PHILADELPHIA—Conscious rap artist Bigga Dre is a man on a mission. It’s a big mission and one that has been worked on for years: the continued battle to stop the abuse, trafficking and disappearances of Black women and girls. The Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t seem to have slowed the problem. And the isolation felt by many young people—along with danger in their homes, complicated family relations and prowling by online predators—may have helped make things worse.
Bigga Dre and other activists and advocates believe a combination of vigilance and tackling problems in Black households and neighborhoods, nonstop pressure on authorities to seek and save missing Black females, stronger and more awareness of laws related to disappearances and refusing to accept that these precious ones can be discarded are places to start. Getting the word out quickly when a girl or woman goes missing is also essential, they said.
“My goal is to show people that we’re living in a day and time that we need to hear the call and pay attention. Is this a pandemic or is it a plandemic?” he asked.
Bigga Dre, who is using his music to highlight the country’s constant undervaluing of Black females, pointed to an estimated 64,000-75,000 Black women and girls currently missing in America as an indicator of the depth of the problem. Those figures come from the Black and Missing Foundation.
“Human trafficking is just as serious as the coronavirus,” argued Bigga Dre. “People ignore the whole pandemic and the virus thing until it hits somebody in their family or them personally. So, I’m on a human trafficking prevention awareness campaign. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.
“What I want to do is promote awareness, to wake people up that this is not something that you should sit down on; it needs to be at the forefront. We need to go head-on with this, and we need to counteract it, and we need to put something in place to prevent the numbers from increasing.”
Earlier this year, the Green Party of the United States National Women’s Caucus called for a national task force to focus on solving the disappearances of Black women and girls. Caucus spokesperson Monica James said, “As Black women and girls go missing, and the media hardly gives coverage and the police do very little to solve their cases, the GPUS Women’s Caucus believes a national task force is required to address this issue.”
The task force would accurately collect and share data on missing Black women and girls and provide financial and logistical support to local government agencies in solving the disappearances, among other goals, said the Green Party women’s caucus.
Research shows Blacks make up a disproportionate number of missing persons, but Black women and girls reported missing are frequently inappropriately classified as runaways, which removes the sense of urgency in the response, said the caucus.
The Green Party women’s caucus also called for educating “local government agencies on stereotypes that prevent officials from taking disappearances of Black women and girls seriously” and more efforts to “seek input from the families of the missing Black women and girls to better understand the issue.”
Blacks make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2019 Census estimates, but statistics show that 33.8 percent of reports in 2019 were for missing Black people and the percentage of Blacks over the 37 years of active cases is even higher, the caucus noted.
“Min & Feaster, in their landmark 2010 study, found that missing Black children got 19.5 percent of news coverage about missing children despite accounting for 33.2 percent of cases. Other studies report the same results: White missing persons of all ages proportionately get far more media coverage than do Black missing persons,” said the caucus.
“Black people go missing about three times more often than might be expected based on population,” said the caucus. “But once a Black child or adult is missing, they are also a lot less likely to be found. A 2019 study by Jada L. Moss showed that ‘in 2016, African-American missing persons cases appeared amongst the remaining older and open cases four times as often as the cases of White and Hispanic missing persons,’ ” it added.
Alerting people to a serious problem
Peas In Their Pods, based in Snellville, Ga., is a program founded by Janice Lowery and Gaetane Borders, who also serves as president. The organization offers free services and advocates for missing children and their families, offering safety seminars and workshops, Rilya Alert System activation, missing poster creation and distribution, hosts community awareness events, organizes prayer vigils, serves as family spokespersons, contacts the media, conducts social media campaigns, counseling, contact with police, and organizes search groups.
Their Rilya Alert System, named after a four-year-old Rilya Wilson, who went missing in Florida while under the supervision of the state in 2001, allows anyone who has a missing child to load the information onto the group’s website, www.peasinapod.com. An alert will be sent to organizations and others in the group’s network to help find Black children, female or male, under age 18. The network lists the children by state and spreads the missing child’s photo and information through social media. One of the things the Rilya Alert System strives to do is get information and images about missing children out quickly.
Ms. Borders told The Final Call, the information is “transmitted to the public electronically, similar to the Amber Alert, but without their stringent criteria that can impede progress or immediate attention or action. The Rilya Alert is not meant to replace the Amber Alert System. It simply bridges the gap where the Amber Alert excludes or does not engage due to its criteria,” she explained. If a child or woman is considered a runaway, the Amber Alert is not issued by police agencies.
“There’s so many different factors, you know, but certainly one of the greater pieces of it is education and knowledge across the board, not only with people of color, but just in general because perception is reality. And what we found through the work that we do is that there isn’t a lot of knowledge and understanding of just how great and bad this issue is,” Ms. Borders said.
According to the Women’s Media Center in New York, Black girls comprise over 40 percent of domestic sex trafficking victims in the U.S. “While running away from physical and/or sexual abuse or economic deprivation, Black girls run into sexual predators preying on their vulnerabilities and capitalizing on the lack of collective outrage expressed when Black girls disappear. Runaways don’t get Amber Alerts, as those are reserved for abductees. No texts or sirens go out when these girls go missing,” the center explained.
“Systemic failures render Black girl runaways invisible and, more harrowingly, disposable. Their stories remain untold or unfairly chronicled as tales of juvenile delinquency and criminality. Black girls aren’t afforded the protection of childhood innocence,” the Women’s Media Center said.
Washington, D.C.-based Sudan Muhammad has worked on the problem of sex trafficking for years through her program Sudan’s Services of Love. There is a huge connection between missing girls and sex trafficking, she stressed. Once girls connect with pimps they are controlled, intimidated and used to recruit other girls, she added.
“We need to be more involved in our communities and listen to our young people,” advised Ms. Muhammad, who is a member of Muhammad Mosque No. 4 in the Nation of Islam.
“We see girls as young as 11 years old recruiting other girls then often they go missing. They need us to be open and not judgmental. Our young people need jobs and these pimps provide that. They can make hundreds of dollars doing sex movies. In order to address this issue, we need to create jobs as well as demonstrate love. We must develop safe places where they can get the help they need. We need to have open communication. The pandemic has only made the problem worse because it has increased the need for our children to support themselves financially,” said Ms. Muhammad. “These abductors they know what these children need. They listen, they listen to the cries. We have to start listening to our children and stop being judgmental. And like the Minister Farrakhan said, remember what you went through when you were younger.”
Black Women’s Blueprint, an organization that advocates for policy that supports Black women and girls, said “approximately 60 percent of Black girls are sexually assaulted before turning 18. Even conservative estimates indicate that at least 40 percent of Black girls are sexually victimized before their eighteenth birthdays. Running away from family situations or communities in which all forms of violence occur is not an uncommon response.”
The Women’s Media Center added that adult Black women often don’t fare much better than Black girls when they go missing. “As they do with Black girls, law enforcement often classifies Black women as runaways,” the center said. “Furthermore, Black women endure higher rates of sexual and physical violence than their White counterparts. They often encounter racist, sexist, and classist barriers when reporting violence and within the very systems and organizations established to support victims and survivors of violence. With few or no options for redress, Black women may feel compelled to leave violent and potentially deadly situations. Disconnecting from loved ones and their communities, they seek safety in a world too often perilous for those barely surviving on the margins.”
Congressman Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, recently held a forum on missing women. “Nationally, cases involving missing Black women remain open and unresolved four times longer—four times longer—than cases that are involving White and Hispanic Americans,” he said. He held the forum to gather more information, help highlight the problem and look at racial disparity in how the system responds.
“It remains clear to me that there is a lot more that can be done. A single missing woman or child, no matter their race, creed, or color, no matter what their zip code, is indeed an American tragedy. And America has to step up to the plate. But when most cases—and the majority of unsolved cases—involve Black women, some serious soul-searching needs to occur,” Rep. Rush said.
The danger also can go beyond sex trafficking when Black females vanish. The Chicago Tribune reported that at least 75 Black women, ages 18 to 58, have been strangled or smothered between 2001 and 2017 in the Windy City. Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, told The Final Call the rate for solving the murder of Black women in Chicago is well below that of the national average and falling. “The rate at which African American women are murdered in the U.S. is much, much higher than for any other race,” he said.
Forgotten by police, stalked by ‘keystroke gangsters’
Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, a Maryland-based organization that also increases awareness and exposure of missing persons of color, told The Final Call: “One problem is when Black teenagers are reported missing to the police they are classified as runaways, so they don’t receive needed attention given to victims designated with Amber Alerts which signify an abduction. We need to be vigilant as a community when it comes to missing adults and children. Often, their cases are classified as some sort of criminal activity. We’ve had issues where law enforcement didn’t even take the police reports in cases of missing Black and Brown women, children, and men.
“What we are finding is an uptick with missing Black girls during the pandemic. They are on the computer more and are being lured by predators. You don’t know what they’re going through at home, and there is a correlation between missing persons and domestic violence. So a lot of girls are turning to these ‘keystroke gangsters.’ You got people hiding behind their computers, and they’re saying any and everything and making these false promises. So many girls have taken the bait of these predators online, who are promising them an escape. We’ve dealt with a lot of girls being victimized and trafficked online,” said Ms. Wilson.
“There are multiple reasons Black girls and women go missing,” Ms. Wilson said. “What is needed is the coordination of supporting organizations like faith-based communities, a commitment to end homelessness, restructuring the foster care system, and using victim-centered models for ending sex trafficking, centering Black girls and women as victims of sexual and gender-based violence.”
Violence, abuse, strained relationships or other complicated issues in homes can be challenging. Children in the care of extended family sometimes feel abandoned or unwanted. Those feelings of alienation, loneliness or unmet or even undiagnosed mental health and emotional needs can leave them susceptible to emotional traps set by predators and abductors.
Denea Whitest of the well-respected Philadelphia-based violence prevention program Mother’s In Charge shared a heartbreaking story. A soon to be 18-year-old niece was victimized by a 60-year-old man through a chat app. According to Ms. Whitest, her niece went from a straight-A student to languishing in a shelter in upstate Pennsylvania for homeless youth and was a shell of her former self when found.
The story was almost a textbook case of the failure of various systems responsible for the niece’s care and protection, starting with unresponsive police when she disappeared, failed mental health services, and a broken child welfare system.
“The problems began at age 14. She started sneaking talking to people on a chat app,” Ms. Whitest recounted. “They made her believe, you know, it was better for her to be with them than be home with her parents, and the flood gates of deception opened. I had to become my own detective to find her.
“What people do not understand is the trauma these children go through at the hands of these predators. And I started speaking out, you know, I made my campaign. We call it ‘Bring Her Home.’ I got my neighbors and friends involved. My church family was an intricate part of getting the word out on Facebook, Instagram, flyers, and sharing my story about what was going on. I tried to hire a private detective.” Her campaign looking for her niece created so much heat that the pimp let her go to avoid getting caught.
“My niece has gone from an honor roll student who played multiple instruments and was recommended for the Philadelphia orchestra to a child sitting in a program without any family. Her life is ruined,” said Ms. Wilson. Her niece was sex trafficked for several years. Girls and women subjected to sex trafficking are often beaten, drugged and told they or family members will be harmed or killed.
Ms. Wilson sees holding elected officials accountable, changing policies and reporting laws and knowing how the system works and the language to use is essential. Saying the child ran away can mean the case drops to the lowest priority so stress might be laid on the fact that the child could face danger or has some other type of vulnerability.
“The community needs to know the reporting laws and advocate for laws that address our specific issues. As parents we cannot be our children’s friends. We need to know who they are interacting with on social media, we need to have those uncomfortable conversations at our homes, and this cannot be a one-time deal. I think it’s equally important, especially in the Black community, to involve our churches. They are a pillar of the community. We really need to get our faith-based community involved,” she said.
“We are stronger together. We need the media to be more proactive and the community more vigilant.”
Bigga Dre is looking to use technology and his music to help solve the problem. “We’re working on a comprehensive application that prioritizes melanated (Black) people. Many of us know about the Amber Alert; I would like to develop an app that prioritizes melanated people. We have to recognize that the helping hand that we’re looking for is at the end of our arm,” he said.
“In the studio, we have produced the song called ‘Eschatology (Bring Our Girls Back).’ I’m very intentional about this work. It’s not a song. It’s a public service announcement. I want people to take this music, create Tik Toks, use it for documentaries, and put it in films so it can be a soundtrack and a message that reverberates throughout the community, and people respond to the call. This is a call. This is, that’s why I named it eschatology. This is the end time, and it is now. We don’t have time to waste, and we need to remedy this,” Bigga Dre said.