him?" She urges her students to try it: "Every day, pick two or three people — suits, thugs, whatever. And think: If he kicked me, if he tried to strangle me, what would I do? Strangulations are pretty easy to get out of, actually." Ninety percent of self-defense is psychological, says Wallerstein, who can be contacted about lessons at email@example.com. She relishes recounting the tale of one young woman who deflected a would-be date rapist "by picking her nose and wiping it on his car seat."
Is this an election year or what? A woman called Walnut Creek cops to report "ongoing problems with her neighbor," reads the log for August 24. This neighbor, who accuses the caller of being a spy, "was wearing a tin foil hat tonight." As do so many.
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