Son of ‘Village Voice’ co-founder Norman Mailer joins sex-trafficking protest outside paper’s headquarters

John Buffalo Mailer at a rally against Village Voice Media earlier this year. ()
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John Buffalo Mailer, son of legendary author, journalist and Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer, had just stepped forward to read a statement written by a woman he identified as Alissa.

The statement described how as a minor she was abused by men who forced her into prostitution and marketed her through the adult services section of the website Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice parent company Village Voice Media.

"It's very hard for me to be up here today because I've always loved The Village Voice," Mailer said. "I've always loved what it represents, and it was intended to be the people's paper. And so to see where it's come, when a paper that was there to hold people who abuse power accountable, an independent voice, to see them now justifying their actions for this profit is heartbreaking."

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Mailer was a sort of guest of honor among the activists who appeared at The Village Voice's doorstep near Cooper Square for an anti-Backpage demonstration this morning. The rally, at which people held placards (one slogan: "How many before Village Voice shuts it down?") and speakers addressed the crowd from a small soapbox, was organized by the multifaith seminary group Groundswell and drew about a hundred people, including several local politicians.

The Voice has become an unlikely pawn in the Backpage controversy, which has been heating up recently as a result of heightened activism and prominent media coverage, including recent columns by Nick Kristof in The New York Times.

The site's adult classifieds are wholly within the purview of the paper's parent company, which acquired the Voice in 2005 under a previous corporate title, New Times Media. But the Voice has been used as a mouthpiece to fire back against detractors and journalists like Kristof who have aggressively covered Backpage and its alleged connections to sex trafficking. The saga has also cast a dark cloud over a brand long associated with social justice. (Village Voice editor Tony Ortega did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

The problem, of course, for Village Voice Media, is that its cash-strapped band of alt-weeklies scattered around the country have been in the same free fall as the rest of the print media economy; Backpage.com's adult advertising, meanwhile, reportedly brings in more than $22 million a year in revenue for the company.

But Village Voice Media is not defending itself on the grounds that it might well have to close several newspapers if they jettisoned the service.

"The realities and complexity of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are such that to announce that a single websiteBackpage.com or otheris the primary source of the scourge and therefore holds the cure to this horrendous problem is not only unsupported but irresponsible," said Liz McDougall, the company's general counsel, in a 1,100-word statement supplied to Capital.

McDougal, who represented Craigslist when it came under fire on the same grounds, said Village Voice Media "employs multiple tools to detect and prevent sex trafficking," and that it monitors its ads and reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children any "potentially involving sexual exploitation of a minor."

McDougall also pointed out that the company has cooperated closely with law enforcement in attempting to curtail the problem.

"Backpage.com of course hears the protesters and listens to the politicians," she said. "We all agree that we have to raise awareness and do more to fight human trafficking, especially child sex trafficking, domestically as well as internationally. The pursuit of even the most laudable goals does not however presuppose agreement on how best to get there."

At the rally, three City Council members spoke out against Backpage, including Melissa Mark-Viverito, who recently co-sponsored a resolution urging Village Voice Media to shut down the site's adult classifieds. She also read a statement from Council Speaker Christine Quinn announcing that the Council would hold a hearing on the resolution on April 25.

Mark-Viverito was flanked by Council Members Margaret Chin and Steve Levin, who called for increased efforts from local law enforcement to stop sex trafficking in New York. The Brooklyn District Attorney alone has "prosecuted 32 sex trafficking cases in the past year and a half, the vast majority of which involved girls who were marketed through Backpage.com," according to a previous statement from Mark-Viverito and Brad Lander, her co-sponsor on the resolution.

"I would rather see the institution of The Village Voice close down than to purvey the slavery of our children," said Levin.

Aside from local clergy and council members, the anti-Backpage cause has also been taken up by 19 U.S. senators, 51 attorneys general, some quarter of a million people who have signed an online petition at Change.org, and at least one anonymous blog that produces critical Backpage coverage daily.

After the rally, demonstrators joined in singing "Oh Freedom" as they walked over to Village Voice headquarters to deliver the Change.org petition. On the sidewalk in front of the door leading into the building, they placed small pairs of sneakers representing child sex-trafficking victims.

The group was trailed by a small counter-demonstration from the Sex Workers Outreach Project and Sex Workers Action New York, members of which were handing out literature that they said offered a "counter viewpoint."

"Despite how much debate we see about Backpage and other advertising sites, we still rarely hear the voices of sex workers," the flier reads.

"Pushing sex work underground makes it harder to identify trafficking situations. With countless advertising sites, closing the most public and largest ones will only increase traffic to sites that are less willing to work with law enforcement."