The sidewalks in front of businesses on the Hip Strip added a vibrant shade of red on Wednesday as part of an awareness campaign for human trafficking.
“The intent of this project is to highlight that people fall through the cracks,” said Kat Werner, chair of the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of local agencies and support groups focused on drawing attention to sex trafficking.
Wednesday’s event, called the Red Sand Project, also was organized by University of Montana Police Officer Shannon Parsons and state Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula.
Dudik said she hopes the bright red filling in the cracks and seams in the sidewalk will catch people’s eye and — along with signs in the windows of Hip Strip businesses explaining the campaign — will cause them to think of those often overlooked.
“These victims are real and we can’t just step over them,” Dudik said.
She added that she thinks many people have a misconception that human trafficking only happens in bigger cities, not smaller communities like those in Montana.
A representative for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester read a message in which the Montana Democrat called sex trafficking “the 21st century version of slavery” and said that's why he supported the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA.
The bill is one of a pair of laws recently signed by President Donald Trump that in part makes website publishers — like the recently shuttered Backpage.com — legally responsible if third parties use them to post ads for prostitution or sex trafficking.
Critics say the bills endanger people advertising for consensual sex work, reducing their ability to vet and filter out unwanted or potentially dangerous clients.
In his letter on Wednesday, Tester said he is also cosponsoring Savanna’s Act, which creates additional guidelines and requirements for law enforcement agencies reporting and sharing information on missing or murdered Native Americans, specifically on tribal land.
A Red Sand Project event also was held in Kalispell on Wednesday, and another is planned for Billings Thursday.
Last month, some 170 law enforcement officers from around Montana as well as surrounding states gathered in Missoula for a two-day conference on investigating human trafficking cases. The conference was organized by Missoula police Detective Guy Baker.