American Crime Season 3: A New View of Survivors

Ascend Campaign Series
Today’s post, “American Crime Season 3: A New View of Survivors” by Katherine Miller, takes one more look at the recently concluded ABC series American Crime.  As we discuss support for survivors during this month’s Ascend Campaign, it’s notable to consider how the characters in this show helped provide a new perspective on survivors for the viewing public. 

All. The. Feels. If you don’t have them, you didn’t finish American Crime Season 3. From the first episode of the season, American Crime viewers were presented with multiple story arcs portraying a range of trafficking experiences from different perspectives.  This week, those stories drew to a close with final revelations about the characters we’ve followed so carefully.  The entire season did not disappoint. In fact, every episode dug into my soul. I hope it left you feeling as raw as I did, with even more questions about the nature of human exploitation.

Survivors Seen in Public

In March, I shared some thoughts about how American Crime had the potential to portray human trafficking in a way unique to Hollywood.  Most media depictions of this crime lead us to think that individuals who are trafficked are always kept in chains, locked away in cages or bedrooms, never to be seen by the public. In contrast, American Crime introduced us to people searching for a steady job, buying groceries at the store, and watching children play at the park. These people were our neighbors, our co-workers, our kids’ friends. In fact, this community could be our own.

The Power of Coercion

None of the characters in American Crime were kept under lock and key. You may have asked yourself, why didn’t they just leave? This series painfully demonstrates the power of coercion. These people were not always physically restrained; they were controlled by something even stronger: manipulation, fear, and the threat of violence. This force was maintained and perpetuated by false promises.  For some of American Crime’s main characters, it played a devastating role.

Proving Her Love

Shae believed that Billy was her boyfriend; she loved him, and wanted to start a family with him. That sense of love was so powerful that she didn’t mind that he sold her to much older men for sex; she was helping the family, proving her love. Shae was returning the favor—Billy said he would keep her off of the streets, and he did. She even says later to her case worker that it wasn’t nearly as bad as her life with her father. When resources were not working out for her, she quickly found herself back in exploitation. This time it was online services, under the promise that she would make a lot of money and be able to provide for herself and her child. She quickly comes to find that all of her money is kept by the homeowner, to pay for rent, food, and other fees. She still is not in control of her own money and in an unsafe environment, falls victim to even more crime.

Actress Ana Mulvoy-Ten on playing Shae Reese: “I found the humanity in her, and how she’s just actually a regular girl and not that different from any other girl that you might meet. She just had a more difficult situation that she was born into.” (ABC/Nicole Wilder)

A Shattered American Dream

Gabrielle had faith she was working for a good family when she came to the U.S. from Haiti to nanny a young boy named Nicky. But red flags showed up quickly. Nicky’s mother Clair exercised more and more control over Gabrielle’s life. She is moved from a plush bedroom to a cluttered storage room, told she must ask before she gets food from the refrigerator, and chastised for speaking when guests are over.  As the season progresses, she loses access to her passport which Clair locks away in a safe.  When the physical abuse starts, Gabrielle is forced to wear long sleeves to cover up the burns and scratches on her arms.  Without the ability to communicate to the outside world, her nightmare seems inescapable.

Gabrielle (Mickaëlle X. Bizet) pleads with the police in the American Crime Season 3 finale: “My passport is in the house. They’re hiding it to prevent me from taking it. Tell Clair to let me go back home. I won’t say anything. Please let me go back home.”(ABC/Nicole Wilder)

Insurmountable Debt Bondage

Struggling with substance abuse in rural North Carolina, Coy was isolated from his family and in need of money. His recruiter, Isaac, was able to prey on that vulnerability and convince him to come work on a farm.  Initially, Isaac keeps Coy compliant by giving him drugs and maintaining his addiction. Later, he physically beats Coy to show him what could happen if he fails to pick enough tomatoes in the future. In an attempt to leave, Coy is confronted with the “debt” he has accumulated for room and board which must be paid back.  Additionally, fees have been added for a doctor visit and medication. Coy’s story depicts the vicious cycle of debt bondage and the various tools traffickers use to keep someone in place.

Coy Henson (Connor Jessup) is an addict who gets caught up with a recruiter in search of cheap farm labor.(ABC/Nicole Wilder)

American Crime is not fiction. These characters are real—not autobiographically, but their stories are real. If this reality greets you with heaviness, you’re not alone. It lurks inside of you the way it does me. It’s haunting. So what do we do when a show inhabits our being and pierces our hearts in ways we can never forget? We work harder to support survivors. To see them as we see ourselves. Because at any moment, had things gone differently in our lives, we could have been Shae, Gabrielle, Coy, Dustin, Ishmael, Vanessa, or even Isaac.

Honoring Survivors Today

At the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, we take pride in maintaining a comprehensive statewide resource directory for survivors to connect them to shelter, medical and mental health services, case management, law enforcement (only if requested), and more. Are you a service provider? You can start supporting survivors today by becoming a member of that directory.

We also supervise the CoNEHT statewide hotline and train hotline advocates to be first responders for survivors seeking services. We are often the first people to hear someone’s story, and they don’t sound all that different from American Crime. Are you looking to get involved in the anti-trafficking movement to support survivor healing? Volunteer as a hotline advocate.

Survivors are going to drive the social change that ends human trafficking, and LCHT will support that vision by investing in survivor leaders who can impact this crime. Survivors are the experts of their own lives, and their voices will revolutionize the movement. Let’s support them in that work. Today. Right now.

Katherine Miller

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