The Mitchell sister - Page 4

Can a woman's touch at the top help change San Francisco's sex industry?

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Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson and brother Justin Mitchell (left) now run the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CHARLES RUSSO


CENTER OF THE STORM

When the Mitchell Brothers founded their empire, it was against a backdrop of organized crime trying to exercise a monopoly on the porn industry. According to a 1977 U.S. Department of Justice report, members of La Cosa Nostra tried to request exclusive distribution of Mitchell Brothers' porn films.

The Mitchells resisted for years, but DOJ claims they eventually entered into a contract with LCN's Michael Zaffarano to distribute "Autobiography of a Flea." the Mitchells also fought City Hall.

During the 1980s, Mayor Dianne Feinstein's vice squad tried to close the Mitchell Brothers' operations. But under Mayor Willie Brown, the former attorney for late Déjà Vu strip club owner Sam Conti, SFPD enforcement reportedly eased.

Then in 1997, Déjà Vu started to take control of the city's sex clubs, introducing stage fees and private rooms. In 2002, three former MBOT dancers filed their suit against Cinema 7. The next year, three other dancers brought suits against Market Street Cinema and Century Theater. And in 2005, Deja Vu settled a class action labor suit with its dancers. Attorney Greg Walston, representing the dancers, said at the time that minimum pay rate would protect dancers from being forced into prostitution to make money.

Deja Vu threatened a counter-suit based on the allegations of prostitution at their clubs, but Walston told reporters: "The record speaks for itself." Walston used police reports with prostitution allegations to bolster his case and said he was doing the job the District Attorney's Office should have done.

In July 2008, when MBOT reached its $3.74 million class action settlement, Cinema 7 president Jeffrey Armstrong said that the corporation was "not able to pay the entire amount up front." Instead, Mitchell matriarch Georgia Mitchell and her business partner John P. Morgan, then cotrustees of the Jim Mitchell 1990 Family Trust, which holds two-thirds of Cinema 7's shares, pledged stock certificates as security interest.

But the debate about how to treat sex work in San Francisco continues. In November 2008, District Attorney Kamala Harris and Mayor Gavin Newsom opposed Proposition K, a local measure that tried to decriminalize prostitution by forbidding local authorities from investigating, arresting or prosecuting sex workers. They argued that the measure would increase prostitution on the streets, give pimps cover, and hamper efforts to stop sex trafficking. The measure failed.

At the time, Prop. K advocate Carol Leigh and cofounder of the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network said, "We feel that repressive policies don't help trafficking victims, and that human rights-based approaches, including decriminalization, are actually more effective."

Today, erotic dancers must identify which of a tangle of regulatory entities is the appropriate venue to lodge complaints. District Attorney spokesperson Erica Derryck said Harris is dedicated to prosecuting violent crimes committed against all San Franciscans, regardless of whether they happen in a club or an alley.

"If there are two drug dealers and one attacks the other, we'd prosecute. But that's not to say there won't also be consequences for underlying criminal behavior too," she said. "But anyone who has been victimized should be confident of going to the police and reporting any incident."

Derryck said public health and safety complaints can be lodged at entities that provide permits and licenses, including the Planning Department and Entertainment Commission.

"There might not be any criminal activity involved, but this route hits clubs in the pocket and is worth considering if dancers want to represent their grievances," she said.