Red Sand Project: Missoula event highlights victims of sex trafficking

Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force member Ken Furrow pours red sand in sidewalk cracks on the Hip Strip on Wednesday to raise awareness about human trafficking in Montana. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The Red Sand Project aims to raise awareness on the issue of human trafficking across the nation, with the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force hosting an event to fill sidewalk cracks along the Hip Strip with red sand.

Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force chair Kat Werner said that filling the cracks with sand signifies that many victims of human trafficking, or sex trafficking, go unnoticed.

“Really what it highlights is a lot of victims of human trafficking fall through the cracks and end up in situations of exploitation and modern-day slavery,” Werner said. “So by taking red sand and filling the sidewalk cracks, we’re not only bringing attention and awareness to the issue, but we’re also symbolizing that we need to do something to ensure men, women and children don’t fall through the cracks.”

Human trafficking is second only to drugs as the largest criminal industry in the world, yet many people don’t realize that humans are exploited for sex in smaller cities, like Missoula.

Organizations like the task force try to educate the public and those working in law enforcement on the signs of human trafficking through trainings.

“A lot of people still don’t recognize that it is an issue that exists in Montana and it happens here in Missoula. We’ve certainly had an increase in cases over the last several years and so, again, I really come from a perspective where I feel that education is really powerful,” Werner said.

Representatives of Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines read letters addressing human trafficking. Tester fought to include in this year’s budget bill, $85 million in funding for Operation Stonegarden grants, which help local law enforcement agencies prevent human traffickers from coming across the state’s northern and southern borders.

Daines introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and was signed into law last year. It prosecutes websites that violate trafficking laws and those that assist and support online sex trafficking.

“This is an issue that affects our communities as a whole, as well as individuals, and in order for us to combat this epidemic, we need to work together on the united front with our local law enforcement, victim advocacy groups and federal government,” Missoula representative for Tester Madeline Forbis said.

The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and a new Hellgate High School club that started earlier this year called Vital Voices, participated in the event as well.

Quinn McQuilkin, a Hellgate High School senior helping run the club, said that by next school year, students will visit middle and high schools and talk about what sexual misconduct is and what resources are available.

“I think sexual misconduct can be anything ranging from rape to someone leaning out of a car to cat call you, sending inappropriate messages, unsolicited pictures; it can be a lot of different things and it’s not always physical,” McQuilkin said. “It’s still valid for you to feel uncomfortable if someone yells at you or sends you something, you don’t have to feel like that’s any less valid than being touched inappropriately.”

Because of local trainings, the number of cases involving trafficking, promotion of prostitution or prostitution rose to about 10 cases per year for the past three years, according to an interview with task force officer and detective for the Missoula Police Department Guy Baker in January.

Events like the Red Sand Project can hopefully raise awareness and teach local Missoulians that trafficking victims can slip through the cracks.

“This is a starting point I would say, and we really need to figure out what we can do to make sure that we provide appropriate services to victims that hold offenders accountable. All that needs to happen in addition to education,” Werner said.

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.