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“That Happens Here?”: Guest Speakers Enlighten Students on the Issues of Human Trafficking

hands with chains

An in-depth presentation about human trafficking was held on November 16 in the Dave and Donna Performance Art Center. Among the audience was the Modern World Literature classes in order to accompany their novel study of Q&A by Vikas Swarup, the story well-known for its movie adaptation, Slumdog Millionaire. The speakers included Chris Baker from a local tattoo parlor, Ink 180, and Dr. Cassandra Ma from the non-profit Reclaim 13.

Dr. Cassandra Ma opens the 3-hour long presentation by offering a brief breakdown of what human trafficking is and what Reclaim 13 is doing to help. Reclaim 13’s mission is to help and prevent socially and sexually exploited youth and, as a result, specializes in young victims of the human trafficking ring around the country.

Human trafficking is, as Dr. Cassandra Ma puts it, a system–a large network of people that include the traffickers, the victims, and the Johns. It’s risen to the second most popular and profitable illegal business next to the drug industry and includes kids as young as thirteen years old.

Dr. Cassandra Ma disputes some common fallacies associated with trafficking–the number one myth being that trafficking usually only happens after a kidnapping. The cultural stigma that the movie Taken created around human trafficking has spread this image of abduction as the only way traffickers get their victims. When, in fact, that’s usually not what happens at all.

Dr. Cassandra Ma explains that most trafficking relationships start off slow and sweet, but then develop into a manipulative and dangerous bond. Much like boiling a frog, the victim doesn’t realize they’re being coerced until too late.

However, not all hope is lost–nonprofits like Dr. Cassandra Ma’s Reclaim 13 and Chris Baker’s Ink 180 are constantly helping and preventing victims of human trafficking each day.

Chris Baker, co-owner of a local tattoo parlor named Ink 180, first started his tattoo career at age fourteen. Growing up, he witnessed LA gang violence take seventeen of his friends’ lives and at first, only started Ink 180 to administer tattoo removal/cover ups for former gang members seeking better opportunities. This, however, changed after he heard of the human trafficking problem within our very own Oswego.

He remembers his first thought being, “That happens here?”

He couldn’t believe such a small suburban town could hold such dark secrets, when in fact, human trafficking is highly accessible to anyone within the area. Websites like Backpage.com and massage parlors have created hotbeds for prostitution within the Oswego area.

Therefore, along with doing tattoo cover ups and removals for former gang members, Chris Baker began offering his free services to victims of human trafficking.

A lot of victims are branded by their trafficker through the form of tattooing. Refusing to acknowledge any of these branding tattoos as anything close to the art form he loves, Chris Baker refers to these tattoos as pure mutilation.

Young girls with barcode tattoos behind their necks or their trafficker’s name written across their cheek are just some of the many cases of branding Chris Baker sees in his tattoo parlor 3 to 4 times a week.

It’s why he’s invested so much of his time, effort, and money into tattoo removals. Unlike other shops, Ink 180 doesn’t do laser removal–they expose the open layer of skin to a saline gel called Tattoo Vanish that bonds with the color pigments of the tattoo and later scabs while taking the color pigment with it. This method minimizes the potential for scarring and doesn’t create the white halo effect a customer might get with laser removal.

This service is intended to help victims move on and grow from their past. In fact, most cover ups are concealed by a lotus tattoo–a flower that, despite its murky and dark environment, is able to grow.

However, this “Rape for Pay”–as Chris Baker puts it–has to be broken, or at the very least, dented. Human trafficking only exists because the demand for it exists, therefore we must first stop the oversexualization of women and children and teach people–girls, especially–to value themselves.

The fight against human trafficking is an ongoing battle, but Chris Baker and Dr. Cassandra Ma and their affiliated organizations truly believe that with each new generation, new opportunities for change are possible.

If there’s one thing the guest speakers implored the audience to do was to keep the conversation going–to talk, teach, and discuss is one of easiest ways we can help in the fight against human trafficking.

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Student Publication of Oswego High School, Oswego, IL