Prostitution Vigilante Van Cruises Minneapolis Neighborhoods Looking for Johns

(Note: This was a story that was published on Aug. 7, 1999 in The Alley, a monthly newspaper covering the Lake Street area, an impoverished section of Minneapolis.)

 

Linda Kolkind isn’t afraid of the riff raff near her house on 12th and Lake, and she refuses to be cooped up inside because of it.

“This is where I live. I can have a garden if I so please.”

Highlighted with benches and a pool with goldfish, her award-winning garden blossoms with tulips, daffodils, and irises every spring. All this stands in stark contrast to the chain-link fence surrounding the garden, the Lake Street neighborhood surrounding the chain-link fence, and the menacing sign slapped against her stucco-walled house: Beware of Dog.

But her defiantly sown garden isn’t the half of it.

Kolkind sits in the driver’s seat of a rusty van parked in the street adjacent to her home. The van’s side, rear, and hood are spray-painted with graffiti. “Prostitution: the world’s oldest oppression,” “Real men don’t have to pay,” and “Down with Johns!” are some of the spray-painted messages. Kolkind, the owner of the van and founder of the Southside Prostitution Task Force, is evidently amused by the attention the van attracts.

She grins, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Quite the van, huh! It’s a moving billboard. Volunteers did the artwork. The thing’s literally held together with duct tape. It breaks down every other day.”

The Southside Prostitution Task Force – founded in 1992 – consists of about 20 members. Its primary focus is to work in conjunction with larger organizations like Pride and Restoration Justice, which provide rehab for prostitutes. Unlike the larger organizations, the Southside Prostitution Task Force takes a grass-roots, on-the-street approach.

“Most organizations want larger numbers – they don’t like to do this one person at a time. We will. Because we, being residents of this area, have been violated one person at a time,” she says.

In addition, the task force attempts to suffocate the prostitution business by hampering the demand side.

She tells me to get ready to witness the harassment of some johns. I get into the van, and she starts it up.

As we troll slowly down Lake Street, people walking on the sidewalk turn their heads toward the eyesore of a vehicle. Since it’s the middle of the afternoon, the van is especially visible. Some people frown. Others smile and shake their heads. One man at a bus stop gives us the thumbs up. Another man, smoking a cigarette and talking to a woman on a street corner, stops talking to the woman to look at the van. He holds his hands up and follows the van a few paces, strutting, as if to say, “Lay off!” or, “Wanna make something of it?”

“That guy’s what they call an entrepreneur,” she explains. “She wants drugs and money. He has both, so he gives her both, in exchange for sex.”

Designed to be visually upsetting to men that are interested in soliciting sex, the van’s graffiti has a tactical purpose.

“Prostitution thrives on the fact that these men think they’re anonymous. With this van, we try to undermine that by letting johns know they’re being watched.”

In the future, Kolkind wants to watch the johns more intensely. Her vision includes a new van equipped with a laptop, so she can immediately send the license plate numbers of johns to the DMV. That way, the DMV can immediately send her the addresses of the johns, so she can “spook them out a little bit.”

“For instance, we thought it would be nice to go have lunch inside the van right outside a john’s house and not say a word. And people will say, ‘why is that van here?’”

Seven years ago, Linda Kolkind considered herself a passive neighborhood victim of prostitution. Back then, prostitutes and their customers were no less visible than the Powderhorn and Phillips stores, houses, and bars on whose property they did business.

“Not only were they lingering around our neighborhood, they were having sex in our driveways.”

During this period, Kolkind, a mother, wife, and collector for a bank, laid blame upon the women who sauntered in her neighborhood. Then, a murder completely changed her outlook.

“There was a certain woman who was always hanging around here. She was maybe 40. Always getting into and out of people’s cars with various men late at night. I would scream and yell at her, and she would scream and yell back.”

The bitter feud lasted over six months but ended abruptly.

On September 23, 1992, a team of squad cars pulled into the parking lot of a dry cleaning store across the street from her house. Inside the building, someone had found a naked woman’s body stuffed into a stairwell. She had been stabbed repeatedly. That night, after talking to some neighbors, Kolkind learned the name of her rival for the first time: Linda Marie Priebe, the victim.

“My life was absolutely turned inside out because of it,” she said.

After Kolkind went to the funeral, she realized something had to be done.

“Many people tell me they go through all kinds of measures to ‘get the whores’ off the property. They swear at them, they throw eggs and stones at them. And now, I tell them, ‘it’s fine to act out, but you gotta find the right targets.’”

The targets, she says, are the males who can typically best afford the tricks. Most of these men, she says, are white and drive in from the suburbs. This is especially the case with establishments known as saunas.

Six months after the death of Priebe, Kolkind attended a neighborhood meeting dedicated to the closing down of a sauna in Powderhorn called A-Spa. “I had a lot to say at the meeting, because, after what I’d seen, I thought that I knew a lot about prostitution.”

This being the case, the meeting inspired Kolkind to start and lead the Southside Prostitution Task Force, which was solely devised to run the neighborhood sauna out of business.

“I thought this would be easy – thought it wouldn’t take us more than six months. But the police were less than enthusiastic until we let them know we were persistent.”

Two years later, Kolkind and the task force persuaded the police to investigate and charge Susie Kotts, the owner of the A-Spa.

Since then, Kolkind has quit her job, purchased a van, closed down six other saunas, and profoundly cleaned up Lake Street and the surrounding areas. At the same time, the former A-Spa is now back in business in the alley by the intersection of Lake Street and 17th Avenue. The sign by the door now reads “Healing Arts Spa.” The only vehicle in the parking lot is a new looking minivan.

“You really don’t see beaters in the parking lots of these places,” she says.

To reiterate her point, she drives the van to another sauna called the Delux Spa. The van stops next to the Spa’s parking lot.

“There’s the Johnnies,” she chuckles, nodding towards the cars in the lot. The small lot actually seems more like a large driveway. The five vehicles in the lot have taken the only five available spots. None of the cars looks more than two years old.

“We’ll toy with them a little – make ‘em squirm.”

She parks the van right in the front and points to the neon-green “open” sign.

“See that? In a couple of minutes, the light will turn off,” she predicts. Kolkind speculates that this is because there is some sort of agreement between the owner of the spa and the owner of the auto body shop across the street, as the Spa has no windows.

Suddenly Kolkind fumbles around for a notepad. “There’s one right now!”

An elderly white man exits the spa, looking both ways before stepping onto the sidewalk like a kid looks both ways to cross the street. He spots the van, looks at the ground, and limps towards his white car, parked right in front of the van. Linda pushes up her glasses while jotting down his license plate, which has a handicapped sign on it.

“Older white male, possibly 60 to 65. Short and bald. Nice car – Whittaker Buick.” While writing, she shakes her head. “It’s all about classism, racism, the haves and the have-nots.”

She finishes jotting down the information as he drives away.

“In a few days, he’ll receive a message from the police saying he was spotted by the spa. I sure hope his wife does not read his mail!” said Kolkind.

Naturally, such zealous behavior has awarded her some enemies. Once, a man banged on the window of the van while at a stoplight, threatening to “take her out.”

“Before we really cleaned up the area last summer, I was scared. But now they’ve moved to the Bloomington (Avenue) area. They’re like cockroaches – they go to where it is dark. So now (their anger) has settled to a quiet rage.”

Kolkind’s own intolerance has done no such thing. Until the Prostitution Task Force rids the area of its last john, it seems clear Kolkind’s own rage will remain loud and quite visible.