Review: American Crime, Season 3, Episode 1: Vulture and Episode 2: In The System

This season focuses on modern day slavery in America

As trafficking advocates we work every day on ending human trafficking, and we’ve been so excited to see trafficking themes drive the plot of a major TV show on ABC. The first two episodes of American Crime have been intense and pretty emotional, but also a pretty realistic account of what trafficking looks like. We’ve met characters preying on vulnerable migrants and drug addicted youth for their agricultural labor trafficking operations, as well as pimps and buyers of sex preying on young, vulnerable boys and girls. Our team can’t stop talking about the show, so we thought we’d record our “watch party” conversations to share with you all, and encourage you to have watch parties of your own!

Our Team:

Rochelle: former SVU/trafficking prosecutor, current program Director working to disrupt human trafficking

Meghan: Advocate working to disrupt human trafficking with a background in education policy and trauma

Veronica: Data Analyst doing anti-human trafficking work with a federal government background

Want to host your own watch party? Here’s a toolkit with tips on how you can engage your community (or friends and family) around the show and this important issue!

Were there any moments in the first two episodes to which you reacted strongly? Which moment and why?

Rochelle: The moments that really got to me were when the show humanized the victims, it felt like my closing arguments in jury trials were being brought to life. Too often as a society we dismiss the warning signs that are glaring right at us, instead finding all the ways to blame the victims and absolve ourselves of responsibility. Reminding everyone that these people are humans, illustrating the vulnerabilities that are being exploited, was really moving. The migrant workers moved to remote locations where they have no allies, don’t speak the language, don’t know their rights or how to assert them, and are exploited for all of those vulnerabilities. We saw them all being misled, and ultimately watched 15 of them perish in a fire, in the too-cramped trailer they were locked into at night. The runaway girls being recruited by pimps and other trafficking victims, offered a warm meal, some company, and a clean bed to sleep in, only to be turned out and forced to sell their bodies for profit. We saw this in Shae’s detached demeanor, waiting in the apartment until her next call, and suppressing her gut sense of unsafety before going into the hotel room that led to police intervention, as well as in her pimp making her try to recruit the girl outside the convenience store. These are all very real occurrences every day in America, and are only two of dozens of types of trafficking happening right outside our front doors.

Meghan: “You just want me to hang out for 9 months until you’re ready for me.” When Shae said that line she expressed the feeling of hopelessness that can occur in the system. It’s what way too many kids who encounter the justice system feel. It’s what way too many kids from high-risk communities feel. Over and over again they are told how worthless they are, how untrusted they are, and how powerless they are against too many systems. How can we blame them when they have someone who tells them that they have the power of their bodies, that they feel loved and worthwhile, and that they can flee the system. Is it really that shocking that they tell social workers that they are better off with their pimp (like Regina King’s Kimara says)? It starts not to shock the social workers but it certainly shocks the average person that can’t understand the pain and degradation that is almost a non-stop experience for way too many of these kids. I love that American Crime is showing what this looks like up close and personal and hope that those who work with kids, especially those that work in education, start to understand just a little better what is happening in their psychological formation.

Veronica: When Sandra Oh’s character made the comment about heroin addiction being a “crisis,” because it affects suburban communities, that really got my attention. It’s unfortunate that it takes something like rampant opioid use to get communities to take notice, but it also shows that drug abuse and human trafficking are not crimes relegated to one demographic. Substance abuse is one method of Force, Fraud, or Coercion (FFC) that traffickers frequently exploit, as we saw when Isaac recruited Jessup by offering him beer, and then kept him in line by supplying him with harder drugs. When Shae’s pimp made her recruit the girl outside the convenience store, Shae offered her marijuana, too.

What was your favorite moment of the first two episodes?

Rochelle: I really loved when Luis flipped the script on the controller in the agricultural labor trafficking camp. Speaking English and turning the threat back on the trafficker of what actual legal and criminal consequences would await the traffickers themselves if they brought law enforcement attention to their operations was incredibly powerful. It highlighted just how aware the exploiters are of the criminality of their behavior, as well as illustrated the vulnerabilities traffickers exploited in the migrant worker population (language proficiency, insufficient knowledge of US customs and law enforcement).

Veronica: That was also my favorite moment of the show to date! It really underscored how the trafficker knew what he was doing was wrong but was still going to exploit those workers. The storyline for Luis is portrayed so well, and the idea that he would go through such hardship to find his son is a reminder that these workers are people like anyone else — fathers, sons, brothers, and friends trying to support their families. Unfortunately, traffickers are adept at exploiting this.

Meghan: Sandra Oh’s character was my favorite. She embodies, “No matter how hard the work I do gets, I never want to just settle. I never want to believe that I can only save a few.” The fight against injustice is long. It is easier to start to believe it’s just too hard and it’s just too long of a fight. But for me, the moment I accept that a small, dedicated group of people cannot change the world, is the moment the bad guys win. I love that there is a voice for a cynic with a heart of gold. People who recognize how hard the fight is, who have lost the naive belief that it will be an easy fight, but who believe wholeheartedly that they should never stop fighting.

Were there any moments or themes that surprised you?

Meghan: The double abuse that female laborers endure. Women do not just cross into the US to work in occupations seen as more typical for females. An estimated 560,000 women work on farms alongside the men, and women, just like men, pick the fruits and vegetables that make it to our table every day. A Human’s Right Watch report found that almost every undocumented female worker they interviewed had been sexually assaulted or harassed. They felt they could do nothing about it because they lived in fear of immigration and fear of the men around them.

Veronica: The heavy focus on burnout among service providers. I think anyone who has worked in the anti-human trafficking field can relate to Kimara on this. Although constantly reading and hearing about the abuses survivors suffer at the hands of traffickers is difficult and at times emotionally overwhelming, unfortunately after awhile it becomes routine. That’s why it’s so important for those of us working to eradicate human trafficking to find ways to take care of ourselves, so we can continue to be a support system for those directly affected by these crimes.

Rochelle: As a former prosecutor, that moment was really cathartic for me, to have our vicarious-trauma depicted in such a raw way. Law enforcement and other first responders directly interact with survivors while they are still in the middle of crisis and escape, and often are the first to learn when the victim has been pulled back to the exploitative or abusive situation. The first responders simultaneously feel helpless and worthless for being unable to guide them out of the situation. It is especially difficult because while interacting with the victims directly, we have to remain emotionally neutral to best support and empower them. That process essentially requires the suppression of our own human reactions to the atrocities the victims are describing to us, which is hardly healthy and leads to jadedness and numbness as a means of coping.

Based on your professional background/expertise, was there anything that struck you as unusual, or caused any sinking feelings?

Meghan: As odd of a moment as this might be to stand out — learning that Kimara has had multiple cycles of IVF, rather than thinking of adopting. There are nearly 400,000 school-age children in foster care at any particular time and each year about 20,000 emancipate out of foster care. That’s 20,000 children who never get to know a family. Her IVF storyline felt pretty out of the blue so I am really hoping that it means that by the end of the season she winds up taking one of those children in; one of the children that just wants someone to love them and tell them they belong to someone. I hope it’s that Kimara takes one of them in rather than a pimp.

Veronica: Seeing the locks on the outside of the trailers in Episode 1 gave me a sinking feeling, because it meant that people were going to be physically locked inside. It’s such a small detail but a big red flag, and as we saw in Episode 2, that lock kept the workers trapped during the fire which led to their deaths. Aside from storage spaces and cages, it’s unusual for a lock to be outside. Locks are meant to keep property in, not people.

Rochelle: I totally missed the locks the first time I watched episode 1, Veronica. When I noticed it the second watch-through it gave me goosebumps! One thing that made me queasy is Jeannette’s acceptance of the excuses and spins her husband was giving her about the working conditions on the farm, and the way the fire went down. Partially because it’s all-too-common to write off the suffering of others, but mostly it was her passivity in the face of her sister-in-law’s cruelty that I wish was more uncommon. The whole family is justifying and burying the atrocity as a cost of doing business, and while she feels guilty and conflicted, she seems concerned, she isn’t pushing as hard as I would expect. I’m hoping, despite her husband and brother and sister-in-law minimizing the conditions for the workers, that she continues to push back on the trafficking of the workers on the farm.

Were there any special behaviors/moments/things you saw the characters do that were really accurate but often overlooked?

Rochelle: One moment was when Shae called Kimara out, that the system will just keep her housed and fed until trial so she can testify, and that they’re tell her what she needs to hear to stay away from her trafficker. It is true that trial dates move so frequently and sort of drag out, especially for complex cases like human trafficking. Many of the trafficking survivors I worked with on my cases were first trafficked after running away from a group home or shelter, and now the system was trying to put them right back where they started, right back to where it wasn’t working, or even was the site from where they were recruited. These survivors are often blamed and shamed, when the social systems meant to support them are failing (for so many reasons, including lack of resources and institutional support). While many shelters and programs are great, across the US, many are deficient.

It was also really important when they showed Shae’s pimp forcing her to groom and try to recruit the girl with her dog waiting outside the convenience store. Pimps typically make their victims participate in the recruitment of others, offering drugs, food, and safe places to stay, as an initial recruitment tactic, making it seem like a fun, safe family. They’re not necessarily choosing the trafficking situation, they think they’re choosing family and connection, the idea of finally feeling like they belong somewhere.

Veronica: I agree. The assumption is that if you are a victim, you want law enforcement to help and you will take any services they offer to you. However, that’s not always the case. Many victims of human trafficking may fear the police based on previous encounters and what their traffickers tell them. Traffickers are good at pinpointing vulnerabilities and preying on them, as was the case with Shae. She mentioned to Kimara that before she met her trafficker, she was on her own. His ability to give her a place to sleep with no more than six to a room made her question if the shelter with it’s eight beds and strict rules was really better than her current situation.

Meghan: This stood out for me too, including the defeated look in Shae’s face when she agreed to go into a shelter and was told she had to attend chapel for her own good, that she couldn’t leave or see people without permission, and that basically her life was no longer her own to control. She went to a doctor to get healthy and you watched her pain fold in on her when said the last pregnancy ended. When you can see she has simply accepted the cycle of pain and neglect. How does someone like with those experiences easily enroll back in high school or into higher education? How do they move into a better place? How do we get them more than the basics or bare minimum?