Don’t give your money to deaf peddlers or panhandlers. Not even if you really like their trinkets. Not even if their plea for help tugs at your heart and purse strings. Chances are, they’re slaves—illegal immigrants being exploited by ‘Beggar Kings’—a term originally coined by deaf leaders in the early 20th century.
The History of Anti-Peddling Attitudes
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the deaf community pursued an aggressive campaign against Beggar Kings who exploited undereducated young deaf men and women. Deaf leaders charged that those ringleaders of peddling rings were exploiting young deaf men and women who did not possess much in way of intellect, education, or vocational skills. Beggar Kings were believed to have kept as much as 70% of what their peddlers earned, forced their peddlers to live in substandard housing, work long hours, and subjected them to beatings and unwanted sexual advances.
Deaf leaders wrote to the FBI and the IRS, accusing Beggar Kings by name of criminal acts such as tax evasion and trafficking in young women for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act. The campaigns against deaf slavery in the 1940s and 1950s were born of earlier campaigns against imposters, hearing panhandlers pretending to be deaf, during the first part of the 20th century.
Deaf leaders charged that those ringleaders of peddling rings were exploiting young deaf men and women who did not possess much in way of intellect, education, or vocational skills.
Those early campaigns against imposters were driven by self-preservation. Deaf people believed that chronic underemployment/unemployment and attacks on sign language based education methods were a result of the public’s impression of deaf people as a class of dependents. Leaders in the deaf community believed that imposters were directly responsible for this impression. The anti-imposter campaigns of the early 20th century combined with the anti-peddling campaigns of the mid-20th century combined to create a lasting attitude of condescension toward peddlers that persists to this day.
Modern Day Deaf Slavery
The issue of modern deaf slavery came to light when, in 1997, two deaf peddlers entered a police station in New York City and beseeched the police to help them. They revealed stories of regular abuse, beatings, torture by stun guns, rape, and exploitation. They were not allowed to go ‘home’ unless they had earned $100 for the day’s work. The police then raided a two-bedroom apartment in Queens and discovered 57 terrified men, women, and children imprisoned in crowded, filthy quarters.
Deaf slavery is still a problem in the United States. CNN recently posted a brief uncaptioned video about deaf slavery in America as part of its Freedom Project. The Freedom Project is a yearlong focus by CNN that centers on the problem of slavery and human trafficking. The video was uncaptioned and presented a rather sanitized version of deaf slavery. The darker details were revealed in the late 1990s when the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles that exposed the gruesome details of deaf slavery taking place in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and even small towns like Sanford, South Carolina. Similar stories were also published in Western Europe describing the exploitation of illegal deaf Eastern European immigrants.
The odds are likely that deaf peddlers and panhandlers we encounter these days are being exploited and subject to beatings, torture, rape, unwanted sexual advances, false imprisonment, and forced to live in inhumane conditions. Those people are disenfranchised and living in fear. They are powerless because of their illegal immigrant status and feel unable to seek help from law enforcement authorities. They also confront linguistic challenges because many lack fluency in their own native languages, the languages of their adopted country, and are often illiterate. Many also live under the threat of bodily harm being committed against their loved ones if they break rank.
[Deaf peddlers] are disenfranchised and living in fear. They are powerless because of their illegal immigrant status and feel unable to seek help from law enforcement authorities.
In the late 1990s, mainstream media and the deaf press covered stories about deaf illegal immigrants being exploited but since then have remained largely silent.
Apparently forgetting the news coverage of modern day deaf slavery in the 1990s and in response to persistent attitudes of condescension toward deaf peddlers, some people in the deafhood movement have recently insisted that in the spirit of fraternity we ‘support’ deaf peddlers by buying their wares and to not look down on them. Peddling trinkets and panhandling for a living is certainly an individual’s prerogative and be far from it for any of us to judge what a person chooses to do for a living.
However, we must remember that when we ‘support’ deaf peddlers, we are most likely supporting Beggar Kings who are exploiting and enslaving our deaf brethren. Peddling and panhandling are fine. Supporting exploitation and enslavement is not.
Report suspected cases of slavery or human trafficking to law enforcement authorities.
Check out these articles:
Deaf L.A. Peddlers Say They Know N.Y. Sellers
For Deaf Peddlers, Both Opportunity And Exploitation
Deaf Peddlers Were Tortured With Stun Guns, Enforcer Says
ABOUT OCTAVIAN ROBINSON
Octavian Robinson is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University. His dissertation centers on the anti-impostor and anti-peddling campaigns conducted by the American Deaf community from 1880-1953.