There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Shamere McKenzie came to the US from Jamaica when she was 6 years old. A talented track star, she was running at college level when she injured her hamstring. With her scholarship in jeopardy, she met someone who said they could help her return to school, all she had to do was dance at his nightclub. One evening, however, Shamere was taken to a house in Brooklyn where she was told to have sex with a customer. When she refused, her trafficker threatened her life, and when she tried to leave when they returned home he beat her to unconsciousness. For eighteen months Shamere McKenzie was forced in to prostitution and trafficked across five different states under constant threats of violence. She finally escaped when her trafficker allowed her to call her mother and she was able to get a flight back to New York.
Well I came to the US from Jamaica when I was 6 years old. That was a difficult transition because of my accent. I was, the color of my skin, I was really dark, extremely dark and the kids used to make fun of me. And, you know, I would run ho,e and tell my mom the kdis are making fun of me because of my accent. And I’d really try to hide my Jamaican side of who I am, and I used to ask my mom like how do you say things the American way? And through that you know, I found my outlet in track. By the time I got to the second grade my gym teacher recognized that I was good with track. And he recommended that I go to the Colgate women’s games. And from then I was recruited by a track team and started running track from the age of seven.
When I got to high school I was running pretty good. I was running on the 4x1, 4x4, 4x8, cross country; and I made the state team on the 4x1, 4x4, cross country. So I thought I was really good and I wanted to be the next Marion Jones. And it was my goal in high school to go to a division one college on a full scholarship. And you know, I remember running home just to see what school wrote to me. And St John’s gave me a great offer to come and run for them. It’s a division one school and I thought this would be an amazing opportunity. It was close to home and my senior year of high school was, 9/11 happened. And so I thought, you know being close to home is important and so I stayed in New York to go to school.
Well I remember going in as a freshman, the upperclassman would say I give you until junior year. You’re either gonna quit the team or get injured. And I was like, okay, I’m not everyone else. I’m a unique being. I’m different. And I’m gonna make it.
I wasn’t running the time that I was running in high school for my events. And that bothered me a lot. And so sophomore year, at the end of my sophomore year going into my junior year, I went to my high school coach and I said hey, you have what it takes to get me back in shape. Let’s work out for the summer. And I was running a 200 in practice when I pulled my hamstring.
And that’s when it all began.
So I went back to St Johns and I told my coach I injured my hamstring and he would send me to the trainers for conditioning and they would work out the leg. Whether it's in a hot tub or pool of ice. You know, they would work on it. And then when I went back to the coach he would say, go run eight 200's or go for a long run. And that was counterproductive. and he even had me running cross-country meets while injured. And the last race that I remember running, it was in October of 2004 and I was limping in the race and he was just saying, go! Go! Go! And I even remember other coaches telling him to pull me out of the race. And at the end of the race when we were discussing how people did for the event, for the meet, he said to me, "I don't know if I’m gonna renew your scholarship for next semester." and that was when it all went downhill from there.
Yeah. For the month of January, you have off at St. John's for winter recess. and so I--after taking out loans and financial aid I only owed school $3,000 to return. and I thought, well, I could get a job and get $3,000 to return to school. But that's when I met someone that said hey, I will help you return to school.
So I met this person while crossing the street one day. He was coming down the street in Manhattan and the car looked like a car that belonged to my friend. So I looked, because his windows were tinted. And he stopped where I was and got out the car. And when he got out I saw that it wasn't my friend so I was like, you know, about to go about my business.
And then he introduced himself. He was very cordial. And we exchanged numbers. And we started talking and we had great conversation. He said he graduated from Moorhouse College. We talked about politics, single parents in the community, the high number of African American males incarcerated. You know these are topics that I enjoy talking about. And I would ask him, well, what do you do for a living? Because he had flashy jewellery, a real expensive car. And I remember him saying, I want you to like me for who I am, not what I do. And I thought that should have been a red flag. But you know, I was like, I don't want him to think that I want him for his money and I really enjoyed the conversation.
So, over a period of time I developed trust for this person and expressed to him that hey, I was in need of $3,000 to go back to school. And not like I was asking him, but just saying that this is where I'm at in my life. And he said, well I’ll help you. And I said, wow. He's like, “you know you can move out of your off-campus”. I had an off-campus apartment and he said I could move into his basement apartment that was empty. And all I had to do was dance and I thought, well, a lot of girls dance their way through college. That's not a problem. I still didn't think or know that he was a pimp because my interpretation of a pimp at that time was just a guy with a lot of girls. So, I wasn't making that connection at that time. So, then he said all I had to do was dance. And the first night he put me in a strip club in new jersey. And in two hours I made $300. And so, I immediately started to do the math and said, well in no time I'll make the $3,000 and I won't have to do this anymore. And he pulled me out of that club and he brought me to a house. And this was a regular house in the streets of Brooklyn. And the house was an empty house, but it was on a regular residential neighbourhood in Brooklyn. And I remember the guys at the door. There were these big, body builder looking guys and he gave us $20 to give to the guys. And he said it was $10 for a wall dance and $20 for a lap dance.
And I was going around asking everyone, you know, do you want a dance? Do you want a dance? And no-one wanted to dance with me until this one guy approached me and asked me how much it was for oral sex. And I was just like, ah! You know, and I didn't know God at that time. So I’m not gonna repeat the words I said to that man today, but I started to curse this guy out and he overheard the conversation, and he pulled me to the side and he said, "you're gonna do whatever that guy said do." And I started cursing him out, like, did you hear what he asked me? And he was like, yes. And he told me the price for that service, and he said, “yeah, now go do it.”
And I was like no, you go do it and I’ll just leave. And I remember taking a step towards leaving and he put his hand around my throat and brought me back to my position, and he said, “do you really think you'll make it out of here alive?” And I began to assess the situation. Like all these men in the house. This was a three-story home, and I was like, I don't think I'll make it downstairs to the front door with all these guys, alive. And you know, like I froze in that moment really thinking that I would die. And I went back to the guy and I said, can you please do some dancing? Of course, this guy didn't want to hear anything I had to say after just cursing him out. And I said to the guy, “well my life is on the line, can you help me?” and so he was like, what? and we were doing lap dances. and then he was trying to figure out what I meant by my life was on the line and I was really trying to go around it just to get a song in so that he could give me the $20. And I got the money to go back and give the trafficker and I felt okay, when I got home it would be me and him. There won't be these body builder guys. and I'll be able to leave.
And so, when I got home, I said, “you know, you told me about dancing, but you didn't say anything about prostitution, and that's not my cup of tea. Thanks for your help but I'm gonna leave.” And I proceeded towards the door and again, he came back, but this time I had it all planned out. Like, okay I'm not gonna freeze this time. You know, I'm a fighter because in elementary school when the kids used to tease me and I used to come home and cry, my cousin used to say beat them up and they'll leave you alone. So I said, alright, which usually does work, and so i have this fighter spirit. And so I had it all planned out. This time he's probably gonna go for my neck again. I'm gonna punch him, kick him in the groin and run and do all these things. And so, when he went for my neck, I punched him in the face and that's when I learned my first rule was not to hit a pimp.
And, you know he started punching me in the face, kicking me with his timberland boots and choked me out to the point of unconsciousness where he even popped a blood vessel. And I think it's in my right eye that you could still see the red spot that's there from that time. And I was unconscious, I lost control of my bodily fluids and when I woke up, I realized I was laying in a puddle of urine. And then he ran over and he was so apologetic, like this monster that had just beat me up turned into prince charming and was so apologetic. “I'm so sorry. I lost control. I'll never do this again." And I believed him, because you want to believe him. You don't want to believe that this monster could return.
I believed him because my hope was that I was gonna go back to school. So, I believed him. And like I said, when I was in the strip club for two hours and I made $300, I’m thinking you know, no time this will be over and he probably just lost control and he won't do it again.
No, that did not happen again fairly soon. But what did happen was I witnessed him beating other girls the same way. And so, I remember at one point, I tried to intervene, and he would say, do you want to take the whipping for them instead? You know, you don't interfere in pimp's business. And another girl that was there, she had several pimps before. So, she tried to explain to me that that's pimp's business, you don't interfere with pimp's business. And I was just like, no, we can't just sit here and do nothing. But after a while you realize the rules and then you realize that you really have no choice. You just have to either experience this type of harsh--type of physical violence, or you just develop this compliant behaviour where you just do everything he says so you won't suffer the consequences.
We moved around to five different states. We were in New York. We went to New Jersey. We went to Connecticut. We went to Texas, and we went to Florida.
So these were not sports activities, they were just visits. I guess you ask sports activities with the mention of the super bowl, but in regards to that, I remember one specific time my trafficker was on the phone with another pimp that was saying yes, he's gonna take us to the super bowl because there's a lot of money there. But we didn't actually go, so, no it wasn't geared towards a particular event. We just went.
We were first in the strip clubs in New York, and when that club got raided we went to the strip clubs in Connecticut. And you would work the strip club and then you'll, and I use "work" and O put it in quotation. You know, it's really exploitation. And after the strip club, you'd be exploited on the streets, and so there was, this is why I considered it to be slavery, because there is so many similarities in terms of where you work for long hours. And again, that word "work" is in quotations, with little or no pay.
So, our day would start at 12 noon and wouldn't end until 7a.m. The next morning. and you will sleep and get very little sleep as you can tell from the time difference, wake up and do it all over again.
No [I couldn’t just walk away] because the threat of violence and fear. You know, fear is the number one thing that keeps many trafficking victims enslaved. When you hear someone tell you, “if you leave me, I'll kill you,” and then you try and that person beats you to where you think you're going to die. You know, you're gonna believe that person and the best way that I
described my enslavement is torture. And that is torture in every sense of the word torture.
I was 21. and I was enslaved for eighteen months, so I got out at 23.
He actually allowed me to contact my mother and he told me to tell my mother he was my
boyfriend that was taking care of me, which my mom didn't believe. Often times she could overhear him telling me what to say on the phone, and she even went to the police and the police told her there was nothing that they could do because I'm over the age of 18 and there's no criminal activity. And my mom just believed that something was wrong. That this is not the child she raised.
I tried running away several times. The first time I ran away my consequence, the consequence of me running away was me being sodomized. And the second time that, each time I ran away I had the cell phone that he gave, and he would call, and he would make threats. I'm going to kill your family; I know where your mother lives. So, if you don't come back. And so that was the cloud of fear that he hung over my head. And I would return as a result of that cloud of fear.
And so, I thought of should I poison his food? But then I said, well if he doesn't die, he's gonna know I poisoned his food. I remember when I got to Miami, I got involved with these Jamaican gangsters and I knew that these guys were really bad guys because they've been in Jamaica running things from the 70s and the government in Jamaica cannot control these guys. And when I met up with the leader in Miami, he said “hey, you know I just got a hitman from Jamaica. We'll rob him and kill him.” And I remember at that time I was excited about it because I’m playing the tape of all these things that this guy did to me, and i felt like justice would be served. Now let me see you do all these things to this guy who's known to be a bad person. And so, when the guy came to the hotel room and gave me the gun and said all you have to do is cover me, and I went to the gate to punch in the number. We were living in a gated community in Florida and I couldn't punch in the number. And as a result of that I was raped at gunpoint because I couldn't follow through.
So again, I thought well, the only way out is if I stop making money, because I had a quota and a quota is the amount of money you have to make each location or each day. So by the time I got to Miami, my quota had increased. Sometimes it was $1,500, sometimes it was $3,000, really depending on where I'm at. And I figured well if I stop making money, he wouldn't want me anymore. But that plan backfired a little bit. This was a really high-end club in Miami and he knew that the clientele that came there, they really had money. Because they have what's called a skybox at this club and the clientele that goes to this club would pay $65,000 a year at that time for the skybox. So, these clients were really high-end, so he knew that coming home with zero dollars out of this club is just not realistic. And so when I came home with $500, $200, $0 he's like what's going on? I'm like no-one likes me anymore. And he took me out the club and he put me on south beach. And you know when traffickers put you down in an area, that's why I don't like using the term "work" because like benefits come with that and you think, you know you will have a lunch break or something like that.
You know, you don't get money to say hey, get some food while you're out there. Like if you don't work, you don't eat. And so we would make friends with people to get lunch and one day he caught us and called us back to the car. and I got in the backseat and the other girl got in the front seat and he immediately started to beat her up. And he turned around and he said to me, “well what am I gonna do with you?” and I said, just let me leave. and he said, “you want to leave? I'll give you $5,000 and you can leave.” And I knew that wasn't true because I saw him do the same thing to another young lady and when he was finished with her, her body was just bouncing around on the floor like you're sorting dirty clothes. So I said, okay, like this is not what's gonna happen. And so, when he got back to the house I stayed downstairs and I was just like twiddling my fingers like oh my gosh what's gonna happen. And he went upstairs and when he was up there, I heard the sound of a gun and not going off or anything but like when you load a magazine in a gun.
And I said, okay this time he's making sure the gun is loaded and he's gonna kill me, because I had a previous encounter with that gun over the eighteen months while I was with him. After a period of time yes, I developed this compliant behaviour, but I had believed death was my only option. I had lost hope in life and just felt the best thing was to die and I remember him asking me to choose between death and driving one day when I told him I didn't want to drive. and I said, just kill me. And he said, “you want to die? Open your mouth.” and when I opened my mouth, he put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger. but the gun wasn't loaded. And so, I ran out the back door and I was wandering around in the gated community. And this guy was in his garage with his two-year-old daughter and said, “why're you running?” and I said, “well I'm running around from my ex-boyfriend who's trying to beat me up.” And even in that moment of running for my life, I’m still telling people the lies. I was programmed to tell people because you couldn't tell you had a pimp. You had to say he's your boyfriend or he's your man, or whatever.
And so, he brought me into his garage, he gave me a phone to call home, he put me up in a hotel and gave me some food, and that's how I escaped. I called my mom and I flew back to New York. And that's how I got away.
Before even getting to the time of wanting to share my story, I got out in 2005, and I didn't start sharing my story until 2011. And that process in itself was a really hard process because the FBI came. I spent three weeks in prison because I was once known as a bottom girl, which is the pimp's most trusted girl who acts in the absence of the pimp. But she's also the most manipulated and suffers severe consequences if she doesn't comply with the pimp's request. And so as a result of that, I had to spend time in jail and i actually have a felony. And that was a process in itself because it's hard to accept you being victimized and then having been criminalized as a result of your victimization.
You know, I couldn't see why I was being criminalized for something that was done to me. And the prosecutor said, well you have to be held accountable for the crimes that you commit. And in my world, I'm thinking, but these are crimes that I commit under the direction of the real criminal and he got, he's in prison serving time. But it's really hard for me to process that. And not only that, that was one thing, but you're dealing with the fear. You're dealing with shame, you're dealing with guilt of how society will view you and I thought this would be my little secret for the rest of my life, and i'll not tell anyone what happened.
Until I met Kevin Bales, and when I met Kevin I remember I was going to LA to an event, the Freedom Awards, that his organization was flying me in for. And I said to the lady that I was going with, I said, “do you know that my story's in a book?” and she was like "what's the name of the book?" and I said, "the slave next door." and she was like, well the author's sitting right in front of you. And I was like what? So I tapped him on the shoulder. I'm like, “Hi Kevin, I'm Shamere Mckenzie.” He's like, “nice to meet you,” like really nonchalant. And of course because he'd met thousands of people in his life and I'm just like, “hi Kevin, I'm
Shamere Mckenzie.” He's like “yeah, nice to meet you.” I'm like, I'm Shamere Mckenzie page 84 of your book "the slave next door" barbie and the gorilla pimp.” He's like oh my gosh we've got to talk.
And so, this time I got to California and I was waiting for an interview with CNN and I was telling Kevin, you know, Kevin was asking, you know, what are you doing? And I'm just like, I’ got laid off and I can't pass a background check because I have this felony and I don't know what I'm gonna do.” And he said “well, have you ever thought about sharing your story to help others? and it could be a form of income.” And I looked at him crazy. I said “Kevin, no-one wants to hear about what happened to me.” And I think that's the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to me. And he said, “Okay. when you get back to DC, come to my office and we'll talk.”
And so, when I got back to DC I went to his office and he was, he laid it out for me in black and white and even got me my very first speaking engagement. And when I thought about it, I said well, when you look at how many other people who are enslaved and are ashamed or who else is going through what i'm going through, maybe this can help someone else and prevent someone from walking in my shoes. And that really motivated me to want to continue to speak out and help and give back in any way that I can. And so I started mentoring other girls. I started working at an organization that provides direct services. And then I started working with Shared Hope International, working on policy using my experience to advise on policy, training various professionals from law enforcement, to judges, to service providers, community members and how to identify and respond. And that has really motivated me the way that I can change, you know take such a bad situation and turn it around for good.
Today I’m the CEO of the Sungate Foundation and Sungate exists to provide educational opportunities for survivors of human trafficking. We're a small organization, just three years old, but I strongly believe that Sungate will thrive. We are the only organization in the U.S. whose sole purpose is to provide educational opportunities for survivors of all types of human trafficking.
Thank you for having me.
Narrative provided by WUCF TV