Dec 11, 2016

Ways to make safety pin solidarity actually safer


have posted repeatedly on this blog about people wearing different things to signal solidarity of various sorts. I research how people build alternative securities through solidarity - so I have been following the debates about recent attempts to create safety by wearing safety pins.


If you are in the US, and maybe even Canada, you have probably heard about wearing a safety pin to signal solidarity for safety in the face of a hateful attack. But I will start with a brief explanation for global readers, since I recently presented on it at a workshop in Brussels and no one had heard of it. This was all the more surprising since it was a workshop on 'Nurturing solidarity in diversity' put on by the DieGem research group (see their paper on that page about their work, Putting flesh to the bone).  


People started wearing safety pins in the UK after Brexit, in response to a huge rise in anti-immigrant attacks. It was inspired by the by the #illridewithyou movement in Australia, in which people offered to take public transportation with Muslims fearing a backlash after a Muslim gunman held people hostage in a cafe in 2014. I believe the initial idea was to signal something like 'I will step in to create safety' in the case of an anti-immigrant attack. 

Safety pins were taken up in the US in response to an alarming rash of hateful attacks of various sorts in the US after the election of Trump, against not just immigrants but Muslims, Jews, Latinos, and LGBT people. 

The critiques of the safety pins come from two directions. Trump supporters read them as ‘anti-Trump’ rather than as anti-hate and pro-safety. This argument has been taken so far as to ban teachers from wearing them in at least one school district (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), which said it was banning them as political speech in an effort to maintain a neutral environment. 

There have been many hateful (particularly mysoginist) and violent takeovers of the twitter #safetypin hash tag, which often make plays on the safety pin of a gun. 

But justice activists have also critiqued the use of the safety pins.

The primary critique I have seen online is that the pins are too easy. The concern is that wearing a pin would simply assuage guilt over the election and the hate crimes that have followed and make the wearer feel good about themselves and thereby get them out of taking more concrete actions, like going to protests, or doing media work.

Another critique is that people might wear the pin to support just some of the groups under greater attack after the hate filled Trump campaign, and not others - so, for example, a safety pin wearer might be ready to step in if a woman with a head scarf is being yelled at on the bus, but not a transgender street involved youth. 

But perhaps the most worrisome critique is that it seems that many people are wearing the pins without any real plan for how they would intervene and de-escalate an attack, much less various strategies depending on the situation, or any practice in carrying them out. As such, seeing someone wearing a safety pin could be less than reassuring to someone facing an attack. Indeed, a naive and unplanned intervention could easily aggravate a situation. 

This is particularly true in the current context in the US, where police violence against people of color is a real threat. If your idea of how to intervene for someone’s safety is to call the police, in certain police districts you could actually be making a situation worse. 

But there are other resources to turn to. There are growing sources of training for how to stay safe without the police, which are collated in the google document “what to do instead of calling the police”

One of the various examples there also relies on solidarity symbols. The Audre Lorde Project Safe Outside the System Collective (SOS) gave local businesses decals to show that they were a SOS spot. These businesses received training in how to de-escalate violence (and take in victims of violence) without the police. Queer/POC folks knew that if they saw that decal, they could run into that bodega and get help.
Another model of security through solidarity is the 'Bringing in the bystander' program in place at various universities. Participants receive training in how to intervene in sexual assault. There is a standard training, that was developed at the University of New Hampshire and is being researched at the University of Windsor. Components of the program include
  • Discussion and practice of a range of active, potentially helpful bystander behaviors as well as the costs and benefits of different behaviors.
  • Bystander pledge to increase commitment to intervene.
  • “ABC” card – Active Bystanders Care (Assess the situation. Be with others. Care for the victim) includes reminders of the decision-making process for intervening, lists several examples of ways to intervene and provides contact information for relevant resources.
But again, many people wearing a safety pin have probably not taken any training like this. Is training really necessary? Could you simply read a cartoon with instructions, like this one by the artist Maeril first posted here? This cartoon is great, but this is one of many tactics - and might not always be the best to use. 

At least reading about tactics for intervening in ways that actually increase safety (here is a good start), and talking them through with friends and family (particularly ones we're likely to be with), seems essential. I hope that trainings will also multiply and that more people will have access to them. The "safety pin solidarity deescalation class", at my childhood home library, is inspiring. As the organizer put it

I've enlisted an expert in the mental health space with experience teaching who will:
1) Address recognizing a harassment situation, including hate crimes
3) Teach different strategies for intervening in harassment situations 
4) Outline how to choose the appropriate strategy while prioritizing safety of self and others

There are many people in our communities with these skills. I hope that more spaces will be set up to share them with the many people who have been inspired by the safety pin tactic. 
Putting on this kind of training of course requires more organizing, more collective action beyond the easier connective action of wearing a pin (for more on the concept of connective action see Bennet).

As a geographer I know space matters. Space is both shaped by and shapes our social interactions, and small acts can make a big difference in the feel of a space. I would hope that in the same way a queer student is likely to feel more comfortable in a university where lots of profs have signs like this on their door, a Muslim student might feel more welcome on a campus where a lot of people are wearing safety pins. 

But maybe not. Maybe the safety pins have been so ridiculed, or taken up so lightly, that they will not be seen by others as a real commitment to step up and so will not have much impact on the feel of the space. This will of course vary by context.

The main role the safety pin may actually serve might be to regularly remind the wearer of their commitment - and hopefully inspire them to think about how they might respond, to take a training, and to be on the lookout for even microaggressions. 

Yet I get the sense that maybe many of the safety pin wearers are expecting people being attacked to find them and step towards them, rather than the safety pin wearer having to actively step up (and have a plan for doing so). This widely circulated 'I am safe' image seems to imply that. 

Perhaps my most serious concern with the safety pins, and one that I haven't seen posted though I'm sure others must have also made it, is that the two images that are most widely circulated with the hashtag, 'I am safe' and "you are safe with me" sound a bit saviourish. As I've argued here before, solidarity can easily slip into saviourism. 

It makes a real difference if the person wearing a safety pin frames it as 'you are a victim, I am not - I am here to help you', or something like, 'I believe in safety and human rights for everyone. I am part of the new civil rights movement and in the struggle to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected. When I am a bit safer than someone else under attack, because of a particular privilege, I will leverage that privilege to try to increase their safety.'

Whenever privilege is used in solidarity organizing across difference there is a danger of reinforcing the systems and practices that make some lives worth more than others, but when used carefully and with awareness, sometimes privilege can be used to wear away those inequalities. 

Much as with the international protective accompaniment that I research, a quick and easy use of safety pins could reinforce the superiority of some over others. It takes doing more consciousness raising and organizing - but if safety pins are used as part of a larger project of education and movement building they could play a role in changing the reality that now some people are safer than others.



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