Hundreds of strip club employees and their allies took to the streets of the French Quarter on Thursday night in the largest in a series of protests against state and local crackdowns on the clubs that workers say are costing them their livelihoods and endangering their safety.

A day after hijacking a city news conference on Bourbon Street infrastructure, the crowd of dancers and other workers made their way through the Quarter, complaining of lost wages and an environment they said is being made perilous by enforcement efforts.

Starting on Bourbon Street near numerous still-shuttered clubs, the protest made its way to Jackson Square before a rally at the Bienville statue on Decatur Street, where strippers shared stories of the hardships they’ve faced without work since the raids and denounced what they said is politically motivated enforcement.

And throughout, the protesters questioned why the raids were timed at the start of Carnival and argued that a crackdown on "vice" in the French Quarter is an attack on the business that fuels the city’s tourism industry.

“This was built on our backs,” one dancer said of the French Quarter to cheers from the crowd. “We did this.”

Can't see video below? Click here.

Eight strip clubs on or near Bourbon Street had their liquor licenses pulled in recent weeks after raids by the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the New Orleans Police Department. Officials said the raids yielded evidence of prostitution, drug use and “lewd acts” at the clubs, justifying the suspension of their liquor licenses.

Four clubs have made deals with the ATC that will, in some cases, allow them to reopen in the next few days. Two other clubs — including one that was not cited in the raids — will shut their doors permanently, and three more are set for hearings before state officials next week.

Club workers have repeatedly pointed out that officials have not claimed to have found evidence of human trafficking, which the ATC and the NOPD said was the basic reason for the raids.

“It’s like WMD’s. They said they were out looking for something they never found,” said Lee Laurent, a manager at Rick’s Sporting Saloon, referencing the non-existent weapons of mass destruction cited by President George W. Bush to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Several protesters suggested the raids were aimed at cleaning up the city's image, either to bolster Mayor Mitch Landrieu's political ambitions or to attract more family-friendly development.

+20 
+20 
+20 
+20 
+20 

The protesters said they had seen no evidence of human trafficking in their clubs and that the raids were making women less safe, not more.

“We’re not supporting sex trafficking either,” said a dancer who identified herself as Doxy. “I think they would do better working with us than against us.”

Evidence of sex trafficking is apparent just steps from the clubs, Doxy said, recounting times she has seen pimps beating up sex workers on Bourbon Street itself without any response from police.

“I feel safer in my club than walking down the street,” she said.

A dancer who gave her name as Ruby also argued that the raids have made strippers less safe, particularly noting allegations that officers had read out the real names of employees in front of customers during at least one of the raids and had forced workers to change clothes in front of male officers.

Protesters said clamping down on strip clubs in New Orleans would also likely force strippers to dance in clubs outside the city, where they may not know local regulations and may not know whether they are in danger.

“If the city wants to keep us safe, they should let us work in New Orleans where we know the rules and know we’ll be safe,” Ruby said.

Others said the allegations made during the raids were, at best, blown out of proportion. A dancer who identified herself as Lolita said officials had accused strippers of prostitution when they were only offering a lap dance in a back room and noted that charges of "lewd acts" included strippers touching their own breasts.

Financial concerns, though, were front and center, with many noting that not just strippers but bartenders, waitresses and other club employees were out of work and that shutting down the clubs might mean fewer customers for nearby and less risqué businesses if tourism drops off.

A waitress and dancer who identified herself as Brooke said she had started working as a waitress at Temptations when she realized she could make more money that way than through holding down the multiple jobs she had worked to pay her tuition as a pre-med student. With the club closed, she said, she’s been without a paycheck for two weeks.

Brooke said the closures had left many employees in dire financial straits, including a friend she pointed to nearby who was pushing a baby in a stroller and who Brooke said was now unable to pay her rent.

While the protest largely focused on the recent raids, it also touched on other issues, including a planned City Planning Commission hearing next week on whether to cap the number of adult businesses in the Quarter, plus a state ban on strippers under the age of 21 that is being challenged in federal court.

One dancer called out to the crowd to pack the room for the commission's hearing.

“We’ll sit on each other’s laps if we have to,” she said. 

“We can’t. That’s illegal,” another responded, to laughter from the crowd.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​