Shamere McKenzie was a college student struggling to pay her tuition when she met her trafficker in 2005. He was a charismatic man who lured McKenzie into a relationship, promising to help and give her an opportunity to safely and quickly earn money by dancing for clients. Instead, he forced her into prostitution for two years.
McKenzie’s story began in Manhattan, New York where she encountered her trafficker (and pimp). His politeness and ability to initiate stimulating conversations drew McKenzie’s attention, and they met frequently. Soon thereafter, McKenzie became attracted to him and started to trust him with more personal information about herself and her financial struggles. At the time, McKenzie was on a student athlete scholarship at St. Johns University but due to an injury, had to find another way to pay off her remaining tuition balance.
The trafficker swiftly offered her a way: dance for clients and move into his apartment to save rent money. Seeing no other alternative and knowing that other girls danced to finance their education, McKenzie agreed. The trafficker bought a dress and shoes for McKenzie and took her to a New Jersey strip club. At the club, the trafficker assured McKenzie that she only had to dance and would have no physical contact with the customers. Within a couple of hours dancing, McKenzie made $300. Excited that she’d be able to stop dancing as soon as she made the $3,000 she needed, McKenzie went with her trafficker to a house in Brooklyn, New York. At the house, McKenzie offered dances to the men but was taken aback when one of the men demanded oral sex. McKenzie began yelling at the man, and the trafficker immediately pulled her aside and began choking her.
McKenzie argued that she was prepared to dance, not engage in sex, and she tried to leave. The trafficker punched her in the face, kicked her and threatened to kill her family if she left. McKenzie blacked out and woke up the next day lying in a puddle of urine on her trafficker’s kitchen floor. She began to cry, and her trafficker came in to console her and apologize. He promised that he would never hurt her again. The next day, the trafficker beat McKenzie when she tried to intervene in the beating of one of the other girls in the house.
Looking for a way out of the abuse, McKenzie ran away the next month and stayed with her uncle. Though she physically escaped, McKenzie was still trapped by fear. She remained in contact with her trafficker, and he threatened to hurt her family if she called the police or refused to come back. Within two weeks of escaping, McKenzie returned to her trafficker; upon return, she was brutally raped and sodomized. These abuses convinced McKenzie that she had no choice but to comply.
McKenzie recounts, “From the very first beating when I was choked to the point of unconsciousness until the day he pulled the trigger on the miraculously unloaded gun in my mouth, I knew obedience meant survival. When he placed the gun in my mouth and asked me if I wanted to die, I shrugged. I thought, ‘Finally, this pain and this life would be over and the only one hurt is the one who was responsible for me being in the situation - me!’ The trigger was pulled but I was still alive. For a few moments, I thought I was experiencing death with the ability to still see life, until I felt the blows to my head by the gun."
“This was when I realized there was no hope. I had to continue this life of being obedient to him so my family wouldn’t get hurt, as he reminded me each day. I was alive, but was not living. I was a slave.””
Because McKenzie was afraid of her trafficker, she fulfilled all of his demands. Eventually, he came to trust her and use her for other purposes. For example, she drove girls across state lines. These trips, in turn, gave McKenzie opportunities to flee. When they were in Dallas, Texas McKenzie ran away for the second time but returned shortly thereafter. While they were in Miami, Florida, McKenzie turned to members of a Jamaican gang. The gang members agreed to help McKenzie escape from and kill her trafficker. However, when it came time to attack her trafficker, McKenzie had a change of heart. Furious that she’d changed her mind, one of the gang members raped her and dropped her off at a hotel.
After that incident, McKenzie desperately tried to think of ways to leave her trafficker. Thinking that the trafficker would let her go if she didn’t meet her quota, McKenzie began to see fewer clients. The decrease in profits caught the trafficker’s attention, and one day he confronted McKenzie. McKenzie told him that she wanted to leave, and he replied that he would give her $5,000 and that she was free to leave. After that conversation, the trafficker moved to retrieve his gun, and fortunately, McKenzie was able to run away. They were living in a gated community, and one of their neighbors saw her frantically running in the street. After telling her neighbor that she was trying to escape an ex-boyfriend who was trying to kill her, the neighbor put McKenzie in a hotel, fed her and helped her contact her mom.
Still, McKenzie refused to stay with her family for fear that her trafficker would target them. So, back in New York, McKenzie stayed with a friend and faced prostitution charges. She was also arrested by the FBI for transporting minors across state lines for illegal purposes. She spent three weeks in prison but was later sent to a program for victims of sex trafficking where she received counseling and housing. She pleaded guilty to the Mann Act, was sentenced to five years’ probation, performed two hundred hours of community service and became a registered sex offender.
Once the cases were finished, McKenzie was able to start anew. Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, helped her start a career in public speaking. She worked for Tina Fundt at Courtney’s House and began mentoring other trafficking survivors. Today, she is the Protected Innocence Initiative policy assistant at Shared Hope International.
Today is a day to honor those whose lives were lost due to anti-transgender violence. The fact that many transgender and gender-nonconforming people are forced to turn to sex work to survive makes them particularly vulnerable to trafficking, assault, and other tragedies.
America has a new generation of 21st century abolitionists, women and men committed to ending human trafficking here in our country and everywhere. This gallery of portraits celebrates New Abolitionists and their determination to end slavery once and for all in our lifetimes.